National Express East Coast: Lions led by donkeys

National Express East Coast I don’t want my blog to turn into a regular rant against abysmal customer service, but when you have the 21st century equivalent of a publishing press and you’re regularly subjected to deliberate bad service it’s hard not to vent your frustrations.

So here goes. The management of National Express East Coast are without doubt one of the most disgraceful showers I’ve ever had the displeasure to do business with. Since taking over the east coast franchise from GNER the standards of service have consistently gone down hill while prices have gone up.

With GNER the only complaint I ever really had was the expense and that wasn’t totally GNER’s fault as it was as much to do with government subsidy levels and franchise costs.

The people who I really feel sorry for are the lions led by donkeys. The hard working National Express East Coast staff who sometimes unfortunately have to bear the brunt of passengers anger. It’s not their fault that their bosses are complete idiots.

Since January 5 I’ve made about six or seven journeys and each one has been far worse than what you used to experience before they brought in the new ‘improved’ service. It wouldn’t be so bad if they would admit that they are money grabbing oiks, but to spin it that it is i response to passenger demand is shameful.

DSC_0048This picture is of my first class table on this morning’s 9:40 from Leeds to King’s Cross. You can see that it hasn’t even been cleaned since the previous journey and is covered in coffee stains, discarded sugar wrappers and empty water bottles. I doubt this isn’t meant to happen, but it has on virtually every journey recently. I guess it is because of staff cuts.

 

DSC_0049 The second photograph shows how tables now look in first class. Before Christmas you got a trolley service with a friendly waiter/waitress offering you a complimentary selection of coffee, tea, a choice of cookies and fresh fruit. They had fresh milk in a jug.

Now your table is cluttered with a pile of rubbish including water bottles, plastic cups, one choice of biscuit (lemon curd!), sachets of tomato ketchup and brown sauce etc. What’s causing most complaint amongst my fellow passengers is some nasty little tubes called ‘Dairystix’ instead of the fresh milk.

As part of this service-cutting National Express East Coast has also reduced the restaurant car service to almost nothing.

It is evident that National Express has broken the promises it made when it obtained the East Coast franchise on August 14, 2007. The Department of Transport news release makes it clear that ‘full dining services reatined on 87 weekday trains.’ A lie?

The news release also claimed ‘A simpler website that will highlight the cheapest tickets available.’ That was another lie? The website hardly ever gives you the cheapest tickets available as the Martin Lewis’ Moneysavingexpert.com website makes clear.

I’m also extremely dubious about National Express East Coast’s claim that the changes are in response to customer research. There is a Wolfstar person travelling up and down from Leeds to London at least once or twice a week. We also know a lot of people who do the same journey. Not a single person we’ve spoken to was surveyed. I challenge National Express to publish the full research report and not just the spun version in its news release.

For this reduced level of service National Express East Coast charge you an eye-watering £334! Just for reference you can hire a Mercedes and chauffer to drive you to London and back for about £550, so for just two people travelling it is cheaper to choose the more environmentally damaging route. Admittedly you can get less expensive tickets, but not much cheaper if you want to leave London between about 15:00 and 19:00. And the only way to get the cheapest tickets is by knowing that the National Express website doesn’t give you them, despite its promise when it won the franchise.

And don’t get me started on the free wifi. At least when you had to pay for it (although first class was always free) it usually worked. Now the connection is far more sporadic (which is why at the moment I’m waiting to complete this post as I can’t get the National Express East Coast website to work on my laptop and it isn’t designed to work on mobiles). I didn’t get my connection back before the train reached London and it’s taken me numerous attempts and almost an hour into the journey before I could get this connection.

The hair shirt socialist in me always feels a bit uncomfortable about travelling first class, but the practical reality is that standard class is nearly always far too crowded to enable you to do any meaningful work on the journey.

Back in the days of GNER it was one of the brands on my list of who I really wanted to work for. I naively put National Express on the same list. It isn’t anymore as in the words of President Elect Obama: ‘you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.’

p.s. When I Twittered about this I had an excellent suggestion from 10Yeti’s Andrew Barr. I might just do it.

Twitter National Express East Coast ASBO

And it looks like Rob Brown at Staniforth is having issues with Virgin Rail:

Twitter Virgin Rail problems

Rant over, thank you for reading (if anyone’s actually made it this far!)

UPDATE: If you want to rant about National Express East Coast on your blog or Twitter then lets all use this hash tag #NEEC


About Stuart Bruce

International communications consultant and PR trainer specialising in online public affairs, digital corporate communications, online PR and social media; frequent national media commentator and conference speaker.
  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p010536d47bb0970c Mick Swales

    Excellent post Stuart. Couldn't agree more. They also broke their promise to replace GNERs excellent Time loyalty scheme with one of their own. Without doubt NEEC are in a league of their own in terms of sub-standard service, and that's saying something. Your post should be the call to arms. It's time for the fightback to begin!!

  • http://thoughtpros.com Tim Bailey

    For the entertainment value you alone, thank you. Makes me really look forward to doing the London – Leeds journey on a regular basis…

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p010536d4b67c970c Richard R

    You've hit the nail on the head here. It's a classic case of how finance and operations departments in big business have an arrogant disregard for customers. So long as the Finance and Ops Directors hit their targets they'll do fine.

    I pray that they don't have a marketing department. If they do – they should hand their heads in shame. The customer experience is shocking, and they either haven;t bothered to trial it for themselves, or they're too scared of the growly Ops and Finance directors who concern them with the real business of running a railway…hitting bonus.

    For the first time in ages we thought long and hard about driving down to London this week.

    In the end we went for the train and regretted every second. Cold, draughty, uncomfortable. Disgusting toilets – like third world disgusting, I won't go into detail.

    The disregard for customers has extended to the train guard. She read a 10 minute announcement outlining who was allowed to be a customer on that train and who wasn't. Anyone who didn't qualify (i.e. had the temerity to purchase a cheap a ticket) would be penalised by having to pay the 'correct' (i.e. full price) fare.

    When she did come round, it felt like our tickets were being inspected by the a Soviet border guard "papers! you are not authorised to travel. Come vith me….".

    And the worst thing…the bloody a announcer as you leave every single station offering teas, coffees, hot and cold sandwiches… Why does the phone always ring at that point?!

    Let's get together and commission a PR and marketing agency Leeds to London minibus service. We could probably get an EU grant for it!

  • http://www.chrisnorton.biz Chris Norton

    Stuart this is the best post you have written in months and I completely agree with you. National Express are awful and unfortunately so is our entire rail system. It is over priced and uncomfortable and far, far too busy.

    I thought Top Gear did a brilliant take on our rail system when they bought a car each and drove it from Scotland to London for less than the rail fare.

    Bring back GNER!

  • http://www.rainierpr.co.uk/blog Stephen Waddington

    Stuart,

    Brilliant post. You know I use the Newcastle to London service each week. I've turned against National Express I'm afraid after blatant cost cutting across the service, and changes to the restaurant service and the frequent traveler programme.

    The service is now run by a team of staff that were contracted across from GNER that are completely demoralised, particularly in the dining service.

    Like you, none of the people I regularly travel with were surveyed about the dining services, but National Express has clearly used this as a ruse to change the terms under which it won the contract.

    I've always found the web site pretty good to be fair.

    There's nothing wrong with traveling first class if you want to use the time to work. I always do, and I laughed out loud when I saw your table photo with all the clutter. Wholly agree.

    Seriously, shall we do something about it? My MP travels back and forth on the route each week, and would be supportive (in fact he was on the train last night).

    Keep up the rants. But it needs to change.

    All the best,
    Stephen

  • http://profile.typepad.com/simoncollister simoncollister

    Funnily enough, I was considering a similar post on Friday night travelling. Travelling from Peterborough to York 1st class – unclean table and dairystix galore.

    Similarly I experimented with commuting via NEEC to work instead of the cheaper First Capital service. It more expensive I thought but better seating/tables and free wifi. Unfortunately my suspicions were confirmed. *Finding* a seat was difficult most mornings and wifi was all but non-existent.

    Something must be done.

  • http://sgillingwater.wordpress.com Sarah Gillingwater

    Stuart – Can I second what you've said there? As a regular traveller between Leeds and London (although not in first class as I'm using taxpayers' money) the service has been appalling recently. Last week I had a seat reservation and the carriage didn't even exist.

    And a couple of weeks ago I wrote an engry email to the wi-fi people echoing your thoughts – I know the service is free now, but I'd rather pay for something that worked. Unfortunately I couldn't send it as there wasn't a working connection…

  • http://www.pr-media-blog.co.uk Mark Hanson

    Train companies (and making them better) are my passion

    Was thinking what to write here and it inspired me to go and post and link to this

    http://pr-media-blog.co.uk/biggest-social-media-opportunity-of-2009/

  • http://blog.floehopper.org James Mead

    Good stuff. One small thing – I think NXEC is more commonly used than NEEC – even by the company themselves.

  • michael.kiely@chorusgroup.co.uk

    stuart
    i travel up from kings x to newcastle every fri and even though i get the email alert for advanced tickets they have shot up in price. at least gner gave you 10% off when you booked on line but thats now gone by the board. how i wish BR was still running. or better still grand central ran up to newcastle.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p010536d4b67c970c Richard R

    You've hit the nail on the head here. It's a classic case of how finance and operations departments in big business have an arrogant disregard for customers. So long as the Finance and Ops Directors hit their targets they'll do fine.

    I pray that they don't have a marketing department. If they do – they should hand their heads in shame. The customer experience is shocking, and they either haven;t bothered to trial it for themselves, or they're too scared of the growly Ops and Finance directors who concern them with the real business of running a railway…hitting bonus.

    For the first time in ages we thought long and hard about driving down to London this week.

    In the end we went for the train and regretted every second. Cold, draughty, uncomfortable. Disgusting toilets – like third world disgusting, I won't go into detail.

    The disregard for customers has extended to the train guard. She read a 10 minute announcement outlining who was allowed to be a customer on that train and who wasn't. Anyone who didn't qualify (i.e. had the temerity to purchase a cheap a ticket) would be penalised by having to pay the 'correct' (i.e. full price) fare.

    When she did come round, it felt like our tickets were being inspected by the a Soviet border guard "papers! you are not authorised to travel. Come vith me….".

    And the worst thing…the bloody a announcer as you leave every single station offering teas, coffees, hot and cold sandwiches… Why does the phone always ring at that point?!

    Let's get together and commission a PR and marketing agency Leeds to London minibus service. We could probably get an EU grant for it!