27 September 2010

Complaining & Newspapers

There's a marked difference in the way passengers complain about different modes of public transport. Train companies see little in the way of negativity in local newspapers, through letters of complaint to editors. Instead, disgruntled travellers put pen to paper (or the more modern equivalents) and contact the operator directly. The airlines see virtually no negative press in local newspapers, instead feeling the wrath of consumer groups on a much broader scale through national medial.

Buses, however, see their dirty washing hung out in public through local media. The Grimsby Evening Telegraph's Viewpoint column was once a blank canvas for those who had something to say about the area's largest bus operator, Stagecoach. Perhaps many of the comments were valid and accurate, perhaps not. It's not just Grimsby's local rag that sees letters of complaint sent to the editor. Up and down the land, passengers send in tales of their dissatisfaction with bus operators.

Why the difference with buses? In 2001, so bad was Stagecoach's press in Grimsby, that the then commercial director at the company's Chesterfield HQ wrote a letter, printed in the self same paper, requesting complainants inform the company of the grievance first. I vividly remember the comparison being to someone dissatisfied with an item they purchased with their weekly shop from Asda and then complaining to the Grimsby Evening Telegraph, rather than contact Asda themselves. Shoppers instinctively complain to the supermarket in question and then, assuming the issue has not been resolved to their satisfaction, consider contacting the media. Many of Stagecoach Grimsby-Cleethorpes' complaints were news to management there, since at no point had they been aware of any such problems.

It is an interesting comparison: that of a passenger unhappy with a journey on their local bus service and a shopper dissatisfied with an item from their weekly shop. Perhaps one of the reasons why passengers do not follow the unwritten procedure is because they perceive their custom to be far more worthy to their local bus company than purchasing a tin of Asda's own baked beans. Also, towns that once had their own municipal bus companies haven't quite come to terms with their local bus company being sold off and now having absolutely no say whatsoever in the company's direction.

That's not to say residents of towns and cities in which National Bus operated weren't content knowing their taxes indirectly paid for the buses; but the revenue flow was far more convoluted than with municipal undertakings.

I'm sure many residents in Grimsby, Cleethorpes and its hinterland still feel that they 'own' the local buses, which hasn't been the case since 1993 - although a number of bus stop flags still bare the former company's logo!

Expanding the Grimsby issue, I've spoken with people who share my observation about the very local and public criticism that bus passengers subject their local operator to. I've yet to be given a water-tight explanation for this. There's plenty of 'council knocking' in local newspapers so perhaps for operators that were once owned and operated by the 'pen pushers at the town hall', it's merely an extension of this.

One of the largest assets ever owned by tax payers was the British Railway - sold off by 1997, yet largely escapes unscathed in the Viewpoint pages of local newspapers. Train companies publish compensation schemes offered, so passengers at least know whether it's worth their while complaining when a train delivers them to their destination 37 minutes late. Perhaps well-publicised similar systems ought to be considered by bus companies? Last year a commercial manager of a Midlands company wrote to us to comment that since his medium-sized company began issuing complainants vouchers for a week's free travel on his services, complaints had increased by 12%. Word was getting round. Perhaps this is not the way to handle it?

There are occasions when named individuals within the bus companies respond to specific complaints in the local press. This seems to be getting rarer, as it can see a deluge of more complaints aired in public if passengers know they'll get a response.

If passengers want action taken against a driver for the manner in which s/he's conducted him/herself, they really ought to consider the weight their (often anonymous) letter to the local paper will carry in a disciplinary hearing. Many companies have struck agreements with the trade unions that see no action taken against any letter other than one sent directly to the company. National Express introduced a number its coach passengers could text with comments about the driver. I know of two depots who don't even read these comments, with agreements being reached with local unions, because they are 'comments' and not anything more substantial. Put it in writing and send it directly to the company concerned and it will get noticed.

*UPDATE* From Stu, London - It would be fascinating to learn whether complaints across the bus industry are falling, as Passenger Focus claim is the case within the rail industry. Gathering the data would be a nightmare-I'm sure there's no legal requirement for any private bus company to disclose anything like this to anyone.

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