Disruption communications – in need of improvement!

Estimated time to read this article: 4 minutes

Introduction

Much attention has been drawn in the media this past week to the passengers self-evacuating from Southeastern services near Lewisham following snow-related issues drawing power from the third rail. One of the primary causes for this appears to be the lack of information from Southeastern on-board stranded services.

The issue of getting reliable, accurate, consistent information to passengers during disruption has been an issue for as long as I can remember. Whilst the rise of social media (in particular Twitter) has given train operating companies one mechanism for communicating easily en-masse with travellers, not everyone is actively on Twitter and it’s not ideal to fill up a feed with train-specific messages in any case, when it’s far more suited to offering more general information on disruption plans. Also, not every unplanned disruption occurs where there’s a good phone signal or onboard WiFi connection!

As such, frequent and accurate on board information is key during major disruption. This is easier when there’s a guard on board, but even on driver-only services (such as those in the aforementioned Lewisham incident), this is something that is crucial to get right – if passengers are regularly updated, they will (generally) have far more tolerance for delays on a crowded train & a self-evacuation is far less likely. In this article, I’d like to explore a couple of key ways that this can – and should – be done.

So, what can be done?

One model I think it would be good to follow regarding disruption communication is that of London Underground. Drivers are expected to inform passengers of the basic reason for the delay (e.g. a red signal) within 30 seconds of a train becoming stationary, then provide regular updates following this – even if just to say the issue is still being investigated. Lines are also interlinked – auto-announcements on newer trains will inform passengers of delays on connecting lines well in advance where possible, so alternative routes can be planned. For example, if there’s disruption on the Bakerloo line in the morning peak, passengers on the southbound Metropolitan line will be informed prior to arrival at Finchley Road so they can connect to the Jubilee as an alternative, reducing pressure on the platforms at Baker Street.

This model could, even in our franchised railway, easily also be applied on London suburban services. Drivers on driver-only routes should be encouraged to offer an initial reassurance whenever a service is stationary out-of-course, even if just at a red signal, within a minute or so (I appreciate that in some cases where other services need to be stopped for safety reasons – for example if a level crossing fault is noticed – contacting the signaller, rather than communicating with those onboard, is the priority – but in these cases drivers should update customers as soon as is feasibly possible), and then offer regular updates, following regular communications with the signaller and/or their TOC’s control staff.

Also just want to note here that this also assumes TOC control staff have effective ways of quickly communicating with drivers – so they can, in turn, relay plans to customers in events like this without every driver having to contact them individually. Generally speaking, however, onboard staff already have company-issued mobile devices for this reason (obviously drivers can’t look at these whilst moving).

Similarly regarding intelligent announcements of disruption on connecting routes – the full-colour displays (as pictured above) on Thameslink’s services operated by new Class 700 units go some way towards this by displaying the TfL service indicator on approach to major interchange stations, but even here there’s work to be done – for example, during a recent partial closure of the Gatwick – Reading line, no information regarding this was displayed or announced onboard Thameslink services approaching the airport, unless a driver announced this of their own initiative.

Ideally all of this would link into station displays – again, much like the TfL service indicators, in my view there should be similar displays showing the status of key connecting services. Crucially this information should be written into franchise agreements, and display of this information should be consistent regardless of whether these are run by the same operator that operates the train/station’s information display. It could also show information such as ticket acceptance on alternative routes. The display needn’t be complex either and could be incorporated into existing information displays. In my Reading – Gatwick example above, the displays at my local station, Bedford, could display something as simple as:

Bedford – Brighton: Good service on this route.

Bedford – Bletchley: Good service on this route.

Interchange Information: Gatwick to Reading line closed from Station 1 to Station 2. Good service on other connecting routes. If travelling to stations between Station 2 and Reading, please travel via GWR from Paddington, tickets will be accepted. London Underground connections to Paddington available at St Pancras International and Farringdon.

Note the information is clear, to the point, and all information is available at a glance. You could also have this rotating through the information screens on older rolling stock between station calls, without having to wait too long. Passengers will usually know the calling points/next station of their service, which is what currently displays on a lot of rolling stock, so this real-time information would be far more beneficial.

Of course, I acknowledge that the technical implementation of a solution this will take time, and there’s a certain urgency to do something about the disruption communication, especially on-train, as whilst we’re unlikely to get snow/ice of that severity again for another few months now, other events ranging from train failures to power lines being pulled down to trespassers on the line happen across the network on a day-to-day basis, so it’s crucial we get the on-train communication basics right, and fast. At its most basic level, this just comes down to the regular communication I describe above between onboard staff, be it guard or driver, and passengers, and until it can enshrined in franchise agreements (or perhaps via an agreement with Rail Delivery Group), Train Operating Companies should make every effort to improve training on disruption communication, to ensure the safety of everyone.

What do you think?

Would be interested to read your thoughts and suggestions on how disruption information on-train and at stations could be improved – what do you think TOCs should be doing? Anything I’ve missed? As always, be great to hear your views in the comments below.

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