by Phil Marsh

Not enough, too much, or the wrong kind of information

Published: 27th September 2014

But just who are the railways’ real customers?

The passenger watchdog, Passenger Focus’ has released a report on how train operators deal with information when things go wrong. They have stated what many passengers would consider the obvious that “passengers need speedy, accurate, and consistent information to help them feel in control of their travel plans”.

The research does however quantify this statement that only 34% of passengers were satisfied with the way their train company had dealt with delays or cancellations which is why the survey was undertaken.

The research looked at the quality of and how information was provided to passengers when trains are delayed or cancelled. It also looked at the way train companies deal with delays which was found to have the biggest impact on passengers’ dissatisfaction. Scores.

They said;

Anthony Smith, Passenger Focus’s chief executive, said: “Despite improvements, it is clear that many passengers are still dissatisfied with the way the rail industry deals with delays. The Office of Rail Regulation asked us to carry out this research to consider the improvements.

“Passengers need information as quickly as possible – ideally before leaving home. Only 17 per cent knew about the disruption before arriving at the station. Passengers now receive information from a range of sources, so train companies must ensure that staff at stations and on trains are ahead of the information game.

“Passengers need frank and honest messages that paint a realistic picture of the problems as they unfold. For instance, a fallen tree across a railway is just that, not an ‘obstruction’. Passengers told the full reasons for the delay are likely to be less frustrated than those who are not.

“Passengers need train company staff to take ownership of the situation when delays occur. They should walk through trains to reassure passengers by apologising in person, answering questions and providing information about any compensation due.”

The tone of announcements needs to signal that the train company is ‘on the passengers’ side’ and can be as important as the content of the messages. If handled well, this can enhance passengers’ trust in train companies. analysis

The UK rail information systems are updated in real time despite the National Rail website feeding from officially operated data streams, it often shows incorrect information. Network Rail initially resisted the Office of the Rail Regulator (ORR) when it was asked to make train running information public. As a result of the real-time data being made available, several new websites have sprung up offering detailed information on how the network is performing.

So far as the comment that only 17% of passengers knew about disruption beforehand, this needs quantifying as disruption can and does occur without warning. So if your journey to the station from home or work is 10 or 15 minutes, things can, and do change in this timeframe.

The best website to check with is rather than national rail which often displays incorrect information.

Social media

Social media is increasingly used to voice opinions about delays but one person being five minutes late, irate and tweeting may not matter to many others who remain silent. But use of twitter and facebook by passengers while on delayed trains who know where they are and what has been said can be useful monitoring tools. But you have to know where to look and who to follow.

More franchises are issuing mobile devices to staff so they know the latest operational situation allowing them to inform passengers of what is happening. But many passengers will not have fast internet access on the move although the number that have will obviously increase as time goes on. Growing Wi Fi facilities at stations will help remedy this but there is still a large proportion of non-internet users to consider.

Announcements should, and are made from local stations but this is obviously impossible if they are unstaffed. In this case any announcement will be made from another location, maybe many miles away and trains may be passing through the station drowning out any announcement. Station neighbours often complain about noise nuisance despite moving there after it was built!

So how about posters? These take time to make and handwritten ones may be frowned on as not being ‘corporate’ and in reality, very few people read posters because they mainly carry many statutory notices of little interest to anyone.

Information screens are also used, but too often in times of delays, they carry on scrolling through several pages of information which is infuriating when delay information is required instantly especially if last minute platform alterations are likely.

Who is the real customer?

Staff will be concentrating on getting the service back to normal as delays trigger penalty fines payable by the company causing the delay. These fines are meant to compensate passengers for their inconvenience but train companies often take this payment from 3rd parties as profit.

Franchised train companies often consider that their real customer is the Department for Transport (DfT) who they sign franchise agreements with. The DfT can also fine franchise operators for poor performance measured against their franchise agreement. The train companies always, despite denying this, will always look to their political paymasters first to protect their long-term interests.

So what is the best medium to convey the latest train running information, Posters, announcements or social media? Everyone will have their own preference!

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