Commuters are not rational creatures. In the frantic rush to get to work and home again, the slightest delay is an outrage. And when that happens, they want someone to blame. For those who’ve been stranded at London Bridge station during its redevelopment, there are some obvious candidates: Southeastern, Southern and Thameslink, all operated by Go-Ahead Group.
The problem for an operator like Go-Ahead is that the delays really aren’t its fault. The improvements are being made by Network Rail as part of the government-sponsored Thameslink programme. Yes, Go-Ahead’s rail services are closely involved in the process, but they are not its cause.
But how can it go about communicating this to the crowds of irate commuters? In Go-Ahead’s interim report, chief executive David Brown told shareholders (and, indirectly, the media) that: ‘we share the frustration of customers who have recently experienced disruption to their journeys due to these improvement works and, together with Network Rail, we are committed to minimising the impact on passengers.’
Chairman Andrew Allner added: ‘we are working very hard with our industry partners to improve our service for passengers but many of the factors leading to underperformance are outside our direct control. Once these issues are addressed and investment projects complete I am confident we will see a dramatically improved service for passengers.’
Brown and Allner did everything they should have done – admitting there’s a problem, making it clear it’s not their fault without making excuses, and focusing on what they're doing to find a solution. Other than the understandable absence of the word 'sorry', it’s a decent apology. Unfortunately, it will almost certainly fall on deaf ears.
The reason is that Go-Ahead’s report also revealed that operating profits from its rail division rose 62.1% in the six months to December 26, to £32.9m. Ah. The company can apologise all it wants, but commuters will undoubtedly see it profiting from their misery, or at least being able but unwilling to spend more on lessening the disruption.
That’s probably very unfair, but it’s the world we live in. If Go-Ahead hadn’t addressed the problem, it would have been harangued for not caring. Still, the shareholders are happy – and in what amounts to a monopoly business, that is really the most important thing. Across its rail and bus divisions, Go-Ahead’s adjusted pre-tax profits rose 26.1% to £71.9m off revenues of £1,665m, sending shares up 5.2% by lunchtime to £23.66.