Why are private delivery firms so terrible?

Don't get excited. Image: Getty.

This article was originally published on our sisters site, the New Statesman, back in 2013: some correspondents have claimed that the technology at some companies has since moved on. 

But at others, it very clearly hasn't, and tis the season where to topic becomes suddenly, frustratingly relevant once again. So...

Last summer, a friend living in Palestine wanted to send us a wedding present. She placed an order on a florist’s website, the florist gave the flowers to a private delivery firm, the delivery firm gave them to a driver, and the driver got them as far as our front door.

No one was in. So he put them back in his van and took them back to the depot, where they promptly died. Three days later, after waiting in specially, I took delivery of a large and expensive box of compost. Thanks to the magic of the internet, it is now possible to send flowers in London all the way from Gaza, yet delivery companies remain flummoxed by the impenetrable barrier of a locked front door.

Earlier this year, a different delivery firm was bringing me a new phone and, not wanting to go through this rigmarole again, I asked for it to be delivered to my office. It wasn’t. At the appointed hour, the whizzy online tracking service unilaterally decided I’d rejected the delivery. That evening found me in a windswept industrial estate car park wearing a high visibility jacket, attempting to explain that the reason I didn’t have a utility bill proving I lived at the delivery address was because I don’t live in my office.

“Don’t antagonise them,” whispered the man in the queue behind me. He was clearly an old hand: he’d brought his own high-visibility jacket.

With an estimated 10 per cent of Britain’s retail spending now spent online, delivery firms like Yodel, CityLink and DPD are playing an increasingly prominent role in our lives. And yet they are, as MoneySavingExpert’s Martin Lewis succinctly described them recently, “crap”. Everyone has a story: of parcels left in bins or thrown over walls, or automated phone lines that cheerfully tell you your package has already been delivered when it quite obviously hasn’t.

The public irritation seemed to peak over Christmas, when the papers were festooned with stories of presents going missing or arriving sometime around 29 December. When one firm failed to deliver to Labour’s consumer affairs spokesman Ian Murray, he was told it was because his Edinburgh constituency office didn’t actually exist. Later, the firm issued a clarification, blaming the fact that “Scotland isn’t part of the UK”.

It’s hard to think of another industry where you can so regularly fail to provide the service you’re contracted for. Taxi drivers don’t drop you three miles from your destination. Any restaurant that intermittently announced that the chef couldn’t find the ingredients, so you’ll have to cook the meal yourself, wouldn’t last five minutes. Yet private delivery firms, apparently, thrive.

The firms in question maintain that the vast majority of deliveries are, in fact, successful. Yodel says it delivers 92 per cent of its parcels first time. DPD goes further, claiming that the success rate for parcels delivered using its “Predict” service – the online tracking thingammy – is 97 per cent.

It’s possible a sort of confirmation bias is at work here: that we forget the nine deliveries that worked perfectly, while remembering the one that ruined our day. More likely, though, the figures are misleading. When a parcel is stuffed inside a wheelie bin, or chucked unceremoniously over a back fence, it has, as far as the driver is concerned, been delivered. The same can be said of deliveries expected by 24 December that turn up sometime in mid-February. As long as it’s a first attempt, that’s a success. Big tick. Job done.

So, let’s accept the premise that delivery firms are, quite often, not very good at actually delivering stuff. The obvious question is why.

One answer is simply that we’re expecting too much. When a driver knocks at an empty house, they have the choice of leaving a parcel somewhere out of sight, where it might get damaged or nicked; or of taking it back to the depot, which is a pain for all concerned. Either option will make a lot of people unhappy quite a lot of the time, and result in angry front page stories in the papers. The poor driver can’t win.

This is true, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t explain those incidents in which the firm claims a package has been rejected, without making any attempt at delivering. Nor does it explain the vexingly common phenomenon in which drivers post “sorry you were out” notes through letterboxes, without actually bothering to check. More than one person tells me they’ve confronted a driver as he was doing this: in each case, he rather sheepishly confessed he didn’t actually have their parcel at all.

In fact, there might be a structural reason why delivery firms are so often rubbish:  they’re accountable to the wrong people. When you order something online, you don’t pick who delivers it, the retailer does. As a result, you can’t boycott the delivery firm; neither are they the ones liable to compensate you if they screw up. There’s not enough payback for failure.

To make matters worse, many of these firms rely on self-employed drivers (this is particularly so at peak times such as Christmas, but seems to be true all year round). These guys are expected to do something like 100 drops a day, and are paid by the delivery. Leave aside the fact they’re even less accountable to you than their employer is, and consider how this’ll influence their behaviour. They have every incentive to prioritise easy deliveries, and no incentive whatever to care about you. If you’re slow to the door; if it’s difficult to park; if they forget to collect your parcel altogether, then that’s just too bad.

Would boycotting online retailers who use these firms change any of this? Eventually, perhaps. But even if the public were willing to give up its home shopping addiction, the lack of transparency regarding which delivery firms a retailer uses would rather blunt the attack.

The bottom line is that delivering parcels is an expensive game. You need a national network of depots and drivers and, ideally, a call centre (all of which might make one ask if we weren’t better off with a single national Post Office). The business is seasonal; the overheads are high. These are not obviously lucrative firms. It’s just possible that the service we get is the one we’re willing to pay for.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.