Customer or Hostage? The unfortunate story of the UK passenger rail industry

If you happen to live in the UK and regularly have to rely on public transport to commute to and from work, the heralding of a brand spanking new year is unlikely to have filled you with much joy – from the commuting perspective that is. Travelling to and from work can rarely be described as an experience we look forward to – whatever part of the world you come from. Yet for the hard working British worker, the daily travel experience has become more unpleasant than ever.

I regularly travel to countries who are not nearly as fortunate to benefit from the fantastic transport network our great island possesses – so I do not want this article to appear ungrateful or petulant. We are remarkably lucky to have such developed train networks, buses, trams and in London, one of, if not the most amazing underground transportation system in the world.

However, if you were one of the millions of people who were reliant on a train to get you to work this week, ‘lucky’ is NOT a word that would have sprung to mind. Many of the UKs train franchise owners are in the midst of an industrial dispute.  Whether you live in the North, South, East or West of the UK, almost every part of the country has been affected in some way. In what is typically one of the busiest working weeks of the year, many have faced disruption, delays and cancellations.

Good experience? The expressions on faces suggest otherwise!

The good news… sorry….. there is no good news. What makes it even worse, is that these commuters have had the pleasure of paying up to 5% more for their train tickets this week for the privilege!! Yes – you read that right. UK rail commuters have had the pleasure of paying 5% more for a significantly worse service. As government funding of the railways has continued to decrease, the cost of funding has continuously shifted to the commuter. This is also at a time where even the government itself feels that the some of the train operators are not providing good value for money!

This story is really not very good reading – and at the moment – seems unlikely to have a happy ending. You will notice that I have only used the word ‘commuter’ to describe the person, or group of people, who are using the UK rail network. I have so far avoided using the word customer – which brings me to the theme of this post.

The dictionary definition of the word customer is as follows:

a person who buys goods or services from a shop or business

The commuters I refer to align perfectly to this definition. All commuters – anyone who uses the UK rail network – is a customer – a customer who right now is paying more and more for an experience that regularly falls a long way below expectation. Yet the biggest problem of all, is that many of these rail customers have little choice but to grin and bear it. The UK rail industry is one of the best examples in the world of a collective group of businesses who are almost holding their customers ‘hostage’.

I am not suggesting that the leaders of rail franchises are intentionally making decisions that act against the interests of the customer, but when an organisation knows that its customers have few or limited alternatives, it becomes much easier to make any decision, consciously knowing that there are few consequences as a result.

If you do not own a car; you do not have access to a bus network; the distance you need to travel for work is significant; driving into a city is not feasible; you really do have little choice but to face the daily battle (and an expensive battle at that), with the trains. Not only is this hugely inconvenient, it is also depressing have little hope of things ever getting better. When a companies customers have little choice but to keep using their service, what real incentive is there to get any better at delivering that service? In other words, does Customer Experience actually matter to a company who has ‘hostages’?

The answer to this question – as you would expect me to say – is OF COURSE it is! The greatest irony when it comes to companies who are demonstrably failing to put their customers interests at the heart of what they do, is that it is costing them a fortune!!! The cost of dealing with complaints, enquiries and all the associated administration involved with continuous failure is immeasurable. Instead of asking ‘hostages’ – I mean customers – to pay more for failure, maybe it would be prudent to eliminate the causes of failure on the first place.

I have absolutely no doubt that running a rail network is a remarkably complex task. I have absolutely no doubt that huge sums of money are required to ‘keep the wheels turning’. Yet the best way of ensuring that those wheels do not ‘fall off’, is to not continually alienate the people who need the service – by making things easier for the customer, not only will they and the employee who serves them have a significantly better experience, it will prevent costs from spiralling.

So if you feel as though you are a ‘hostage’ to an organisation, or you work in one who treats people like them, please urge them to read this article. Whether the customer has a choice or not, the most sensible way to run a business – whether it to be to achieve commercial growth or commercial goals – is by consistently meeting the needs and expectations of the people or businesses who use your products and services. The customer!


  1. Anna Cotton January 15, 2018 at 8:58 am - Reply

    Great article Ian. Whilst rail commuters/customers are held hostage by the cost and lack of alternative forms of transport for longer journeys to work, this article in the Guardian says season ticket sales are dropping because they’ve now hit the ‘too expensive’ tipping point. . Which, quite gratifyingly, goes to show that even companies operating in markets where there is almost no competition will lose business if they do not focus on the customer. Let’s hope 2018 will be the year that the train operators wake up to the fact that they must change the way they treat customers.

    • Ian Golding January 16, 2018 at 6:06 pm - Reply

      Thank you so much for your kind words and for sharing the Guardian article Anna – hugely appreciated!

  2. Benjamin January 18, 2018 at 9:28 am - Reply

    Hi Ian,

    Reading it from Germany, and being French – although I have also lived in the UK and had bad experiences with its rail service, I would say that this is what is happening when all becomes private, liberal and competitive.

    Yes there is only one ‘national’ train company in Germany, and also in France (although this will unfortunately change soon), but the service is great.

    One should think before voting what the effects will be… yes everyone is happy about paying less taxes, but what are the real consequences ?

    Best regards,

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