Feature: Nowhere to hide

Sauna-like temperatures, strikes, appalling punctuality and ludicrous excuses for late-running trains. Companies should be publicly flogged for such behaviour, shouldn't they?

It seems South West Trains agrees, if the operator's brave PR strategy is ­anything to go by. Each month, via its Meet the Manager events, the company's top brass face an intense grilling: cross-examination from real, generally angry, passengers.

The sessions are part of a strategy to be more ‘visible'. Only two years ago, SWT had the worst punctuality record of the ten operators in southern England. It has since ploughed £1bn into shiny new carriages and improving its timetable. And management wants customers to know it, especially as SWT recently submitted its tender to run the franchise for the next ten years.

‘We own nothing. We lease the trains, rails and stations. Good PR is all we've got,' explains PR manager ­Simone Spinks.

So, PR masterstroke or a big mistake? On the hottest day of the year, PRWeek went to Waterloo to find out…

It is Thursday 20 July and the country is in the middle of a heatwave. A cordoned-off area sporting bottles of water and copies of SWT's customer magazine, e-motion, awaits. This is not a dark corner, so passengers cannot fail to spot it. We are in full view as rush-hour looms.

A display confidently promises that representatives from the station's management, train planners, and maintenance and customer services staff, will be here. But with only 15 minutes to go there is no sign of anyone.

Ah, here come the managers, including Waterloo Station manager Keith Scarsbrook. Suited and booted, he looks hot and bothered, but assures me this is down to the heat rather than nerves.

‘I never get nervous,' he says. ‘There are usually enough of us to answer most questions. If not, we take customers' details and get back to them. I've never had a customer behave really badly at one of these; I think they appreciate that we're here to listen.'

Scarsbrook reckons today's session will centre around impending industrial action, new ticketing machines and ­­air-conditioning (or lack of it). More managers arrive, including Steve Hooker, Network Rail's infrastructure and maintenance manager. He is actually looking remarkably calm.

‘Whether I stay this way depends on the session,' he says. ‘If a lot of cancellations appear on the board, it might be a different story.'

SWT managing director Stuart Palmer has yet to appear.

PRWeek is not quite sure what to expect, but there is certainly no influx of angry passengers. At this stage, there are more managers (15) than passengers. The few customers who are here seem more interested in the free bottles of water than venting their spleen.

The first complaint! A rather irate Peter, from Battersea, tells Ascot group station manager Martin Taylor that he was ejected from his (late) train by a guard at Vauxhall. Taylor listens carefully, allowing the customer to get things off his chest, before promising that he personally will investigate. There is also a form to be filled in, which will be passed on to customer services. This ­allows complaints to be tracked and - in theory - ensures they are all dealt with.

There is no industry guide to suggest a timeframe in which particular complaints should be dealt with, but SWT adheres strictly to its own targets. ‘We aim to respond to a complaint within three working days, even if it is just a holding response, and we have 90 per cent compliance with that,' says Ian Johnston, customer services director.

It has gone quiet again. Gareth Leslie, Waterloo group station manager, is busy putting more water out for passengers. He has spent £9,000 on water, providing 10,000 bottles that can be given to customers as London swelters. It is a gesture that passengers genuinely appreciate, espe­cially, says Leslie, when they get off trains with no air-conditioning.

Suddenly, the announcer informs us that the 17.23 to Basingstoke has been cancelled, because of an ‘obstruc­tion on the line'.

The MD, Palmer, finally turns up. He patiently gives train times to an elderly passenger; in fact, at this stage, most of the queries seem to be of this nature. He is hot and sweaty, but cheerful nonetheless, and does not seem apprehensive about being in the firing line of passengers. But does he enjoy these sessions?

‘I do now, though when we started they weren't much fun,' Palmer admits. ‘We've really benefited from the new timetable and rolling stock, and there have been station improvements as well. This is simply about getting people to realise that we do care and aren't just a bunch of muppets.'

The cancellation seems to have passed without incident and none of the managers have been assaulted by overheated passengers desperate to get home. The obstruction on the line turns out to be a cow.

With rush-hour fully under way, the atmosphere is starting to heat up. The temperature on the concourse is teetering on unbearable and there are, of course, thousands of uncomfortable passengers. Most of the managers are now answering questions and fielding complaints. The majority of these seem to be about air-conditioning; and SWT admits it is powerless to resolve the situation.

‘If there are glitches in the air-con systems, now is when we will find out,' says operations director James Burt.

Overcrowding is also a recurring theme. Head of train planning Nick Dorey explains his theory to one
passenger-cum-sardine: ‘House prices have pushed people further out of the city; Ken Livingstone's Congestion Charge is making a difference; and in real terms, train travel is cheaper than it used to be.'

Despite the increasing number of questions, SWT staff remain upbeat. ‘We do get complaints, but people are also positive,' says Rob Simmons, rail operations manager. ‘I do this regularly and try to take it in the spirit in which it was intended. There will be challenging questions, but there is a team of us to share the pain.'

Understaffed stations and a lack of provision for cyclists are the roots of one customer's chagrin. ‘Integrated transport is a great idea, but bikes on the busier trains make the overcrowding worse, and there aren't enough cycle-racks at stations,' insists head of stations Andrew Fairbank. ‘Unfortunately, we can't simply install more, as there are terrorist issues; the tyres can be filled with explosives, for example.'

But in the long term, passengers are assured, Network Rail, Transport for London and SWT are working on ambitious plans for the Waterloo area, ­including the pedestrianisation of Waterloo Road, a tram service and plenty of facilities for cyclists.

Surprisingly, there are some compliments amid the complaints. At least three passengers brave the throng to thank managers for ‘improving services' and ‘being ­cheaper than the other rail companies'. The managers reassure PRWeek that these satisfied customers have not been planted.

Stuart Giddings, retail services project manager, fields questions on car parking. There does not seem to be enough of it, Giddings admits, ‘particularly in commuter towns that have seen a population explosion in recent years'.

But Phil, a commuter from Farnborough, complains that new ‘thermal' tickets have made his £650-a-year carpark space a nightmare to use. A form is filled in and Giddings promises to investigate. ‘Will anything really be done?' Phil wonders out loud.

The session is finished, and our managers breathe a sigh of relief. PRWeek asks Palmer whether SWT genuinely wants to resolve the issues raised at today's session.

‘Of course we deal with things that are discussed here,' he says. ‘For example, at one session there were repeated complaints about the carparking at Milford. We investigated and found that Network Rail had undertaken some work, and its employees were using some of the parking spaces. We liaised with the company and it freed up some spaces; and we managed to organise extra spaces elsewhere.'

Palmer adds: ‘The extra early morning fast train from Portsmouth was also a result of feedback at these sessions. They genuinely are effective for passengers, and useful for us, too.'

As the weary managers head off home, this day can only be seen as a success. Tempers did not rise with the temperatures, and many passengers will have a much higher regard for their embattled train provider today.

The PR team cannot ask for much more than that.

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