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The ticket to getting public transport back on track

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Jonathan Edwards, transportation market leader – EMEA at global professional services company GHD, explains how the recent National Travel Survey’s results are an example of the challenges facing public transport operators in gathering accurate data and planning for the future and how ticketing should be an area of focus moving forward.

Jonathan Edwards, GHD.

As we all know, the last 18 months have presented numerous challenges for public transport, as dramatically decreased passenger numbers and the requirement for social distancing have led to many operators struggling to stay afloat.

The recently published National Travel Survey 2020 showed how out of sync travel behaviours have become from the ‘norm’, highlighting another serious issue: how can operators now accurately forecast demand for public transport services and prepare accordingly?

In the current environment, operators will have to go back to the drawing board as historic and recent data offers no insight into how to plan for the post-COVID landscape. Data on expected passengers, peak times, season tickets and subsequent income from fares typically informs planning regarding ticket pricing, staffing, scheduling, investment and budgets. Operators must now make these decisions essentially blind – and rail operators have the added complication of the Williams-Shapps Plan.

This uncertainty means the long hoped-for developments in our public sector transport could be stalled, as operators are less able to deploy the required capital expenditure and government funding is being used to keep as-is services running. The modernisation of our bus and rail network and plans to improve passenger experience and value for money could yet again be delayed. This undermines progress at a time when operators need to provide the best possible service to encourage travellers back to public transport. 

The ticketing opportunity

It’s clear that operators need to make cost-effective and impactful investment choices where they can in order to build back passenger numbers. We believe a great place to start would be ticketing – an area where the UK’s public transport system is severely lacking.

Newer transport services such as e-scooter hire and ride-hailing apps offer excellent app-based ticketing, with user-friendly interfaces and tracking functionality. However, bus and train operators rarely provide ticketing services to this standard. In fact, it is one of the few areas of modern life that is yet to catch up.

We recommend four areas of focus that could both significantly improve customer service and encourage passengers back, while also giving operators more agility over the next few years to respond to changes in their operating environment.

  1. Affordability: Price is always identified as the most important factor to British public transport users. Increasing the affordability of travel, especially rail, will significantly improve the customer experience and go a long way in encouraging people back to public transport.
    While we understand that a significant pricing overhaul is difficult in this uncertain climate, we believe that a freeze to train ticket prices for the next three years would help make rail travel more affordable for both commuters and leisure passengers and it would allow the sector to better plan and assess passenger income and travel habits.
    If the government is serious about moving travellers from road to rail, freezing ticket prices for only 33 per cent of the time that fuel duty has been frozen would be a positive commitment.
  2. Flexibility: With much of the UK moving to a hybrid working model, it is unclear what commuter levels will look like going forward and how this will impact peak periods or purchases of season and monthly tickets.
    These tickets, and tickets bought in advance, provide excellent savings for passengers and clear income for operators, but they may not reflect the realities of future public transport use (e.g. part-time commuters or people taking impulsive journeys to work).
    We recommend the accelerated introduction of ‘carnet’ ticketing, where 10+ tickets can be bought for a discount to standard ticket prices and used over a given period. This model has been introduced by some operators already but should be implemented more widely, advertised more clearly, and available for both single and return, peak and off-peak travel, as a more customer-friendly form of ticketing.
  3. Technology: In a world where people can fly commercially to space, it’s quite astonishing that some tickets still cannot be bought online and most ticket barriers throughout the UK don’t accept smart ticketing.
    Improving the technology of ticketing across public transport, including developing online integration, introducing more smart ticketing and upgrading ticket barriers and readers, will considerably improve the customer experience, ease of use and flexibility of public transport. Some progress has already been made in rail travel, but it is desperately needed for bus travel, particularly outside major city centres across the UK, and will have significant positive impacts.
    We also believe introducing better tracking of services, again especially for buses in suburban and more rural areas, to a standard similar to the information provided by ride hailing apps, would give passengers more control of their journeys.
  4. Carbon labelling: Better communication around the environmental benefits of public transport compared to cars could be a way of encouraging people back to the network as our collective awareness of the climate crisis continues to grow. The public transport sector should be looking to make information like this more accessible and consumer-friendly, and, to achieve this, we recommend adding carbon labelling to all public transport ticketing immediately.

A GHD survey last year found that 81 per cent of UK consumers support the concept to ‘carbon label’ consumer services, particularly on travel tickets, energy bills and water bills, and that 59 per cent would choose lower carbon options if better informed about their overall consumption. 60 per cent of respondents even said they would be willing to pay more for environmentally friendly services.

Meanwhile, another GHD survey from earlier this year also showed that, post-pandemic, green issues will be the highest priority for 14 per cent of people when choosing which goods/services to buy – and we expect this figure will climb sharply going forwards.

The transport market faces incredible uncertainty and upheaval over the next two to three years, and some operators may not survive in their current form. However, now is an opportunity to rethink, regroup and find new, innovative and cost-effective solutions that will help build a better public transport system for the future. It won’t be easy, but operators need to be bold as the only thing that is certain is that the old models won’t work in our new world.

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