Driving the shift to rail by improving the customer experience
By Michael Zink
The increasing strain on our road corridors due to expanding populations and a trend towards urban living has put pressure on transit authorities to find ways of moving people out of their cars and onto public transport. Rail plays an especially important role in this endeavour, as trains have greater capacity than buses or ferries and they free up space on the road by operating on their own tracks.
Providing a positive customer experience is seen as essential to encouraging this modal shift. The question is: how do we do this?
As public transport agencies around the world strive to impress increasingly demanding passengers, it is tempting to dive into the world of slick apps and futuristic tickets in the search for the silver bullet to customer happiness. However, we can’t forget this basic truth:
The foundation of customer satisfaction is safe, reliable and comfortable services that get passengers where they need to be without any unexpected surprises.
Ever been at a train station when a service is delayed or cancelled? There is no smartphone app capable of delighting a commuter who is now late for work or to pick up their kids. Real-time passenger information may appease them a little bit by letting them know when their next train may arrive, but this is a case of treating the symptom and not the cause.
No customer will be happy if your core transportation service is not running on time in a safe, smooth manner – no matter what other fancy frills you give him or her.
An effective maintenance regime is the key to keeping your rail operations running smoothly. By mapping out a maintenance schedule (or even better, having sensor-equipped systems that allow you to perform condition-based maintenance) and ensuring all assets are always in a state of good repair, you can dramatically reduce the likelihood of incidents occurring during service and inconveniencing riders.
For instance, routine examinations of rolling stock air-conditioning units at set intervals will catch small leaks or mechanical wear and tear before performance is severely impacted. These components can be fixed or replaced before the entire unit stops functioning completely and your passengers have to sweat it out on a steamy midsummer day. Besides averting an uncomfortable user experience and complaints in the twitterverse, you’ll also save money as your air-conditioning units won’t run to failure (thus avoiding more costly repairs). Plus, they’ll last longer!
It is also important to remember that all your assets affect the passenger experience, not just the ones found in carriages: broken ticket vending machines, litter-strewn platforms and malfunctioning lifts also drive commuters nuts. Be sure to take into account your building infrastructure and the facilities within them when you plan your maintenance, and have in place a speedy process for repairs in case something stops working.
However, asset maintenance for customer satisfaction is not just about making sure the toilets in carriages are clean or that the lights in compartments aren’t flickering. The effects of poor maintenance practices can be far more profound and devastating than just minor annoyances. Incidents such as the UK’s Hatfield rail accident and Germany’s Eschede derailment highlight how crucial good asset management is.
With rail assets being as numerous and complex as they are, it is no wonder that some operators – especially those in developing nations where there is a heavy reliance on manual records or disparate software tools – find it challenging to adopt and implement maintenance best practices. Fortunately, there are tools such as sophisticated Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) systems that they can add to their arsenal to better manage their infrastructure and deliver services at a standard their customers expect.
The unsung hero
If you look at any top rail operator, you’ll find that an EAM system is the unsung hero of that organisation’s efforts to keep its passengers satisfied; not just when it comes to vehicles, but also track, wayside equipment and infrastructure.
A good EAM system will know everything about the assets it monitors - current condition, what component failures they’ve had, what services have been completed, who has carried out works on the asset, what they’ve actually done to it and what future work is planned. It will also have workflows and automation that streamlines the tasks technicians and mechanics need to perform in order to keep all rail assets and infrastructure and related components fully functional.
While there are many asset management systems out there, rail organisations will gain the most benefit from industry-specific solutions. This is because an industry-specific asset management software will already be set up to record rail-related assets, with functionality that lets you configure all the right workflows and relationships. This means you save on having to pay for customisations or new development projects without compromising usability or fitness for purpose.
Extra points go to EAM systems capable of integrating with intelligent vehicles or sensors or diagnostic solutions on and off rail rolling stock equipment. These allow your maintenance teams to monitor the condition of systems in real time and investigate any abnormalities such as overly high temperatures or excessive vibration before something breaks and affects passenger experience or safety.
Whether you use your EAM to manage a preventative maintenance schedule or action real-time information from asset fault codes, the most important thing is to avoid any system failure, whether it is one that assures passenger comfort or ride quality or, in extreme cases, prevents derailment. While your patrons will probably never see the work being done behind the scenes through an EAM system, they will definitely experience the benefits it brings: safe, reliable services that they can count on to get them where they need to be on time, every time.
The backbone of customer satisfaction
Rail operators understand there’s no room for error. Commuters can be very unforgiving where delays, cancellations and safety are concerned. Enough errors in service, repeated inconveniences or faulty facilities, and passengers will eventually abandon public transport – sometimes for many years – and you can bet they’ll tell their friends and family about how poor your service is to discourage patronage.
Conversely, when customers know that trains are the most efficient and comfortable way of travelling, they are happy to make the shift from other modes of transport. In China, cross-country travellers are electing to hop onto the high-speed rail network instead of flying because of its near-perfect on-time performance and solid reputation for safety – this stellar record has made choosing train over plane “a no-brainer” for citizens and tourists alike.
If your rail agency hasn’t yet established full control over its maintenance regime and it is impacting your services and the people using them, consider taking an enterprise approach to your asset management. Your passengers will thank you for it.
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