Enjoying rail journey with a helpfully placed personal computer screen.

+ To meet increasing demands, rail operators need to put passengers at the heart of rail design.

For a new generation of rail passengers a ‘good service’ is no longer enough. To meet passengers’ rising expectations, I think rail operators and transport planners need to focus on putting passengers at the centre of design.

In many developed economies, the essential challenges of rail safety and punctuality have been largely addressed. So rail operators’ new challenge is how to deliver on two fronts: meeting growing passenger numbers while delivering a customer experience that delights.

However, the rail passenger experience hasn’t kept up with the level of service offered in other sectors like ecommerce (Amazon), traditional retail (John Lewis), and high tech/service (Apple’s Genius Bar), where successful brands have shaped their operations around customer needs and preferences. So how do rail operators achieve this same level of relationship with passengers?

Understanding customers’ motivations

Going beyond ‘good enough’, developing services that surprise or delight, requires a deep understanding of customers’ motivations and how rail travel fits into their lives. Operators and planners need a thorough understanding of these needs when planning and delivering rail services. In the digital era, passengers expect to be able to stay connected, to work, shop or be entertained during rail journeys. 

Data on customer priorities does exist. In the UK, the annual Transport Focus’ National Rail Passenger Survey captures their needs, from timely information, to reliable and low-cost connectivity/Wi-Fi, frequent train services and guaranteed seating, to fewer cancellations and improved punctuality.

But to make progress, it’s vital that rail operators’ understanding of their customers’ needs brings together both hard (functional) and soft (more emotional) measures. A train can be on time, but if it is overcrowded for the whole journey it will still score badly on the quality of passenger experience. Today the rail industry mostly focuses on measuring core service factors like punctuality, rather than customer experience elements that engage passengers.

Passenger focussed design

A human-centred design approach to the rail passenger experience would enable operators to deliver real delight. To better understand these issues, Dutch rail operator NS has developed a pyramid of customer needs. In their assessment, travel time, safety and ease of use only meet the baseline of an ‘acceptable’ experience. To reach customer ‘delight’ however, means providing useful amenities like power and Wi-Fi, providing above-average levels of comfort and cleanliness, and engagement with friendly staff.

This approach has been adopted by Transport for London in its ‘Strategy for Improvement’ approach, which includes ‘Delighters’ – customer service measures that improve overall satisfaction, such as receiving local information or personal assistance.

Examples of passenger-centric design thinking might include user-centred technology, such as Citymapper or electronic ticketing on your smartphone, enhancing the passenger experience through great station design, such as King’s Cross/St Pancras or Birmingham New Street station, or perhaps smaller scale measures such as Olympics medal news on display screens at stations to cheer up the weary commuter.

Delighting customers pays

Perhaps you're thinking this is all just a nice-to-have and not worth the investment?  Well, a recent study in the USA has found that companies that are considered to be customer experience leaders outperformed S&P 500 companies by a significant margin.  So it makes good business sense.

We have to get the basics right first, but we will not be able to deliver significant customer service improvements until we focus more on putting the passenger at the heart of rail design.  So what else can rail operators do to surprise and delight their customers?