Digital information and customer service in public transport: the Service Quality Loop

In the past rail engineers often used to joke that train services would be fine if it weren’t for all those pesky passengers messing up their system. Howard Collins, new CEO of Sydney Trains, made reference to this old joke in his first public speaking engagement in his new role at an IPA luncheon.

He was talking about his and the NSW Government’s commitment to shift public transport provision away from an operations to a more customer service based focus by placing ‘customer needs at the centre of everything we do.’

Traditionally, as the joke suggests, there’s been a tendency by public transport providers to make decisions based on making operations ‘more efficient,’ often resulting in a tension with improving customer experience. It comes in part from different measures of what makes a ‘good’ public transport service.

For example, many systems are focused on on-time running. If a train is not running to schedule, or the network is experiencing severe disruptions, an operator might skip some stations because this is seen as the most efficient way of ensuring the train returns to schedule.

But in the meantime they’ve made a lot of customers angry, and the customer experience is awful because of this. For the customer, it might be more acceptable for a train to be late, yet pick them up rather than skip stations. You can see the objectives of each group (operator and customer) are different and satisfying one might cause trouble for the other depending on the operators approach.
So what do public transport operators do differently if they’re customer service focused rather than solely operations based like the engineers in the old joke?

A framework that helps clarify this is the Service Quality Loop (or EN13816), the standard for defining and measuring public transport service quality in the European Union.

It looks simple enough — service providers respond to the quality of service sought by customers while the service delivered is perceived and experienced by customers contributing to demand and travel behaviour that feeds back into the loop.

In practice it isn’t simple because each side of the loop has different measures and it requires public transport operators to think about how they operate services in terms of whether each decision and technology contributes to the service quality expectations of customers and how customers perceive and measure this. That doesn’t sound difficult? Well, consider this example.

In one way or another, passenger information systems are linked to most aspects of public transport operations. How trains are operated on a network, the technologies used to ensure safety, service capacities and the service schedule all generate forms of information that determine what you can inform customers about.

If all operating staff are clear about what to do when services are not running to schedule, new expected arrival times can be calculated quickly and communicated to passengers. This is really important to customers. It may not be as important to operators however, so if good contingency procedures and systems are not in place and there is a culture where services are cancelled or stations skipped, reliable communications with passengers about what is happening and what they can expect is not even possible. If the track and signalling systems don’t enable new train paths and schedules to be identified and calculated quickly, service quality drops from a customer experience perspective.

Technical operating systems that also fulfil customer service functions are indicative of systems conceived within a customer service culture. Whenever an operating problem arises, the solution needs to consider traditional factors like cost and efficiency, but most importantly, the value- add for customers also needs to be clear and present.

Digital information and human-machine interaction technologies provide ways of communicating with passengers in ways that were not previously possible. Encircle aims to push the boundaries of how these technologies can be applied to public transport environments within this customer service spirit and culture. Stay tuned for more updates on how.

Introducing the Encircle blog

This website is the public online repository of the ARC-funded research project ‘Responsive transport environments: spatial and visual user information technologies to allow improved passenger flow and a better customer experience’. – A project collaboration between the University of New South Wales, the University of Sydney, the University of Technology, Sydney, OCAD University, and with… Read more