Empowering the passenger: “Forewarned is forearmed”

Here, Patrick McDougall, CEO of Nexus Alpha, provides thoughts on a number of topics, from how to improve customer information, how the industry reacted to COVID-19, through to sustainability and how solar powered passenger information signs can help train operators move towards net zero.

How does providing service disruption information (which is negative) actually encourage the use of public transport?

When we started working with rail operators (Regional Railways, Intercity and Network SouthEast in the early days of Nexus Alpha), there was a dearth of information available about service disruption. This is how I remember it, two-and-a-half decades on…

BBC Travel, where this journey started, had been presented by one division of Network SouthEast (Great Eastern) with a printed working timetable, a laminated list of what was titled ‘single needle telegraph codes’, and an operational pager. So, when the pager went off indicating ‘CAPE 1P36’ it was a matter of looking up CAPE (which of course means cancelled – one of the easier ones), and then looking up 1P36 in the correct part of the timetable, to identify which service the 1P36 was (perhaps the ‘1558 London Liverpool Street to Norwich’), and then publishing this on a Ceefax page for the public to view.

Following an innovative paper proposed by Chris Green (my memory suggests that it was called ‘The Well-Informed Customer Initiative’), passengers were rebranded as customers (after all, they handed over money for a service), and the concept of keeping them accurately informed about service disruption was born.

Via Ceefax, radio stations, telex, fax, staff pagers, SMS and email, and then mobile email and apps, via Twitter, push notifications, TOC websites, station CIS, onboard PIS, live departure boards, and other outlets the idea, regardless of the technology of the day, was to keep everybody informed – ideally, in advance of service disruption where possible – with accurate, timely, consistent information.

Whether knowledge of disruption leads to an extra slice of toast with the family in the morning and a later train (rather than standing at the station, waiting) or a drink after work on the way home (or perhaps just some more work!), forewarned is forearmed. Knowing what is about to happen, or how long on-going service disruption may last – and having a chance to plan around it – is empowering. It gives confidence to travel – and actually, the trains are pretty reliable – compare the delays on commuter services with cars on the M25. So, on the occasions when you may be inconvenienced, being able to find out, ideally, before the event, and at the least, the be well informed during the disruption, gives confidence to travel at all times.

Whether knowledge of disruption leads to an extra slice of toast with the family in the morning and a later train (rather than standing at the station, waiting) or a drink after work on the way home (or perhaps just some more work!), forewarned is forearmed.

Patrick McDougall – CEO, NEXUS ALPHA
How did the government and the rail industry respond to the up to 96 per cent loss of revenues virtually overnight?

Extremely well, would be my personal take on it. A large investment has gone into keeping the railways running, with both government and rail operators responding to the remarkable challenge. The rapid response meant that the rail network continued to function, albeit at an agreed reduced capacity pretty much throughout the various COVID-19 related lockdowns.

Public transport remains a critical service and moves millions of people around every day (when permitted to move, of course) generating not only wealth for Great Britain plc, but I’d argue, ensuring its very existence.

Private transport is often expensive and remains, for now and for a long time to come, environmentally inferior to public transportation. Private transportation is also not available to many either through cost, or sheer practicality – particularly when travelling to urban centres.

Many key workers who have kept the food supply chains going, who work in government, in hospitals and care homes to name but a few areas, rely on public transport. The ONS stated in 2019 that 16 per cent of key workers reported travelling to work by public transport with bus highest ranked and rail a very close second.

Putting in place emergency agreements in March 2020, annualised payments to operat