GTR – a case study on how not to do passenger communications

Estimated time to read this article: 4 minutes

I’ve been contemplating whether to write this post for some time, even before the RailPlan 2020 timetable changes in May which, unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last 3 weeks, you’ll notice haven’t exactly gone to plan.

Wherever the fault lies for the underlying issues (and there are many different views on this – mine are quite nicely summed up by Nigel Harris in the Comment section within the latest issue of RAIL magazine that there are several parties here who need to take their share of the responsibility but a fairly sizeable part lies with the Department for Transport) there’s one area, that for me, lies entirely within the realm of the train operator, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), and this is their communications with the travelling public.

The case study – let’s go back to last Thursday…

The ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ for me on publishing this article was on Thursday night last week. I’d been into London for the evening (to one of the London Transport Museum’s excellent Late Debates events – featuring a dancing Tesla!) and – as the Piccadilly line was having issues and I wasn’t in a hugely mad rush to get home – I thought I’d go via Charing Cross & London Bridge to get back to Bedford. A quick check of the National Rail app showed the 2308 to Bedford as running, and it had left Brighton, at that point only a few minutes late (so I knew it was unlikely to be cancelled entirely). It got held up south of London and ended up behind a stopping Victoria service, so was about 20 minutes late at East Croydon. But then, without warning (shortly after the train reached Norwood Junction) the service suddenly was shown as Cancelled. No explanation or advice on alternatives from staff over the PA either.

My issue in the above scenario was twofold, firstly the lack of available information at the station, but also (in my view more importantly) why this wasn’t known about prior to departure from East Croydon. Thameslink ignored my request for comment on Twitter and when I followed it up the following day, I got this generic response:

(Whilst it has no importance in the scheme of things, the observant amongst you may notice I got the time of the East Midlands service wrong by two minutes, it left at 23:10…)

I later found out that on Thursday night, they’d Tweeted another person who’d enquired about the same train blaming the issue on engineering works – this is almost certainly not the case, as there were no issues with Southern services going East Croydon – London Bridge!

Far more likely is that this was part of the ongoing issues with the availability of drivers who sign the London Bridge route, or a pilot driver to accompany a driver still learning it

So that’s my experience – more generally, what are the issues with GTR’s current communication strategy?

My experience above is far from a one-off, this is just one example of where the Social Media team – and other passenger-facing staff – are either unwilling, unable, or being directed by management not to go into the underlying reasons for delays. Whichever of these it is (I have my own views here….), this needs sorting as a matter of priority. It is entirely unacceptable that customers are not able to get accurate, timely information when travelling – especially when platform information screens for Thameslink services at core stations (St Pancras to London Bridge inclusive) are controlled centrally by GTR, even at Network Rail-managed London Bridge.

Similarly unacceptable is their communication regarding timetabling in terms of what’s running just a day ahead. At the moment, there is no way of knowing which services will run on any given day – it’s very much a ‘turn-up-and-hope’ service (in some cases, cancellations aren’t put into passenger information systems until just before the planned departure time from the origin station). Whilst I do have some sympathy here that driver training & rostering – the main issue as to why the timetable in its current form isn’t working – is a complex task, not knowing just 24 hours in advance what can and can’t run – or perhaps the Control team do but management won’t allow this information to be released publicly – makes it almost impossible for passengers to plan ahead.

Their Social Media staff also need comprehensive, accurate training on fares and ticketing issues, something that – going by their answers – they don’t receive at present. (one example of this is the lack of Gatwick Express ticket acceptance during Southern disruption that they frequently mention wheras the reality is that a large number of season ticket holders can use Gatwick Express anyway as most season tickets are valid on any permitted route between the two stations named)

Summary – what I think needs to be done at GTR…

To summarise – I feel that GTR’s public communications strategy needs rewriting from the ground up, being honest and transparent as to the reasons for delays, and also management need to equip passenger-facing staff with the freedom to answer openly and honestly to passenger queries, and the facility to look up information they don’t immediately know – for example, equpping the social media team properly to answer queries with more than just vague answers. They also need to look into getting the timetable available at least 24 hours ahead, so there’s at least some degree of reliability with passengers being able to know what journey opportunities are available the following day.

What do you think? Anything you feel I’ve missed? Have you personally had issues following inaccurate advice from GTR staff? Let me know in the comments below. I’ve also contacted GTR’s press office for comment – will update if I hear back.

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