In the ‘good old days’ before the internet, passengers might reasonably have been expected to telephone their local British Rail station to enquire if a train was running, such as during times of disruption or bad weather (if they could get through!).
More often than not, they would make their journey to the station only to find a hastily placed A-frame with posters in it, or a blackboard with scribbled-on service information: “NO LONDON TRAINS TODAY” or perhaps just the supremely unhelpful “NO SERVICE”.
In 2015, that sort of scarcity of information provision is rare, and certainly wouldn’t be considered acceptable by most train operating companies.
While members of the public vary in their use of social media (some prefer Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends, others are addicted to Twitter), Britain’s railway companies have found that it can prove very useful for specific occasions - to the frustration of some, by circumnavigating traditional railway industry sources such as platform and station information screens.
Twitter is almost a platform - no pun intended - specifically designed for train companies, as a way of getting precise information broadcast quickly in fewer than 140 characters.
The medium has also been around long enough for it to be studied in some depth, resulting in some published research by Passenger Focus (now Transport Focus) in conjunction with Abellio back in June 2012.
Three years on, and social media is now intensively and extensively used. Train operators’ communications teams not
only have their own staff dedicated to answering Tweets, they even contract out the answering of enquiries to third party contractors such as Serco.
First Great Western has been using Twitter since 2011 - “a very useful channel for us to share service updates with a large number of passengers”, according to Social Media Manager Jo Coverley, offering one-on-one assistance to passengers navigating their way through delays and cancellations.
“Our Social Media and Control teams work closely together to make sure we can share the most up-to-date message, as soon as we have it,” she says.
“We are also able to share information on ticket acceptances and alternative travel arrangements, which helps to free up station colleagues.”
After any major disruption, Coverley’s team completes a full social media review of comments received from passengers.
“We break these reviews down into common issues and themes, and have action groups set up who look at how we can tackle these to help us improve the customer experience.”
Coverley adds that a number of FGW passengers now rely on Twitter for service updates and information, not only during periods of disruption but at all points of their journey.
But she is adamant that Twitter does not completely replace traditional methods such as information screens at stations: “We are using the information we get from customers on Twitter to improve information at stations and on trains, as the real-time customer insight we get from these channels is extremely valuable.”
Aware of this new resource, senior railway leaders are also getting in on the act, keen to have their own eye on what passengers are saying in real time. FGW Managing Director Mark Hopwood (@hopwood_mark), Northern Rail MD Alex Hynes (@AlexHynes) and Virgin Trains East Coast MD David Horne (@DavidHorne) are among the most enthusiastic and high-profile railway industry users of Twitter.
Says Hynes: “We listen to customers, engage with them, and then act!” Hynes adds that Northern Rail does the same with its own staff through Facebook - a form of internal social media and a way of engaging with employees, which is arguably just as important.
However, there is a degree of scepticism as to whether operators are using social media effectively.
“TOCs are harnessing social media, but often seem to use it to suit themselves and not passengers,” says Campaign for Better Transport Public Transport Campaigner Martin Abrams.
“There needs to be more of a look at how it’s used when things do go wrong, for example. Information is provided, but in 2015 why is there not a universal way of claiming for a refund using your smartphone and Twitter?
“Apparently on FGW you can claim a refund solely using Twitter and by snapping a photo of your tickets and sending a Direct Message to the social media team with your details.”
Abrams adds that if it is clear that all TOCs allowed passengers to do the same, “then it would ultimately improve trust”.
Trust is undoubtedly an area where many TOCs need to do better, in building better relationships with customers. As Passenger Focus research in 2014 identified (Passengers’ Relationships with the Rail Industry): “Passengers need to feel train companies are on their side.”
An extreme example of where this trust can be seen to have broken down is in so-called internet ‘trolls’. But what does that mean for those who work on a train company’s Twitter operation? Are they a hindrance or merely an annoyance?
The ‘troll’ - modern slang for someone who essentially sets out to make inflammatory, abusive or offensive remarks online - can distract from the essential task of providing accurate and timely information (and not least cause personal offence to a TOC’s Twitter team). Dealing with these individuals effectively can be seen as a mark of effective customer service, ensuring that other (more reasonable) people receive the information they seek about their train service.
“Of course, social media does pose its challenges, and we do have to deal with more difficult customers from time to time,” says Coverley. “However, we always try to wear their shoes and empathise with the situation they are in. If we feel that a follower contacts us so much that it affects our ability to help other customers, or that someone is becoming increasingly abusive, bullying or is making personal comments about our colleagues, then we will consider blocking their account.
“We don’t like to do this, though, and it’s important to note that in four years we have only blocked 25 people out of our 177,000 followers.”
With the benefits of social media clearly outweighing the negatives, and bearing in mind the speed at which information can be passed on via both Twitter and Facebook, there is every reason to believe that train companies will continue to use social media as an essential item in their communications toolbox.
- This feature was published in RAIL 778 on July 8 2015