Train passengers can't decide whether they're happy with services or not

Passenger satisfaction surveys record wildly opposing results.

For many British train passengers, there's a sizeable disconnect between their own perceptions of UK rail services and the assessment from more official sources. While regular customers continue to complain about soaring fares, sweat-box carriages and overcrowded platforms, wider statistics suggest that the performance of train operating companies is on a continual upward curve.

Such was the case with the latest National Passenger Survey (NPS), a twice-yearly survey of British rail passengers undertaken by UK public transport watchdog Passenger Focus. The most recent NPS, which took the views of more than 30,000 passengers across the UK and was published at the end of January, revealed record overall passenger satisfaction levels of 85 per cent, with no train operating company (TOC) scoring less than 80 per cent.

Less than a month later, however, the NPS's mostly sunny conclusions were met with a dissenting voice – one that seemed a better fit with the outlook of Britain's beleaguered commuters. The second annual train satisfaction survey by consumer watchdog Which?, published in mid-February, made grimmer reading for the industry. The survey of around 7,500 regular rail users found that more than half of the UK's TOCs had a customer satisfaction rating of 50 per cent or lower, and despite regular fare increases, a mere 22 per cent of those surveyed felt that services were improving.

At first glance, it seems an impossible scenario – two passenger satisfaction surveys, published within weeks of each other, recording wildly opposing satisfaction levels for the same group of passengers. If we assume that both surveys can't be right, there's an obvious question: is the British public satisfied with its rail services or not?

On closer inspection, that assumption about the impossibility of both surveys being correct might be premature. These surveys vary drastically in their scope, objectives and, most importantly, methodology – a point that might have confused casual observers as the methodology of the surveys isn't made completely clear in the press releases accompanying them.

By far the biggest difference between the surveys is the scope of questions asked of passengers. The Which? survey asked passengers to rate their train journeys over the last 12 months, based on two key criteria – overall satisfaction with the brand and the likelihood that the respondent would recommend the brand to a friend. The responses to these questions fed into an overall customer score.

The NPS, meanwhile, limited the scope of its questions to the journey that respondents had taken on the day they were surveyed. According to Passenger Focus, this method allows its survey to build a much more specific picture of the UK rail landscape, down to individual routes and times. Limiting questions to that day's journey also helps combat the generally accepted principle that bad experiences have a greater effect on a customer's perception of a brand than positive ones.

It would be easy to accuse Passenger Focus of tailoring the reach of its questions to paint a rosier picture of UK rail services, especially given its origin as a government-created organisation. After all, under the NPS the respondent could rate a single good journey positively, even if the last 10 trips were a disaster. But it's impossible to deny the advantages of the NPS's methodology to support its goal of improving customer service through focussed feedback.

The perceived contradiction between these two surveys is ultimately a red herring. The surveys were conducted with different methods, and the idea that passengers could be happy with individual journeys but dissatisfied with TOC performance over a longer stretch of time doesn't necessarily contradict itself.

The Which? survey's value lies in recording the long-term impressions of daily commuters and other regular rail users, many of whom clearly feel overcharged and underserved by their operators. The NPS survey, meanwhile, provides an important service by identifying problem areas with an accuracy and specificity that is arguably unmatched anywhere in the world.

But for casual media observers and the general rail-going public, who are likely to take away little more than the top-line statistics (a BBC news report pointed out the contradiction between the surveys but didn't attempt to explain it), confusion is the unsurprising result of accepting complex information at face value. And perhaps the responsibility lies with organisations like Passenger Focus and Which? to ensure that the information they present is placed within the proper context, both in the reports themselves and in the press releases that bring them to the public's attention.   

Read the full feature here: http://www.railway-technology.com/features/featureuk-rail-passenger-satisfaction-british-public/

Photograph: Getty Images

 

Chris Lo is a senior technology writer for the NRI Digital network.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.