Gee Any Arghh

News that GNER, my financially-challenged intercity train operator, has just achieved a Charter Mark for excellence in customer service, has prompted me to reflect on a peculiar scene that’s played out nearly every time I travel with them. There are many things I love about travelling GNER compared to other UK rail operators [if anyone from the company is reading this, rest assured, I only write it because I care :) ] but the exchange I hate to hear goes like this:

Guard to customer: That ticket’s not valid on this train, you’ll have to pay to upgrade it.

Customer: But no one told me that when I bought the ticket at the station/on the internet/wherever.

Guard: I don’t know what you were told then, but I did make an announcement before the train left the station that these tickets were not valid. That’ll be [insert amount between £30 and £70] .

Customer: How much? That’s ridiculous. I was told this ticket would be valid.

…and so on in variations depending on the respective cantankerousness-es of guard and customer.

Now I know there are people who will always try it on, hoping to get away with travelling at peak times with a saver and so on. And sometimes my schadenfreude gets the better of me and I quite enjoy listening to a good argument from the comfort of my wifi-enabled seat. But I can’t help feeling that the train company is doing itself no favours.

The process seems to be broken in a number of ways:

  1. Aside from being expensive, the fares themselves are bizarre and highly complex. There are 189 different ticket types offered when buying online. I Am Not Making This Up.
  2. The problem often seems to stem from restrictions on the use of a Saver, which do not apply to another ticket-type, called a “Business Saver” – many of the people caught out are not businesspeople and would have no reason to think a Business Saver was the right ticket for them.
  3. When making announcements, GNER guards speak a quaint language of yesteryear in which the refreshment trolley “makes its way through Standard Class” and mobile phone conversations “must be confined to the vestibules” (that’s the bit between the carriages, apparently). Deciphering these announcements is a special skill only acquired over countless journeys north and south.
  4. In any case, it’s a bit much to tell people which of the 189 ticket types are valid when they’ve just struggled aboard with their luggage and the train is about to depart. Returning to the booking office to change a ticket at this stage would certainly mean missing the train.
  5. If your ticket is not valid, the Guard can only upgrade you to a full-priced standard ticket. (And you won’t get much change from £100 to travel less than a quarter of the way up our small island. Double that for a return.)

This is the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night. Sometimes I do the maths in my head to get back to sleep. Disclaimer – all the numbers are my rough guesses, at round numbers to make for simpler sums, though I reckon I could be a factor of 10 out on any of them and still have a valid case.

Let’s assume they catch one customer with the wrong ticket in each of the five second (sorry, standard) class carriages on 10 peak-time trains a day, charging an average of £50 per miscreant. That’s £2500 a day, $12,500 a week, £625,000 a year. Every penny counts when you have to pay the Government £1.3 billion for the right to run trains while your new competitor gets a free ride.

But now look at the customer experience impact. That’s 12,500 customers made to feel like criminals in front of a carriage-load of passengers. Let’s imagine each of them retells their story to three friends or relatives – adding in that word of mouth effect gives us a total of 50,000 people with a negative perception of this company.

And then there are all the people on the train who witness the scene, some of them, like me, repeatedlty. Roughly 50 people per carriage, so for every extra pound raised, there’s a customer whose journey is disrupted by an uncomfortable exchange of words and a brutal reminder of the fragmented and chaotic nature of our railway system.

Depending on our assumption about repeat use of the rail route that could be 625,000 people who witness my vignette once in a year or 62,500 who hear it 10 times each on average. You decide which scenario is worse from an image point of view.

Taken together we have at least 100,000 people who have either been stung by this ticketing confusion, or know someone who has been, or have sat on a train and listened to GNER staff enforcing the policy. Maybe it seems the right thing to do on paper but from where I’m sitting I wonder what could it be worth to the bottom line if those people had a good experience instead?