Anthony Smith: The logistics industry has been a "breath of fresh air" since Transport Focus took on road users in 2014

You may not know it, but as a freight transport operator using the UK road network, you have a champion representing your interests to the government and Highways England. Steve Hobson meets him.

Many MT readers may never have heard of Transport Focus, but since 2014 it has represented all users of the UK motorways and major A-roads including freight transport operators, carrying out surveys of drivers and operators and feeding their views into the roads planning process.

Government-funded and based in modest offices in central London, Transport Focus is led by chief executive Anthony Smith. Since adding road users to his responsibilities for bus and rail services Smith has been impressed by the freight and parcels sector.

“It was really liberating working with bus and coach, but then getting to road a couple years ago was even better because now we represent all users of the Strategic Road Network including freight,” he says. “The logistics industry has just been a breath of fresh air. Customers are extremely demanding and technology is applied in all the right ways because it saves money and the environment at the same time.

“The focus on the reliability of the service is just outstanding. The logistics industry is a completely unsung hero as far as I’m concerned. When you click on ‘can I have it the same day’ it gets to you the same day. It’s incredibly impressive. Your parcel arrives generally within the hour when they say it’s going to, which is incredible.”

Transport Focus added representation of road users to bus and rail passengers (see panel), partly to mirror the creation of regulatory body the Office of Rail and Road that monitors the rail industry and Highways England. This became a semi-independent government company in 2015, charged with operating, maintaining and improving England’s motorways and major A roads.

Brave new world

“It's the beginning of a brave new world,” says Smith. “You can see at some time in the future we will have road pricing and payment at point of use. Therefore you want to have a much better sense about what the users want, what they dislike and what they're prepared to pay for.

“There will be private building and operation of roads, a bit like railways. They'll be part of an overall network and will have to fit together to the same standards. In the absence of competition, we benchmark the user experience. Because we're creatures of habit and tend to use the same roads and railways, we don't know what it's like on the other side of the hill.

“Highways England now has a regulatory target of 90% overall satisfaction from users. We carry out the measure for them through the National Road Users' Satisfaction Survey, which Highways England used to do itself. It's better than nothing, but everyone recognises it's got real limitations because it's a household survey, with people knocking on doors.

“With the public transport surveys we give people the questionnaire at the bus stops or at the stations. It's very close to the experience because all the research shows that the longer you leave it to ask the questions, the more satisfaction drops.”

Satisfaction rating

In 2016-17 the overall satisfaction score achieved was 89.1%. Since 2011-12 there has been a general decrease in satisfaction, reaching a low of 88.5% in 2014-15.

Transport Focus publishes the world's largest piece of passenger research, the National Rail Passenger Survey, which every year seeks the opinions of about 55,000 passengers, enabling comparisons of customer satisfaction to be made between the regional rail franchises. Smith now plans to do a similar job on the UK’s road network with a new survey to be called the Strategic Roads User Survey (SRUS).

“We will benchmark different user experiences, and start to ask questions like ‘why are users of the M6 more satisfied than people on the M42?’ Then at least you start the debate in the right place, rather than just saying ‘God, last week the M6 was terrible’,” he says.

The plan in the longer term is to use DVLA and mobile phone data and technology to gather as near instant feedback on road journeys as possible. In the meantime Transport Focus will launch next year a hugely improved on line version of the current survey which will reach many more drivers and truck drivers than before.

“It's really interesting because the motorists’ voice is quite well articulated on issues like fuel duty,” says Smith. “But nobody ever asks users ‘what do you think about using Britain’s roads?’ That's what we do.

“It's revolutionary to everybody, quite frankly. Everyone thinks they know what the user priorities are; then you actually go ask the users and they say something quite different.”

For example, most people would assume that road users’ biggest gripe would be congestion. But Transport Focus’ research shows poor road surface actually tops the list of concerns, especially for truck drivers.

“For current users, the main priority for improvement is the road surface because they want the journey to be predictable,” says Smith. “The Strategic Road Network is broadly in good condition but it's tired and hasn't any money spent on it. When we finally do get some money spent that brings disruption and that's painful.

“We do a lot of work helping Highways England and others to get over that issue of everyone saying ‘the cones are out but there’s nobody working’. We have to do something about that because that's a really strong perception.”

Smart MotorwayPA

That is even more important with emergency repairs than planned disruption where Smith says sharing of information is improving : “Unplanned disruption is very important. The railways are very good at getting things moving again because of they have had lots of practice. There is a lot of work to be done to speed up clearing up incidents on the road network; the police have complete jurisdiction there so it takes a long time.”

Diverting drivers around incidents could also improve, Smith believes.

“We are getting nearer to a situation where you have dumb infrastructure and bright cars, and human beings are in between,” he says. “We have to talk to the cars more to get people tailored information. Because when there is an incident you want information to help you feel in control again.

“Public transport is getting better at that but road has got a long way to go. The railways are always under intense media pressure and it does drive change. There is no pressure on the highways at all really.”

Poor parking

While car and truck drivers have very similar concerns, one issue Smith wants to highlight is the poor provision of parking for HGV drivers, especially away from the motorway network. He points to Operation Stack as an example of how freight drivers’ needs are ignored in ways that would never happen in public transport.

“One thing I've been very keen to do is to make sure that the truck drivers are properly represented,” he says. “It's not as unionised as other forms of transport. The number of spaces to park is reducing while the number of trucks is increasing. Operation Stack is a miserable experience. No information, no toilets, no showers…

“I went down there and couldn't believe what I saw. I'm very pleased they're going to install matrix signs on the A20, because the drivers are incredibly patient and all they want is more information about how long it's going to take to get to the port.”

Operation Stack

Lorries parked up on the M20 motorway in Ashford, Kent,

There have been calls for many years for an independent road accident investigation bureau to look into the cause of accidents and publish its findings so lessons can be learned – as happens in the rail industry. Shining a light onto the root cause of accidents has led to a massive reduction in fatal accidents on the UK’s railways, and while our roads are among the safest in the world, 1,700 people still die every year in crashes.

“Because the circumstances of road accidents are so varied you might think how you could learn anything from that because every accident is subtly different,” says Smith. “I also think there's a slight complacency in that all the international stats show that we have probably the world's safest roads.

“We've come from working on the railways where there's a properly forensic approach to accident investigation. It seems absolutely shocking that you don't have that on the roads. I'm surprised the insurance industry hasn’t been more vocal about this because these accidents are expensive.”

Now would be a good time to take this more forensic approach to designing out dangerous roads as the government is at last investing in our roads network.

“With a massive investment programme in new capacity through smart motorways and renewing lots of roads, that's the time to do it,” says Smith. “You don't want to just replace something like for like. Here's a great opportunity coming up because the government, to its credit, it's spending money on the roads at last.”

Great opportunity

Transport Focus also sees this investment programme as a great opportunity for its research to influence how this money is spent.

“Our influence is considerable because the very existence of this work forces the government to either adopt it or reject it and give reasons,” says Smith. “It sets up a discussion which perhaps, otherwise, wouldn't be there. This is what the government wants from the roads. This is want the users want.

“If you don't start with asking the users what they want, there's no chance of getting to the end of an investment period with roads they are satisfied with. It locates the debate in the right place and sets up a discussion which is informed rather than ignorant.”

Smith would like to see Transport Focus extend its remit even further to cover all roads, not just the Strategic Road Network (SRN).

“Nobody lives and drives solely on the SRN,” he says. “There's no point driving off the SRN and then having a very different experience. All the methodologies we adopt are perfectly transferable to the street network and this new creature that's emerging, the Major Road Network. We hope that the government will see the light of day and say ‘don't just do the SRN, do the Major Road Network as well’.

“Once we get our satisfaction survey going, it will only be a matter of time before we can do something about the other roads because, of course, you collect data about the whole journey. We can deploy that for smaller roads and hopefully, in Scotland and Wales too.”

Anthony Smith - a brief history

Smith’s road to Transport Focus was an interesting one.

“I studied history at university, came out and thought ‘better get a job’. And there weren't any jobs for historians,” he says. “So I studied law and became a solicitor. Then, having spent a vast amount of money and time doing that, I thought ‘I don't want to be doing this when I'm 40’.”

So Smith went to work for the Consumer Association, in the legal department of its magazine Which, which is how he first got into consumer protection. After that he spent five years regulating premium rate telephone services, which in those pre-internet days was the vehicle of choice for the sex trade as well as TV phone-ins. “That was quite an experience,” he says, “Most of it was very dull, actually, because it a lot of it was just competitions on the TV - but the other end of the industry was interesting.”

In 1999 he became director of the Central Rail Users' Consultative Committee (CRUCC), a statutory body that could trace its roots back to 1947 and the nationalisation of the railways. “I'd never heard of it, but I thought ‘that sounds like an organisation where I can make a difference’,” Smith says. “I've been here ever since, going through various changes.

“We're not pro-rail, pro-bus or pro-road, we're pro the users of the organisation. We do research into what people think about their experiences and use that to drive change. We're not a shouty organisation. We do shout occasionally, but the whole purpose is to be useful to the people who are making the decisions about transport so they can make better decisions.

“Our job is to influence people based upon what the users are saying. Therefore, it puts on us a real onus to be helpful and effective because we can only win by the power of our arguments.”

In 2000, the CRUCC became the Rail Passengers’ Council, a single GB-wide organisation, and in 2006 changed its name to Passenger Focus. In 2008 it took on responsibility for bus and coach passengers and in 2014 the government added users of the motorways and the Strategic Road Network, changing its name to Transport Focus.

Using the UK roads is of course different from using public transport, but Smith insists the principles are the same.

“Road is very different for all sorts of reasons,” he says. “You haven't got payment at point of use, you turn up in your own vehicle, largely there's no bar on when you turn up and the behaviour of other users has a disproportionate effect on your experience.

“However, I think there's absolutely no substitute for asking users what they think and using that to drive change. We’re not a motoring organisation - we just help Highways England to become more consumer focused."