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Rail News: Passenger Rail
Ridership: For transit agencies, the 'operate and they will come' mantra is giving way to a marketing-based approach
by Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
Rising gas prices. A slightly improved economy. Service expansions. These are the basic factors that contribute to increased public transit ridership.
And ridership is increasing. After posting 50-year ridership highs in 2008, transit agencies saw passenger counts dip during the recession. Although those figures still aren't back to '08 levels, they're slowly inching upward. During third-quarter 2011 — the most recent data available as of press time — ridership for all public transit modes climbed 2 percent to 2.6 billion trips compared with the total for the same 2010 quarter, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The increase marked the third-consecutive quarter of growth.
Transit agency executives say the moderate gains are due in large part to the aforementioned factors. But many also cite changes in how they market and provide services as their means to draw and retain riders.
For example, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) hired a marketing guru from the consumer products industry to lead an effort to study potential passengers' behavior. Virginia Railway Express (VRE) models its customer service after service provided in high-end hotels and retail stores. Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) offers new riders a personal trip adviser. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA) and South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA) are improving connectivity between services. And like many other agencies, the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) uses websites, trip planners, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts to make public transit easier to use.
Agencies are adapting to connect with existing and potential passengers in the new normal — an era during which real-time information rules, customer profiling is more sophisticated and consumers expect a bigger bang for their buck. It's about knowing and understanding passengers — where they go, what they do, how they use transit — and tailoring services to meet their needs and expectations. In turn, new riders slowly but surely will be drawn to the system and existing ones will have reasons to keep riding, agency execs believe.
"Traditionally, transit systems were operating companies. They were good at running trains up and down the track on a schedule. It was an attitude of, ‘operate and they will come,'" says DART Vice President of Planning and Development Todd Plesko. "DART and other transit agencies are becoming marketing-based companies. We provide a service. And the customer? Well, we care about them."
That's not to say operations take a backseat to customer service. For the past several years, DART has been constructing new light-rail lines in an effort to double its system. Now, agency officials are shifting their focus from construction to operations and maintenance. But in order to attract as many riders as possible, execs need to make service planning and marketing an integral part of their strategy.
Feed The Need
In late 2010, DART opened the second phase of the Green Line, a 28-mile corridor that runs from North Carrollton to southeast Dallas.
The new line serves a large medical district that's a major destination for rail riders — employees and patients alike. However, the rail stop is about one-third of a mile away from a large county hospital. The hospital is building a new facility near the station, but until it opens, DART and the hospital are offering a rail feeder bus that operates every three minutes during peak periods and every eight minutes during the middle of the day.
The Green Line has opened up a new ridership base for DART outside of the central business district. The line runs in part along the Stemmons Corridor — a stretch of industrial and commercial properties that include the medical district.
"People are using rail to get to locations that are still in the city, but not in the central part," says Plesko. "There are 110,000 people who work in the downtown core, but there are 1.5 million jobs in our service area, so being able to connect these people to rail allows us to make a bigger impact in terms of shifting people from their car to transit."
DART is capitalizing on neighboring transit services to boost ridership, as well. The agency long has offered connections to the Trinity Railway Express commuter-rail service, which DART operates in partnership with the Fort Worth Transportation Authority.
DART's Green Line also now connects with the Denton County Transportation Authority's A-Train, which opened in June 2011.
The Green Line helped boost DART's ridership significantly during the past year. Light-rail ridership jumped from 17.8 million in fiscal-year 2010 to 22.3 million in FY11, which ended Sept. 30.
But building new lines doesn't ensure skyrocketing ridership. Agencies need to properly market their services in a way that appeals to the various passengers who might use it.
"This organization has been working on an aggressive build-out, and now that it's almost done, it's imperative to increase penetration from a customer ridership standpoint," says Nevin Grinnell, DART's vice president of marketing and chief marketing officer.
Hired by DART in October 2011, Grinnell has a background in consumer goods, marketing such brands as Dr Pepper and Frito Lay. He's bringing a consumer focus to DART. For example, the agency soon will launch a consumer segmentation study, which "gets a little deeper than demographics" to examine why consumers make the choices they do and what motivates them, Grinnell says.
"From there, we can make sure we're bringing in the right partners, the right promotions and the right communication to make sure we're relevant," he says.
Part Of Everyday Life
To that end, DART plans to launch marketing promotions that are focused less on transit and more on passengers' lifestyles. For example, the agency recently wrapped a light-rail train with the Dallas Mavericks logo and now is discussing how it can create a promotion that ties into the basketball team, which in 2011 won the National Basketball Association championship.
VRE considers passengers' lifestyles in its approach to marketing and customer service, as well. The agency has tailored its customer service to appeal to the region's higher-income demographic.
In a 13-month period between 2008 and 2009, VRE raised fares three times — totaling 16 percent — as fuel prices spiked. At the time, Chief Executive Officer Dale Zehner warned the board that ridership likely would dip. Instead, it went up.
"At that time, we were putting in new cars and service, reliability was getting better and on-time performance was getting better, but I didn't think that would carry the ridership," Zehner says. "In reality, that's what's held them."
It was an eye-opener for Zehner, who says the outcome shows that, at least for VRE passengers, quality is more important than price. That said, VRE serves a higher-income group of riders commuting from the Virginia suburbs to Washington, D.C. And, as Zehner has come to realize, you've got to "work the demographic you've got."
"We're talking about a demographic that's more upscale," he says. "They're into high-end restaurants, hotels and retail outlets."
To instill a renewed customer service focus in VRE workers, Zehner a year ago brought in a manager from an upscale hotel to speak with conductors. The manager talked about ways to make a customer feel welcome: Greet everyone you see, learn the names of frequent guests and maintain a spotless facility. Those same standards can be applied in the commuter-rail world, and Zehner has come to expect his employees to adhere to them.
Making A Good Impression
Train crew appearance is important, too. When VRE switched operators about 18 months ago from Amtrak to Keolis, the agency gave conductors four sets of uniforms; VRE and Keolis have the uniforms professionally laundered, so crews have no reason not to have a freshly washed and pressed uniform each day, says Zehner.
VRE crews also work to keep train cleanliness squared away. The exterior of the train has to be "immaculate," he says, and the interior is cleaned every night and again mid-day.
"We've realized you have to be consistent across the board," says Zehner. "We can't have a clean car but a rude clerk, just like you can't walk into a really nice hotel or restaurant and have a person behind the counter all wrinkled and disheveled. It all has to fit together, and we spend lot of time making sure that happens."
The efforts are geared mainly toward maintaining current riders. If those passengers are happy, they'll not only continue using the service, but recommend it to others.
"If someone knows of a friend or colleague who's moving to town, they'll say to look at houses along the VRE line," says Zehner. "But they won't do that if they don't think the service is exceptional."
VRE's customer service efforts have played a role in helping the agency increase ridership despite the recession, Zehner believes. In 2011, the agency carried 4.65 million passengers, a 9 percent increase compared with 2010.
GCRTA noted year-over-year ridership gains in 2011, as well — most notably on the Red Line, which carried half a million riders in December alone, making it the heavy-rail line's highest December ridership since 1988. The gains are due in large part to a multi-year Inner Belt Bridge construction project that's now in full swing. The project calls for building a new bridge over the Cuyahoga River leading into downtown Cleveland. The Red Line runs almost parallel to the construction zone, says GCRTA Media Relations Manager Mary McCahon.
To cash in on the opportunity to attract new riders during the construction — and keep them once it's completed — GCRTA in fall 2011 launched a program through which the agency provides companies with free two-week passes to distribute to employees.
Those who use the service are assigned a personal adviser who plans a route and is available via phone if the rider has any questions. After the two-week period is up, the adviser calls the customer to check in. Of those who have used the program, 25 percent have purchased monthly passes — a retention rate McCahon says is "fantastic."
Personalized customer service is becoming more common these days. Transit riders don't necessarily expect to have an adviser assigned to them á la GCRTA, but they do expect up-to-date information, rapid responses to questions and complaints, and applications that make using public transit more convenient.
About two years ago, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) launched a pilot program to offer real-time bus arrival information on 10 routes using GPS technology. The technology has since been extended to all bus and rail routes, so passengers can use their smartphone to determine exactly when their train will arrive at the station.
"Invariably, when I'm walking around Boston, I see people on their electronic devices saying, ‘Oh, the train is only five minutes away,' and they head to the station," says MBTA General Manager Jonathan Davis. "I think it's made it much more convenient for people who haven't used public transit before."
As of press time, MBTA was on track to post its highest ridership since 2008 (final year-end figures weren't yet available). A falling unemployment rate likely played a large role ("You can't discount what the economy does for public transportation ridership," Davis says), but he also believes efforts such as the real-time arrival information have helped make the agency more customer friendly.
CATS is turning to technology to take some of the guess work out of riding, too. Two years ago, the agency launched a mobile app it created that enables passengers to plan their trips, register a complaint and find the closest rail or bus stop.
"People can see in the palm of their hand where they're supposed to go, how far they're supposed to walk, when the bus or train is coming, and how much it will cost. The unknown factor gets eliminated," says CATS Director of Marketing and Communications Olaf Kinard. "We think the mobile aspect is a catalyst for the trends that will be critical to attracting and keeping riders."
One such trend: Using mobile apps to connect transit services with area retail stores and restaurants. CATS recently began sponsoring community blogs and articles that focus on a particular Charlotte-area business. At the end of the article, there is a paragraph that tells the reader how they can get to the business using a CATS rail or bus route, then lists the agency's web address, where people can download the mobile app to plan their trip.
Social Media Skills
This year, CATS plans to add another feature to its mobile app by introducing a rider loyalty program. Passengers can "check in" at a CATS station — similar to location-based social networking site foursquare — to receive reward points. The agency will offer promotions based on the number of points passengers collect, says Kinard.
CATS' efforts to increase ridership through social media tools will continue to evolve along with the medium itself.
"The medias are becoming so fragmented — it's unchartered waters in every area, so we're constantly trying to find the best way to use them," says Kinard.
Social media outlets also have provided DART officials an opportunity to know their passengers — literally. By connecting with passengers on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, DART communication officials have a name and, in many cases, a face to go along with a rider. And that enables the agency to communicate with customers "as human beings," says DART's Plesko.
In addition to connecting with passengers, some agencies are focusing on how to better connect riders to their services. At LACMTA, service planners are working to better structure the agency's bus service to feed into rail lines. That way, passengers don't have to worry about how they'll get to their final destination if the rail system doesn't take them as close as they would like.
"How we improve our connectivity and integrate the whole network has dramatic impacts on ridership," says Chief Communications Officer Matt Raymond.
LACMTA is employing the strategy to increase ridership on lines where a lot of capacity still is available. For example, the agency in late 2009 opened a Gold Line light-rail extension to the east side of L.A. Ridership has been lower than projected, and agency officials are analyzing ways to boost passenger counts. Since the Gold Line terminates at the outskirts of downtown, LACMTA might add a bus feeder network that would take passengers into the downtown core.
Making The Connection
SFRTA, which operates Tri-Rail commuter-rail service in south Florida, is looking to improve system connectivity, as well, especially for riders who work more than a few blocks away from a station.
"The one reservation people have about using our system is once they get off the train, what do they do?" says SFRTA Public Information Officer Bonnie Arnold.
Tri-Rail has offered free shuttles to popular employment areas for the past several years, and has recently added more routes and refined others to reach more destinations. During the past year, the agency more aggressively marketed the shuttle service by launching a direct-mail campaign targeted at all employers within a half-mile radius of the routes, targeted marketing in business publications and weekly fliers, and a revised website that makes it easier to find shuttle routes.
In 2011, Tri-Rail's weekday ridership was up an average of 9.8 percent per month compared with 2010, says Arnold. The improving economy played a role, but the increased shuttle service awareness helped, too; ridership on some of the shuttle routes was up 100 percent year over year, she says.
Expect transit agencies to continue fostering more connections with their riders, both of the service and personal variety. Executing some of the methods might be a bit complex — conducting consumer studies, developing mobile apps, retraining employees — but the thinking behind it is simple: Increasingly, people want to feel like the dollars they spend are valued and appreciated, whether that be in a retail environment, at a restaurant or for a service rendered.
If transit agencies can continue to win over new and existing passengers with specialized customer service strategies — however one might define it — they will have a ridership base that's less likely to fluctuate with gas prices and the unemployment rate.
"Transit is like a retail business. The business model isn't any different — people pay a price and want a good, reliable service," says CATS' Kinard. "That's what we try to put out there."
Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.