Public Transit: The Blueprint for Horrific Customer Service

Brian Cantor

A horrible weekend experience with NJ Transit made something resoundingly clear: if companies like USAA and Amazon epitomize customer experience greatness, the public transit sector depicts how not to serve your customers.

Long an issue for me, my frustration with the public transit experience came to a boil this weekend, as I scrambled (and actually failed) to make a train home to visit my family.

Having arrived at Hoboken Station a few minutes prior to my 12:25 departure, I admittedly had little room for error if I wanted to make the train, which only runs once every two hours even though it crosses through a number of popular suburban New Jersey stops (really?). And the fault of that time crunch purely rests on my own shoulders. I know that.

But I still never expected the station’s own employees and systems to be responsible for fueling the error.

As I hastily purchased my ticket from the automated machine, I had my eyes affixed to the bulletin board of departures, which explains the tracks from which the various trains depart. With just a few minutes to go, the 12:25 departure was conspicuously—and shockingly—absent from the "big board." Of all the departures to omit, why omit the most imminent one, for which proper direction is absolutely essential for making the train on time?

I frantically ran up and down the row of tracks, eventually finding one in the far back that looked like it might be the 12:25 departure. I noted my destination to the gate attendant (the only one who seemed to be working at the entire station), citing the transfer point I believed to be the case, and asked if this was the correct train for reaching the destination. She shrugged it off saying, "We don’t run that destination on weekends."

I expressed my certainty that the train did run and that I could definitely reach my destination with one of the trains leaving at 12:25 (but noted that I might have been wrong about the transfer point), and she again looked at me with arrogant bewilderment, certain that I was wrong (but of course, unwilling to actually explain why I might be confused and what my options were for reaching the destination).

I quickly pulled out my phone and showed her the schedule, pointing out the 12:25 train and asking how I could get to it, but her utter disregard for the situation created more delay. "Sir, I have no idea what you’re showing me…why is your phone out?"


After eventually clarifying what I was identifying, I noticed the train behind her was making its way out of the station. Her response, "Oh, yeah, this one…it’s the train that’s leaving right now. But this doesn’t go through the transfer you mentioned—that one leaves at 2:08." And she walked back towards her office, not the least bit apologetic about causing me to miss the train home nor proactive in helping me find an alternative route that would avoid delaying me another two hours.

The words befitting her attitude are not appropriate for

Let’s look at some of the errors in the customer experience presented by NJ Transit.

  • Navigability. For some ridiculous reason, many rail lines still have not figured out how to confirm the departure track for customers with sufficient prior notice (or at least on the ticket, as airlines routinely do). But if the public transit organizations are going to ignore that obvious marketplace need, they should at least provide ample direction for travelers once they reach the station. People do rush to make trains; how is forcing them to run around aimlessly at the potential expense of making their departure customer-centric?
  • Clarity of service/good offered. Granted, with many trains serving upwards of 15 stops between departure point and destination, it is impractical for all "destinations" to be listed on the "big board." Given that, the organizations should at least assure there is consistency between how the train is portrayed on the schedule and tickets and how it is portrayed at the station. When I later returned to the station for my 2:08 train—sufficiently early this time—I was still momentarily confused by the messaging on the departure sign. It listed a "destination" for my train (perhaps an ultimate "end" destination) that neither appeared on my ticket nor the official schedule. Why create that confusion?
  • Staff knowledge. It is not unreasonable (it is, in fact, beyond reasonable) to expect attendants to know the routes of the departing trains. The idea that the agent could not confirm that the train departing from the very gate she was overseeing was the one I wanted is mind-boggling and extremely offensive to someone who is paying for quality service. And even though my knowledge of the transfer point was slightly off, keep in mind that I came to her with far more clarity than I should need (a destination AND the time of departure). As a paying customer, I should be able to go up and ask, "So, when and from where does the next train to ___ leave?" and get an immediate, accurate, rock-solid answer.
  • Staff courtesy/friendliness. At no point in my experience did I feel like the agent cared about my success in making the train on time. At no point in my experience did I feel like the agent felt remotely sorry about the fact that I did not make the train on time. Customer service is about fighting to make the customer’s experience as wonderful as possible. Staff members should attach themselves to customer sentiment; when something goes wrong and/or upsets them, the agents, too, should feel upset and do everything in their power to make it right. This woman not only facilitated the failure—she did nothing to rectify the situation.
  • Staff. If there is going to be only one woman directing all passengers (and, frankly, there should be many more), she needs to be far more accessible. Standing at a train in the very back of the station and then returning to her office after rudely dismissing a customer does not help anyone.

The central flaw in the NJ Transit customer experience, and one that is all too common within public transit, is an utter disregard for the role transportation plays in the lives of customers.

A text exchange with a close friend about my horrible weekend experience yielded the following response, which perfectly articulates the flawed logic inherent to public transit organizations and employees.

"I hate the nonchalance of subway/train schedules and employees. People really depend on [these options], and [they act] as if we can just use all our other transportation options if [something] doesn’t work out right."

No matter the importance, all organizations and employees should stand behind their services and assure everything operates smoothly, intuitively and customer-centrically. And that need should be compounded for public transit, for even the slightest margin of error can have drastic consequences for travelers. Even if the attendants do not feel inclined to care about the abstract concept of scheduling, how can they downplay the importance when the result can be missing an interview for one’s dream job or showing up late for and thus ruining a date with one’s dream girl? The human side of public transit should be appalled by how the process-driven business side approaches customer service.

And this goes beyond one instance of a guy missing his train due to a poorly-executed NJ Transit station in Hoboken. It includes things like the NY/NJ PATH occasionally deviating from its formal schedule by a few minutes (in either direction) with no explanation or make-good. It includes the dreaded, nonchalant "we’re being held up by a dispatcher" announcement, which almost never includes an explanation, an ETA or a detailed instruction on how one can still reach his destination or transfer train on time (or sympathy, a heartfelt apology and/or a make-good when that goal will absolutely not be achieved). It includes a laundry list of nightmare examples (A friend recently noted that after witnessing a fight break out on the platform at the train station in Trenton, NJ, he informed an attendant of the situation. Her response: "Security is that way." Really.).

Of course things go wrong. Things like accidents, inclement weather and power outages affect travelers no matter the means of transportation, and it is unrealistic to expect perfection from public transportation.

It is, however, very realistic to expect public transit businesses and staff members to do everything in their power to create the best possible customer experience. When the missed appointments and errors can be averted with better scheduling, better signage, better transparency and better staff training, those who succumb to these problems are slapping their customers in the face.

For as simple as it is, the "Golden Rule" must absolutely drive those who operate critical businesses like public transportation. They can’t look at train and bus schedules as mere lists of arrivals and departures. They have to see their work as the difference between making and missing an important meeting, as the difference between reaching one’s family in time for an important meal or blowing the chance to spend time with loved ones.

Of course some of the burden for my weekend story falls on my shoulders—if I had gotten there fifteen minutes earlier, I likely would have made the correct train regardless of the broken system.

But the fact remains that had the system and employees been doing what they were supposed to be doing, I would have been sufficiently early. I would have made the train with a minute or two to spare.

And if the only "solution" NJ Transit will realistically be able to offer is a train two hours later, it should far more greatly recognize the importance of getting everything right the first time.

Because something tells me the attendant who gave me the obnoxious, rude, dismissive attitude about the situation would have had a different tune had she been in my shoes.