We recently caught up with Anthony Smith, Chief Executive of Transport Focus – an independent statutory consumer watchdog for Britain’s transport users. Funded primarily by Government the organisation’s remit now spans GB’s railways, bus, coach, tram and strategic road networks. We asked Anthony to reflect upon his 20+ years representing transport users, how the organisation’s mission has changed over time, and what does COVID-19 mean now and for the future.
Anthony reflected on how the organisation had changed in its scope and capabilities since he joined in 1999 but the mission remains the same, “making a difference and making things better for all transport users.” Anthony describes how the organisation has gone through several transitions – not least being asked to consider more and more modes – but one thing that still strikes him over the last few years is that the factors driving people to choose certain modes of transport are remarkably unchanged. These are known as the four C’s – choice, cost, convenience and control. You ultimately arbitrate among the four to choose your mode of transport.
When asked how Transport Focus delivers that mission to make a difference, he emphasises the importance of having an institutionalised, professionalised consumer voice. Anthony has developed the organisation around three core principles:
- Being consumer-focused – allowing people to make the travel choice that suits them without being biased
- Being useful – aim to influence by collecting, analysing and publishing evidence
- Benchmarking (pre-COVID) - benchmarking public, independence and satisfaction data has been extremely important in the success of current Britain’s transport revolution over the last 20 years.
“What we do is provide an instant snapshot of how people are feeling on particular days about their journeys - it’s not about the transport itself but how you felt about the overall journey experience. It is very consumer-driven,” Anthony elaborates. Much time is spent on driving the consumer data analysis to understand the key drivers of satisfaction and dissatisfaction to then identify priorities for improvement. Through its research and engagement, Anthony says he and his team have “ensured that whatever money is available, it is spent in the most cost effective and value for money way, that will give the greatest benefit to the greatest number of users.” It is perhaps notable that Transport Focus does not seek to argue for more funding of transport but rather identify the priorities and gaps for the funding that is available.
With more nodes available, the output and insight that is offered by Transport Focus keeps growing, but does that mean we now deal with a more complex set of users? Anthony doesn’t seem to think so as he emphasises how the core needs remain remarkably similar, and ultimately boil down to one word “reliability.” What people essentially want from transport networks is a reliable experience.
The pandemic shock and adaption
Looking back on the past six months, Anthony reflects on the difficulty of predicting the underlying implications. “It’s extraordinary how overnight our towns and cities changed forever. It’s difficult to know whether we’re ever going to go back to the buzz and rush of the city - it’s now quite a surreal and bizarre experience because it’s quiet and all wrong.”
Transport Focus’ current research indicates how the core factors and user requirements haven’t significantly changed since pre-COVID - what users want is a clean, safe, socially distanced and regulated transport service. The second thing they demand is reliability, so essentially cleanliness has just gone up the agenda and COVID-19 has simply heightened what was present before.
We discuss the relative performance of the different modes. Anthony highly rates GB transport’s ability to provide a good level of user confidence and assurance. He notes that the logistics industry has had a good pandemic with a massive adaption of scale to meet rapid change in distribution and volumes. With a lot of investment within the last five years (and more to come), it’s evident roads and the Strategic Road Network is holding up very well in terms of moving goods around, therefore rated the highest in this aspect.
GB bus networks are interesting because the confidence levels seem to be higher than other modes – results show 50% bus use returning and even higher in some places. Of course, buses suit local trips and local economies much better and often support key workers and employees unable to work from home. Rail based travel scored the lowest in terms of confidence but of the people that use it, they report a good pandemic experience. Anthony’s overarching view is, “the industry and all the networks have done extremely well in establishing confidence, but the core problem is that your safety is governed by the actions of others and their compliance to the guidelines, which is the real challenge. Bus, train and tram operators are putting in the right inputs, but unfortunately, we’re battling a much bigger message here.”
To the future
As we discuss what we can learn from today’s challenge and turn to the future, Anthony agrees that the railway will need to reboot its discretionary travel and encourage people to use rail travel after the pandemic. He believes that this will require much better engagement with its consumers and “a fundamental rebalancing of the way the rail network is structured to deliver things.” He muses that there should be new thinking about how we use the railway’s finite capacity and perhaps changing service levels to remove “Sunday services” to make the services more consistent across all seven days.
For bus networks, the national trend in bus use had not been great even before the pandemic. In Anthony’s mind, the viability of bus routes, post-government support outside London looks very sketchy. In order to best provide transport for all the people that need it (whether it’s patients, workers, school children etc), what you’d genuinely need is a partnership between the private sector and local authorities. “In an ideal world, I would set up special purpose vehicles where local authorities own a part, private sectors own a part, the government have a golden share and there’s an independent chair. You’d have a controlling mind, a single database of contact and a single ticketing system that provides all the transport in the area. What COVID-19 could do is push us towards that distant dream of ‘total transport’.”
Although it’s sometimes hard to reflect on the positives when so much has happened around the globe during COVID-19, Anthony truly believes GB’s transport industry has had a really good crisis – “the industry has responded very well, it’s kept the buses and trains going, government has shown faith in the continued investment of public transport and it undermines just how important we are.” He also recognises the positive impact of change and how things have had to happen a lot faster than they previously would have. “There’s a feeling of unity and purpose which is quite powerful. We’ve got to keep the country moving for both the NHS and the economy.”
And one piece of advice Anthony could give us after his 20+ years representing transport users? “Transport is a public good which is not to be forgotten. I firmly believe that the more you focus on having more, happy transport users, the better the systems will be and in turn will bring all the other changes you want to come along in its wake. You need to create a direct nexus between the ‘punter’ and the provider.”