Why we’re all to blame for British trains

I’ve recently returned from Japan where I travelled over 800 miles by rail and I was struck by the comparison of two first world rail systems – the Japanese and the British.

p1010466In Britain, we all know the shinkansen (which we dub the bullet train) for its speed. It links Japan’s cities at over 200mph. Indeed, the upcoming model will be travelling at closer to 250. And in that regard, its reputation doesn’t disappoint as you realise that your eyes can’t focus fast enough on any objects within a 200m of the track. Even distant scenery seems to be there one moment and replaced the next. But that’s not the most striking thing about this train network. That honour is reserved for the way the service is run.

My partner and I arrived at Tokyo station with reservations for a train to take us to Hiroshima – some 550 miles to the south-west. Having arrived in plenty of time, we surveyed the scene. Gathering at each platform gate was a pair of cleaners – women dressed in immaculate pink uniforms and men similarly smart in blue. They each had a utility belt with cleaning materials, rubbish bags and fresh supplies. With 14 carriages, there must have been at least 28 of them.

The train eased into the platform, and after respectfully bowing to each disembarking passenger, this courteous cleaning army set to work on the train. In six minutes, the entire train was refreshed from top to bottom, Floors were washed, rubbish was removed, every seat was rotated so that each passenger would be facing forward and all seats had a fresh linen antimacassar. I was then distracted by the two drivers – each resembling the smartest airline captain, complete with peaked caps and pilot style briefcases. They were striding along the platform to the cockpit and every staff member they passed bowed to them.

Eight minutes after the train had arrived, we boarded the spotless carriage and the platform guards performed their rituals, waving us off with a flag held in a white gloved hand, giving a deep bow to the train as it pulled out of the station. All this happened when the second hand told us it was EXACTLY the departure time of the train. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have not seen an operation like it this side of Trooping the Colour. I have to admit to being slightly emotional about the performance. After all, I was experiencing ‘world-class’.

p1010480Once on the train, the similarly white gloved train crew used an electronic device to survey the passengers in their carriage. It took me a little while to realise that if a passenger was in a seat that had been reserved, they didn’t disturb that individual. However, if they expected a seat to be empty and someone was occupying it, a quiet word was had … presumably to restore a sense of order as soon as possible. On leaving a carriage, the guard would turn to the assembled, bow, and then head through the door.

In the UK, I rely on the trains primarily to get in and out of London to see clients. I have to use the Southern Rail network, which currently has the worst track record, but over the last few years, South Eastern and South Western have also held that crown of thorns. I am writing this article on a Southern Rail train today. I’m lucky. My train is only 16 minutes late. On arriving at my town’s station, there was a board-full of cancellations, with the odd delayed train to provide some relief. And, of course, anybody who regularly uses British trains knows this is far from unusual. From what I gather, the shinkansens are only late if there is a passenger medical emergency. I’m guessing that when that happens, all members of staff involved, no matter how peripherally, feel a sense of darkness, as their customers didn’t receive the service they’ve come to expect. They feel shame.

Listen to any British commuter station announcer and you will hear the range of reasons why your journey has been ruined – shortage of train crew, points failure, a faulty train, industrial dispute, overrunning engineering works. The list goes on. So how can a system in one country have none of these things and in another, it’s de rigueur?

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Shinkansen food service

There is certainly a question of investment. Nearly 30 cleaners to refresh a train? That can’t make much economic sense. And yet that investment is made. Close to 100% track and rolling stock reliability? That’s got to be expensive. All those white gloves …?! On this point, I would concede that there is probably a middle ground that provides a clean, reliable service that could be a little more economically balanced.

But the thing that struck me again and again was the attitude of the Japanese staff. They had complete pride in everything. From their beautiful trains, to their immaculate uniforms … from the satisfaction of another train pulling away PRECISELY on time to providing a carriage floor that you could eat your dinner off. Pride in a job well done. Shame in a less than 100% service.

Setting aside the point about investment, the biggest difference is the pride … the deep-felt belief that delivering the best possible service is everything and will always take precedence over personal ends and means. We have not very clean trains, which are unreliable, on a track infrastructure that is falling apart, operated by people who would die laughing if you asked them to wear white gloves and bow to the carriage. So we complain. I see regular tweets from exasperated commuters using the British rail ‘service’. Are they right to complain?

Well, I would argue that passengers have every right to complain, but only if they are self-sacrificing in the service that they deliver to their customers … if the complaining passengers never take a half-warranted sick day, never take a shortcut at work, continually strive to improve, never complain of being bored, universally show respect to customers and colleagues, metaphorically grab the company logo to their breast like a player in a world cup final. But how many Brits can claim that? Are we, in a sense, all to blame for the appalling services we have to endure? We just don’t set a very good example to ourselves.

From a business perspective, what can we learn from the shinkansen staff? Is there any chance of building that sense of self-sacrificial pride in British employees? What could happen if we could? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Seasonality and cocktails

This is a guest post from Sarah Evans. Sarah’s bio is at the end of the piece.

2016-02-25 17.15.52“Una mas Margarita?”

It’s 4.30pm on a Thursday afternoon at Fresh Restaurant and Lounge, I’m looking out onto the wide sandy expanse of Playa Zicatella, listening to live music and settling in for another glorious sunset. Our cute Mexican waiter Rodolfo in his kinky white Cuban-healed boots is hypnotising me with his offer to bring me another drink…I readily stare into his dreamy eyes and say “si, por favor, por supuesto!” without another thought – Yes please, of course!

Cocktail hour on the beach has been rejuvenated this winter season and these savvy Canadian owners of Fresh have captured the market perfectly.

2016-03-12 18.31.20Puerto Escondido is a small town on the Pacific Coast of Southern Mexico. It’s a real Mexican working town where fishing, farming and tourism are the main industries – you won’t find a Starbucks, McDonald’s, TGI Fridays or a Margaritaville here. It takes a bit of an effort to get here and this is why it retains tons of hidden Mexican charm.
There are 4 distinct types of tourists, the first are the cool surfer, backpacking crowd who travel here to try out the legendary Mexpipe killer waves. Secondly, the ‘wealthy’ Mexican Nationals , who enjoy beach holidays like everyone else, without the tourist trap feel, as in the likes of Cancun and Cozumel. The third group are from the masses of coach tours with lower income Mexican families who visit during the religious holidays of Christmas and Easter. They frolic only in the shallow waters edge as many cannot actually swim or own swimsuits, their hard earned money is spent in the local taco restaurants and they shop in Chedruai Supermarket for huge bottles of coke and enormous packets of crisps that all the family can enjoy on the beach. This group always remind me of the Birmingham visitors who drive to Weston-Super-Mare for Easter weekend. Enjoying the first escape to the seaside after a grey wet winter, all sitting along the seafront eating portions of fish and chips in paper, battling against the seagulls!

And then there are the Snowbirds. During the peak months from November to March, the town receives the annual migration of Canadian and American retirees and tourists who fly south for the winter, escaping their colder home climates. Many of these snowbirds stay for up to 3 months every year making their dollars spread that little bit further, some permanently settle into a very laid back lifestyle all year round.

These well-travelled foreigners dislike holidaying on the Mexican Yucatan, it’s too manicured and Americanised. Puerto is a bit rough around the edges but the beaches are spectacular and you don’t need to spend your children’s inheritance on a good night out. Even though the foreigners’ flip-flop feet might get dusty, they have high expectations when it comes to eating and drinking. There are far more restaurants in town then ever before and they all want a piece of this market.

2016-03-12 18.00.12This winter season, Clint and Yvette of Fresh have successfully catered to both the  Mexican nationals who find their dinner prices lower than they are used to paying in Mexico City, and the slightly hippie crowd of foreigners who love to flock together to party  but won’t pay Cancun cocktail prices.

With backgrounds in the hospitality industry, Clint and Yvette have lived and worked in Puerto for the last 8 years, thereby understanding their target audience and the ways of competing in a Mexican market – so they can still stay sane when things can and do go wrong.  Fresh opened for business in October 2015 and they have had a fabulous opening season. The main difference that has given them the edge over other businesses, is this understanding of their customer base and that they have a long term plan.

Some other bars and restaurants nearby sit empty, as they offer a redundant menu and service, expecting people to visit just because it has a fancy deck or jazzy lights. They haven’t set out to capture a target market or just have no concept of keeping up with the tourism trends of actual demand and changing consumer attitudes.

At Fresh, their staff are being trained to interpret all the indicators of their customers needs. My Margarita was offered to be refreshed as soon as I started to sip to the end of the glass. The ambience is buzzing with weekly live lounge music for the Wednesday and Saturday night dinner crowd and with upbeat mellow sunset tunes for Thursday cocktail hour.

2016-03-03 16.58.14They have become successful by building a great team that offers awesome customer service, a great atmosphere and super fresh-cooked food at prices that are competitive for a beachfront setting. These should be standard practices for any aspiring restaurant but are often lacking in many.

With the snowbird season coming to an end, Clint is networking all over social media, making contacts ‘down under’ for the summer season. If you surf in Australia you will of course have heard of Puerto Escondido. The visiting surfing crowd and young Aussie honeymooners will be the target market in Puerto during the upcoming summer months for Fresh.

For this younger crowd, they will change the menu slightly, but keep crowd-pleasers for their all year round regular customers of local business owners. They will start to offer wines of the day and special daily lunches and dinners – obtaining regular supplies of certain products is just one of the challenges any restaurant in Puerto has to deal with. And of course they will continue to offer live music during the summer months, when many others may not.

Already at number 4 on Trip Advisor, Fresh is certainly making a name for itself. While I was chatting to Clint an Australian couple came in to make dinner reservations. They had met another Aussie couple in Mexico City who had been to Puerto, they were given a recommendation – “You must go to Fresh!”

On that note, I think it’s time for one more delicious Margarita….

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Many thanks to Sarah Evans for this wonderful post and photos. Sarah has been using Puerto Escondido as a base since November 2014, popping off to explore Central and South America. You can read all about Sarah’s travels here.