It’s the one they all want - the most prestigious accolade at RAIL’s National Rail Awards. But only one company can win NRA Passenger Operator of the Year, and this year - for the first time - it is c2c that has claimed the top prize.
At the glamorous Grosvenor House Hotel in London’s Mayfair on September 17, c2c Managing Director Julian Drury was on hand to collect the trophy at the ‘Railway Oscars’. It means that for the next 12 months, c2c can call itself the best.
And it is fitting that the National Express-owned train operating company (TOC) should walk off with the top NRA prize, at the end of what has been the most important and significant year in c2c’s history.
This past year has combined the mobilisation of a new 15-year franchise with the biggest package of improvements that passengers have ever seen on the route.
c2c has the ambition to become “Britain’s best railway by every measure”. Recent achievements have included: introducing the c2c smartcard; free WiFi at all c2c stations; launching a groundbreaking c2c Live app; introducing a Passenger’s Charter with the rail industry’s first ‘double the difference’ guarantee; a range of new cheaper tickets for advance purchase for seniors and for students; and a third successive year as the country’s most punctual rail operator.
And the highlights do not stop there. Twenty years ago the route c2c operates was known as ‘The Misery Line’. Old trains operated unreliably, causing delays. Today, modern Class 357 Electrostars run punctually along the route, enabling c2c to become the most punctual in the UK last year.
And all this has been achieved against a backdrop of uncertainty, with two short-term franchise contract extensions and four years in the Department for Transport’s ‘Last 12 months’ status.
In June 2014, the Government awarded NX a new 15-year franchise for c2c, and this was the trigger for a number of unparalleled improvements. These were aimed mainly at the passenger, but major structural changes were also made to the business. Additionally £33 million was spent on station investment.
The c2c smartcard was launched in June 2014, and by November last year it was available across the entire route, including all Transport for London Tube, Docklands Light Railway and bus services across the capital. The operator is the first TOC to implement the Government’s South Eastern Flexible Ticket (SEFT) ITSO smartcard scheme, and the first to roll out an ITSO smartcard scheme across its entire network.
By February this year, 6,400 passengers had registered for the c2c Smartcard, and more than £1m had been raised in revenue. c2c says that one in every seven annual season ticket holders now uses a c2c Smartcard.
In September 2014 the operator introduced contactless payment (CPay), which it says allows passengers to use their credit or debit cards as tickets anywhere inside the Greater London area. Used in conjunction with Oyster Pay As You Go (PAYG), c2c expects it will shortly reach the point where more than 50% of journeys on c2c are made on smartcard, and contactless in place of traditional paper tickets.
To mark the first day of the new franchise on November 9 2014, c2c launched a package of improvements that it says have transformed the quality of the service it can offer passengers.
Free WiFi at stations has been one of the most popular new initiatives, with 500,000 user sessions recorded in the first three months alone. Network speeds of up to 70MB/s are available, and c2c is now working to extend the service to provide onboard WiFi as well.
The new c2c Live app was also launched on the first day of the franchise. This app was developed with IBM, and provides passengers with a one-stop-shop for everything from buying tickets to personalised journey information, and even paying for car parking.
It is also the first app from a UK rail company to include nationwide door-to-door public transport journey planning, enabling users to plan a route for any journey anywhere in the UK.
While more than 10,000 people have downloaded the app, c2c believes its real transformative benefit is still to come. From the end of this year, it will be the platform that passengers use to register for automatic refunds, which will be paid out whenever they are delayed by as little as two minutes.
New discounted tickets were also a key element of the new franchise. c2c launched its first advance discount ticket, with up to 40% off tickets bought online in advance. Passengers aged 65 and over are also able to benefit from two new Rover fares, offering a flat £5 rate for unlimited travel outside London and £9 to include travel to c2c’s London stations. Some 1,600 Rover tickets and 1,700 advance discounts are now being sold every period, earning thousands in extra revenue.
A new discounted season ticket for students was also introduced. More than 500 students currently benefit from one-third off the price of their Season, making education affordable for more young people and increasing access to further education and higher education courses at local colleges. And just to celebrate the new franchise, 25,000 free tickets for two were given away at c2c’s major stations.
An entirely new Passenger Charter has also given c2c’s passengers far greater rights than they have ever had before. Highlights include a right ticket at the right price guarantee, with passengers receiving twice the difference in cost if they’re not sold the best ticket - a first in the rail industry.
Season ticket holders now benefit from a delay repay scheme for the first time, and from the end of the year will also benefit from c2c’s flagship automatic refunds if they are delayed by as little as two minutes.
Behind the scenes, c2c had to introduce a huge mobilisation programme to launch the new franchise. Forty-eight different Committed Obligations (franchise commitments) were delivered on time for Day One of the new franchise, equal to 20% of all the commitments made for the entire franchise.
This achievement, combined with a 100% Public Performance Measurement (PPM) day on November 9, was commended by Peter Wilkinson, director of passenger services at the Rail Executive, in a letter following the launch.
A key factor in the success of the new franchise was ensuring that all c2c employees were aware of the changes, and what their role was. Every member of staff transferred over to the new company, while a new management structure was also established for the new franchise.
c2c acknowledges that these changes had huge potential to unsettle staff, and thus excellent internal communications were essential. During the franchise competition, staff were provided with regular updates via the staff intranet, and during the mobilisation phase this was extended to weekly articles about different aspects of the mobilisation project. This helped to maintain c2c’s position as the best-in-class score, in its 2014 independent staff survey conducted by Valuentis.
With so much change, it was vital for c2c to nevertheless maintain the strengths it has established in recent years.
Top of these is the reputation for punctuality. In December 2014, c2c celebrated a third successive year as the UK’s most punctual train operator, and England World Cup 1966 hero Sir Geoff Hurst joined staff to help celebrate c2c’s very own special hat-trick at his old stamping ground (West Ham United FC). c2c’s annual PPM is currently 96.9%, compared with the average for all London and South East train operators of 89.0%.
The latest National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS), produced by Transport Focus and carried out at the time NRA judging took place earlier this year, showed that passengers recognise and appreciate c2c’s punctuality record - 91% of passengers were satisfied with punctuality, more than any other train operator.
The NRPS showed that on c2c, 89% of passengers were satisfied overall. The operator also scored above the London and South East average score in 28 of the 36 categories. And c2c was named the best London commuter operator in the increasingly influential annual passenger survey by Which? magazine.
In the past year, c2c has also recorded zero Signals Passed At Danger (SPADs), for the first time in seven years. This compares with five and three SPADs respectively in the previous two years.
This was achieved through c2c’s 13-point SPAD Action Plan, which introduced a combination of approaches - from increased training and more direct contact time for drivers with their managers, to targeted briefing on high-risk locations and covert out-of-hours checks (even including during England’s first game of the 2014 football World Cup, which kicked off at around midnight on a Saturday night).
c2c has also stepped up real-time service to passengers by moving to a 24/7 contact operation. It moved its Twitter service to a 24/7, 363 days a year operation, and introduced a 24/7 disabled customer helpline to allow people to travel without needing to arrange travel in advance. It also introduced a promise to answer all customer calls within 45 seconds.
This year c2c introduced its first extensive consultation on the new timetable that will be introduced in December, and which will deliver 20% more peak services.
More than 2,200 customers responded, and as a result c2c was able to make significant changes before submitting the proposals to Network Rail.
The new franchise means a significant change to c2c’s profit profile over the coming years, but 2014 still represented c2c’s best ever year for revenue, with a 6% growth in total income. “The extensive changes to our commercial offer means that we expect revenue to grow even further,” the company says.
It’s been a hard year for c2c because of the transition, but the effort has all been worth it for the NRA Passenger Operator of the Year.
- This feature was published in RAIL 784 (September 30 - October 13 2015)