The all-too-familiar commuter experience: the train slows to a halt on the line; there is a long wait for the announcement over the tannoy; and when the information does come it does not provide the pertinent data about when you might actually get home.
That was my experience yesterday following an ‘incident’ at Rochester Station in Kent.
Nowadays, the awkward and apologetic announcement is followed by the sounds of people calling relatives and checking timetables and Twitter on their phones.
My Train Operating Company does have a Twitter account, and it does make an effort to report delays and engage with passengers – although for many passengers it is simply a vent for frustration and abuse.
One of the problems with Twitter, though, is an immediate mode of communication assumes that response will be immediate and for all service users. And that isn’t plausible.
And while one account may be “official”, it isn’t on-the-scene and it is restricted in what it can say and how it can say it. So, before Southeastern could properly inform their customers about what was going on, we had information about the cause from elsewhere.
And a photo.
- from the person who raised the alarm
- about the smell of the smoke
- about the exact service code, departure station, and train type
- from those evacuated from the station
These are brilliant examples of crowdsourcing, but when you can get all this at your seat, the official information channels, be they Twitter or the PA system, risk suffering reputational damage if they are either slower or less illuminating. Of course, not all tweeters will see or indeed understand the whole perspective of an incident (an incident? Surely a fire is a fire?) and there is good reason to check facts. But if rail operators – indeed all firms – embrace the new technologies they must ensure they live up to the expectations they create.
The same can be seen on the roads. While there are, thankfully, many fewer people tweeting about real-time traffic information than on rail, there are other potentially useful sources that keep road users informed. Using smartphones to collect probe data about speed on the network, variable message signs, sat-nav devices which modify routes to suit conditions, all these can be a great help to the driver.
But how many drivers go past the “GRITTING IN PROGRESS” VMS signs, having not seen a gritter for miles and think it must be someone at the Highways Agency having a joke?
Having technologies to get information to travellers quickly and to improve customer service is, sadly, only the start of it. Information needs to be quick, clear and frank. There isn’t much point if it comes late. Furthermore, it damages public faith in future provision of information if it either “cries wolf” or won’t say what we all know to be the case. Getting the balance right between accuracy and speed isn’t easy, but that’s no reason not to try.