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What about the passenger?

Technology has enhanced the quality of our lives over the past 20 years, so why hasn’t it become easier to use public transport, asks Anthony Smith

Anthony Smith is chief executive at Passenger Focus
Anthony Smith is chief executive at Passenger Focus
Anthony Smith is chief executive at Passenger Focus


At Passenger Focus much of the work we do, whether around information during disruption on rail or value for money of bus services, tells us that passengers require clear and easy to access information. They want the overall experience of using public transport to be simple and straightforward. Sounds fair enough really, doesn’t it? 

So, why does it often feel like travelling by public transport is some kind of endurance and intelligence test? And why does it seem that there are numerous obstacles in the way to trip passengers up or to leave them in a state of complete confusion? Why should it be that different action or behaviour is needed depending on which mode of public transport or even which operator a passenger is using. 

Some of these mysteries are:

  • Why should it be close to impossible to find out how much my bus journey is going to cost, before the bus actually arrives and I have to ask the driver?

  • Why is it that if I get on a bus in London, I can use a smart card, a contactless card but NOT CASH to pay for my journey, while in the rest of the country being able to use anything BUT cash is a bit of a novelty?

  • Why can I get one of these new-fangled tickets, which I show on a mobile phone, if I am travelling by rail from Milton Keynes to Birmingham New Street, but not if I’m travelling just one stop out to Five Ways? 

  • If I am standing at a bus stop and there is no sign of a bus, which was due 15 minutes ago, how on earth am I supposed to know whether it was running early, is running late or has been cancelled? 

  • Why should I need a detailed knowledge about ticket types, different offers that might be available across different websites, and different definitions of peak and off-peak times, if I just want to travel by train from A to B at a reasonable cost? 

The way that we live has moved on so much over the last 20 or so years, and technology has more than kept pace with this. How much easier is it now to renew car tax, to pay a utility bill or to shop around for the best deal on something we want to buy than it used to be? So, why hasn’t it become significantly easier for most of us to use public transport, despite more technology being introduced onto buses and trains? 

Of course, apps are great in many areas of life. And they are useful for some in public transport and can help with journey planning or getting information while people are out and about – but not everyone has a smartphone. Or even if they have one, not everyone wants to use it while they are out and about. 

We welcome developments like real-time information at bus stops or being able to buy tickets in many different ways, depending on which is most convenient to the individual passenger, but it feels very hit and miss, very variable across modes of transport and between operators. 

We really should all aim towards excellence, innovation and consistency of experience for all public transport users. This will improve the experience for passengers and even encourage more people to use public transport in the first place. 

Our research over many years reveals that passengers want their journeys to be convenient, for public transport to be reliable and easy to use, and for it to offer value for money. There are some great examples around the country of good practice, but there are also some poor examples and too much inconsistency between different modes, different operators and different areas. 

It does not seem fair that it is only those ‘in the know’ who get better value, more information and a better overall public transport experience. And who are these ‘in the know’ passengers? It’s basically industry insiders who know about exciting topics such as competition and deregulation on buses or the difference between regulated and unregulated rail fares, or interoperability issues. 

We think of ourselves as typical passengers because our public transport use may be relatively normal, but we are far from it – we know the structures of the operating companies, the pricing pitfalls and good deals, and the rules about different ticket types. 

Most passengers have no such knowledge – and why should they? And many ‘in the know’ passengers only realise that things can be done better because of an awful (or expensive) experience and a lesson learnt. 

So, if you have ever ended up paying more than double for a rail ticket by buying an Anytime ticket when you could have bought a Super Off-Peak... next time you will make sure you check whether there is a choice of tickets available. 

Or if you have been caught out several times by buses not arriving when they are supposed to, and have missed important appointments, then you might have discovered a text alert service or found another bus route to use instead.

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