Early last December, 16-year-old Adam Greenwood took a call of nature on a train from London to Glasgow, only to find that his chosen public convenience lacked toilet paper.
He issued a call for help on Twitter. Within minutes, Virgin Trains’ social media team had alerted train staff and his predicament was eased with a fresh roll.
The story went viral, aided by a quote from a Virgin Trains spokesman stating: ‘We recognise that we’re all human, and if we can brighten a customer’s journey and be a little cheeky along the way, all the better.’
But fast forward a few weeks later and there was a distinct points failure when it came to communications with frustrated passengers left waiting for hours at London’s King’s Cross, Finsbury Park and Paddington stations after Christmas, when dozens of trains were cancelled due to over-running engineering works.
Lindesay Irvine, a journalist travelling on a ‘dangerously overcrowded train’ from Bristol to London, told London’s Evening Standard that train operator First Great Western had provided ‘no information and no apology’. ‘It’s unacceptable,’ he fumed.
Passengers disrupted by the fire in the Channel Tunnel last month expressed similar sentiments. ‘Nobody is saying anything and they aren’t telling people their rights,’ complained Christine Hocking from Dorset, who had booked on a Eurostar service from St Pancras to Paris.
‘They are supposed to give us information,’ she told the Daily Mail. ‘It’s out of their hands but they don’t seem to know what’s going on.’
It’s fair to say that the column inches devoted to the Christmas incidents were boosted by a sparse news agenda.
Nothing new in this
However, commuters, rail holidaymakers and transport experts say they have seen it all before. So why are Britain’s rail companies generally so poor at communicating with passengers and other stakeholders?
‘Railway communications have always been poor,’ answers Roger Ford, industry and business editor of the rail trade publication Modern Railways.
‘It’s a combination of culture and technology. The type of people who work on the railways are typically not the best at communications. And while rail operators nowadays have huge amounts of information, getting it to the people on the platform is a problem.
‘The situation now is that, with an app called realtimetrains, passengers can now know more about what’s happening than the train and station staff. It’s also managerial, I think, because a lot of the railway now runs automatically with people doing their jobs on the platforms and in the ticket offices.
‘But when it all goes wrong, you need a sergeant major or lieutenant. If you look at the TV footage from Finsbury Park, there were very, very few people there in high-visibility jackets passing on information to passengers.’
Toby Nicol, the former director of corporate communications at easyJet and the World Travel and Tourism Council, who now runs consultancy Covent Garden Communications, agrees. ‘I’ve always been staggered by how badly the rail industry communicates,’ he says. ‘I think the main reason that they have such difficulty communicating in the event of disruption is that generally they are operationally driven, which is an old British Rail mentality.
‘Almost everybody, with the possible exception of Virgin Trains, has got a mentality of Keep your head down and keep your mouth shut. They just don’t say anything. Rather than admit that they don’t know the answer to something and say that they will let people know when they do, they just go to ground and adopt an operational perspective, rather than a customer perspective.
‘The problem is that they often don’t know, but in the absence of information they say nothing and are surprised when people get angry.’
Need to reform the structure
Structural reasons for this communications failure are offered by some communicators. Paul Charles, a former head of communications for Eurostar who is now chief executive of travel and transport consultancy Perowne Charles Communications, believes that communications in the UK rail industry are ‘fundamentally dysfunctional’.
‘The problem over Christmas was another instance of a messy communications approach, partly because of the lack of communications between Network Rail and train operators,’ he says. ‘This is the problem that we have in the UK. Travellers should be hearing from their train operators, rather than from Network Rail, which does not have the confidence of passengers.
‘The communications structure on UK railways is not at all fit for purpose. It’s not consumer-friendly enough when it comes to Network Rail because it is a business-to-business company, not a consumer operator of train travel.’
Nicol adds that, despite rail privatisation, the poor communications culture they inherited from British Rail remains intact because the nation’s railways have not had to compete with new thinking from sharp new operators from outside the nation’s traditional transport industry.
‘When I was at easyJet, we never missed an opportunity to comment on anything at all,’ he says. ‘That was a very different approach to that of the traditional airlines and the same is true of traditional British train operators. Generally, you don’t have companies there that are opinionated, mouthy and recognise that, if you want to get good PR in the good times, you have to front up and accept that there will be bad PR in the bad times.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Britain’s railway communicators disagree. Kevin Groves, head of media at Network Rail, says there were different circumstances at King’s Cross, where the organisation had some warning of the work overrun, from those at Paddington, where it had none.
At King’s Cross, he says: ‘We let a lot of passengers down and we apologise unreservedly.’ At Paddington, he says that because of a ‘moving feast of reassurances of completion’ from contractors, it was ‘all but impossible’ to warn passengers of delays or advise them of when they could expect the railway to reopen and start running services again.
‘This is, and was, clearly unacceptable,’ he adds. As for whether there’s a problem with communications generally in the rail industry, he says: ‘Passenger information during disruption is a critical thing and the industry recognises this and recognises that it hasn’t yet got it right.’
Recognising the problem
This issue, he says, is currently being looked at by a working group led by The Rail Delivery Group, the trade body that represents Network Rail and train operators. Dan Panes, head of communications at First Great Western, adds: ‘From a media communications perspective and a passenger communications perspective, I actually think that Network Rail did pretty well.
‘They got out there and outlined the changes really pretty early on. Where the issue came down was that operationally it didn’t work and, once something isn’t working operationally, there’s naturally a focus on the communications aspect of it.’
Panes says First Great Western’s own effort to improve communications by introducing 50 ‘non-operational customer ambassadors’ at key stations to engage with passengers has had a ‘huge impact’.
He also believes that passengers and the media alike do not understand the structure of the UK rail industry and how responsibility is split between infrastructure provider Network Rail, individual train operating companies, rolling stock companies and firms doing outsourced maintenance work.
‘As an industry, we have to get better at connecting with our passengers, decision-makers and stakeholders across the UK,’ he adds. ‘There are some very good examples in the industry of where we do this well, but equally other areas where we might be challenged. But it’s really difficult to generalise. We’re talking about 20 to 30 different train operators here. I wouldn’t agree that there is a communications problem that’s endemic.
‘It’s a bit like asking Can the high street communicate better? There are lots of very good businesses there. Some do a very good job. Some might need a bit more work.’
Deborah Lewis, The Rail Delivery Group’s media and communications manager, is even more noncommittal, saying it’s difficult to comment on communications in the industry as a whole, since it spans such a wide range of companies and operations.
At Transport For London (TfL), however, Vernon Everitt, managing director for customer experience, marketing and communications, has prioritised a complete overhaul of the way the organisation communicates.
TfL now organises itself around the message of Every journey matters with a ‘clear purpose to keep London working and growing and make life in London better’.
‘We’re a customer service business that happens to do transport,’ says Everitt. ‘We recognise that while technological advances are important and that we should take advantage of them, transport remains a people-based business with our staff at the centre of it.
‘Transport is not an end in itself. Our customers want safe and reliable services, value for money and progress and innovation. We put in an enormous amount of effort because we know that’s what matters to customers. In the event of disruption, what they really need is high-quality, real-time information so they can make different choices.’
In support of this, TfL opened its real-time information systems to developers, who put the times of its services on more than 350 independent apps.
The organisation also encourages its staff to ‘bring their personalities to work’ to make its passenger communications ‘clear, timely and human’.
Tube drivers and station staff are encouraged to make announcements in their own styles, while some stations have ‘thoughts for the day’ on whiteboards.
Its communications technology, meanwhile, includes a 4.5 million-strong database of TfL users, largely provided by the organisation’s Oyster card payment system.
Station staff are provided with mini iPads so they can help customers, while TfL’s website gets between 11 and 12 million unique users a month and the organisation is followed by nearly two million people on Twitter and Facebook.
Some of these measures are now being taken up by overland rail providers too. ‘Communication via electronic mediums has come on enormously and this is actually used very effectively,’ states Groves.
‘It’s the traditional methods of communication, through station announcements, information screens on stations and word of mouth by staff that has to be improved much further.’
Ford also accepts that there is some positive news. ‘Britain’s train operators are years ahead of other transport industries in using social media, Twitter in particular,’ he says.
Sixteen-year-olds caught with their trousers down on British trains can attest to that. As for everyone else, decent communications on Britain’s railways remains a waiting game. Mind the gap.