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.