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Feature: Issue Issue 26 19 Dec 2011

Transport chief comes head to head with new world of user power

The Travel 2020 keynote session saw Stagecoach chief Sir Brian Souter debating the role of social media with open data enthusiast Tom Steinberg.

The Travel 2020 event at the beginning of November featured two days of cutting edge information exchange and debate about the future of passenger transport service provision, information and payment systems and the management of customer relationships.

The tone for discussions amongst the audience of transport and travel professionals was set by the first morning’s  plenary presentations by transport minister Norman Baker and Stagecoach chief executive Sir Brian Souter. Baker outlined the government’s agenda of supporting the development of a more sustainable transport system and its seamless usage facilitated by a common smart ticketing system to be in place by 2014, though it was apparent from his answers to questions that detailed issues remain to be resolved.  These include the key matter of revenue allocation if a single payment card is introduced. The minister’s vision of new technology removing barriers to travel, and improving information about it, was taken further in the discussion between Souter and MySociety director and founder Tom Steinberg. 

Steinberg put Souter on the spot over some recent issues raised by rail customers via his new website FixMyTransport. Launched in August the website describes itself as “a site specially built for public transport users in Britain who want to make public transport better for us all”, and enables users to post details of a concern or complaint which the site then directs to the operator concerned. The complaint and response process is kept entirely in the public arena.

Steinberg contrasted the response of Stagecoach-owned East Midlands Trains, who refused to respond to the customer via the website, with that of London Midland who got back to the customer on-line, posting updates as the issue was being dealt with before finally coming up with a resolution.  The TOC also added its profile to the FixMyTransport website.

Souter admitted to delegates that “we are way behind in this in the UK”. There was “an enormous job to do” in responding not only to FixMyTransport, but to other influential on-line networks and social media. Souter recalled the time that Stagecoach in the USA had been the subject of a complaint raised via a member of a social networking site noting that the complaint had come from an ordinary member of the public who nevertheless had 53,000 followers.

“We’ve got to see what Tom is doing more as opportunity than threat to some extent, but I am hesitant because we are struggling on how to deal with it,” Souter acknowledged. “There are some positives because if you can engage with your customers you can save a fortune on market research. This whole development, FixMyTransport, Facebook, Twitter, gives you an opportunity to be omnipresent and know what everyone is saying about you, but that can be quite scary. It does mean we are going to have to raise our game on customer service going forward.”

From the audience consultant Derek Halden pointed out the upside of social media. “The worst thing you can do is ignore it, but a positive is that you save a fortune in public research.”

Souter added that social media could really come into its own when things went wrong. During the recent New York snowstorms the Stagecoach US website crashed after getting over 1.5 million hits in an hour. Sheer numbers of callers meant there was no point trying to get through on the customer service telephone hotline either, but he suggested that disruption information could still be made available via social media.

The conference heard many speakers explore ways in which customer service could be improved. Train operators should be providing on-board WiFi as part of a basic level of service Anthony Smith, chief executive of Passenger Focus told a seminar on ‘The Journey Experience’. “Why the train industry is still charging for it is beyond me – people don’t expect to pay,” he said. “It is almost becoming a right to be connected.”

Smith also spoke about how the DfT’s Fares Review could play a role in encouraging people to travel less – picking up on transport minister Norman Baker’s comments about being the minister of non-travel. “The current annual season ticket is the bluntest offer in the world,” Smith suggested, adding that it was a clear case of discrimination as most part-time workers were women – 5.82 million in 2010  compared with 1.96 million men.

John McNulty, TfL’s head of interchange, told the audience about the Finsbury Park Interchange management strategy which aimed to provide a service that is “totally focussed on the customer”. Finsbury Park had nine different organisations working alongside each other including the police, local authority, train and bus operators, and the idea was that everyone there is able to answer question on all the other parties, he explained. Before the strategy there had been no real dialogue between those involved even on big events or how they would deal with terrorism threats.  Now dialogue is maintained with the organisations meeting as the Finsbury Park Liaison Group, which has a rotating chair from each of the different organisations.

“But don’t try to create a formal structure; you will fail – there are too many statutory and other bodies involved,” he said. TfL is now rolling out management strategies at 16 of its key interchanges.

Good basic data rather than a myriad of SmartPhone applications was the key to better public transport information, explained Gary Umpleby, general manager at Hogia Transport Systems at a seminar on service and system design. “We focus so much on these apps and that really worries me”, he said, pointing out: “An app is really useless unless the data behind it is accurate.”

Once public transport data was collected and managed via a single integration platform it could then be used in a variety of different applications – from real-time disruption information to journey planners and fare collection systems, Umpleby explained.

This was the approach taken by public transport providers in Scandinavia, which led to the development of PubTrans, a data integration platform now used by over 60% of the Scandinavian market. The PubTrans approach had recently been adopted in the UK by operator Norfolk Green , named Bus Operator of the Year in 2010. The approach had resulted in a massive reduction in errors associated with data handling, Umpleby explained.

Vix delivered a presentation regarding the integrated, interoperable future, exploring how the company is progressing its vision to transform the way people connect and commute through its connected products in  real time information, payment and management support. “Immediacy and accuracy of information, including crowd-sourced data, is critical”, emphasised Michael Hart, Head of Sales. “Payment systems must be end-to-end and cashless”. He stressed the need for device integration to create a seamless environment. Personalisation was key to ensuring that the individual got the most out of any modern mobility solution, which should not have artificial barriers to access or its ability to meet the needs of all members of society.

Bringing all passenger transport – private and public – within a single, travel payment and information operation is the goal of global automated fare collection specialist Cubic Transportation Systems (CTS). Worldwide Marketing and Communications Director Martin Howell used a session on Connectivity to explain CTS’ Nextcity concept.

This, he said, will see travellers using permanently connected devices to access journey information; and pay fares, motorway tolls and bills, and make ATM withdrawals and retail purchases, using a single smart method.  Payment processing would move from at-station or in-vehicle readers to centralised back offices.

There will be a single customer account, with all transport payments integrated. Transport authorities and operators would  be able to mine the aggregated payment data to deliver effective cross-modal demand management, flexible regional pricing reflecting traffic flows and personalised passenger information.


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