Railways still do not understand basics of PR

After having spent the last three days in and out of the studios for the past three days criticising the performance of Eurostar and Eurotunnel in the face of the breakdown and then cancellation of the Eurostar trains, I now wonder if I have been too critical. After all, it was an unprecedented event with five trains breaking down simultaneously and it does seem to have been an unlucky conjunction of events.

But then thinking about it more, there is no doubt that Eurostar’s performance was severely lacking in several respects, especially the failure to communicate information on the broken down trains and the fact that their staff seem to have gone AWOL. The company’s readiness to abandon its service entirely, rather than trying to get as many people to the other side of the Channel as possible and the management’s rather half hearted apologies were further failings. It was only when on the third day that St Pancras was flooded with staff – and free croissants – that the company had seemed to get its act together.

The railways have not come out with any credit and that must go for the train operating companies, too. Where is, for example, the regular briefings from the ATOC press office – and the individual train companies – on what services are like across the country and what can be expected over the next few days. My inbox has been empty. Yet again, the rail industry shows that it just does not understand PR as witnessed by the fact that no one from Eurostar or any other company has phoned me over the past few days, and yet I have been on virtually every major media outlet. I have had to call them for briefings  – which to be fair to Eurostar have been very good – but they need to be more proactive to try to influence the agenda, rather than just sitting back and hoping for the best.

  • I have been stuck in Belgium due to this so have not seen your appearances Christian, but I can trust you were talking sense.

    Aside from the actual train breakdowns, 2 things are clear:
    – why did they have so few rescue locomotives? And why take so long to decide to drag trains out of the tunnel?
    – why was there no plan for an alternative? Hire a load of buses, drive them to the Channel Ports and get people slowly home that way. Surely not hard to organise?

    On the comms points – in my experience it’s not just the rail sector that cannot get its PR right in circumstances like this. Plenty of large corporates have similar issues. Having said that Easyjet has some examples that Eurostar could learn from.

    More on my experiences from Brussels with Eurostar (and indeed SNCF) here.

  • Dan

    It’s right to take a balanced view – as you are doing here Christian – but this is the industry that wants oodles of subsidy most of the time, and in the case of the HS network, wants the tax payer to commit to spending billions. There are plenty of us that are supporters of this and keen to make the arguments for the industry. Why, though, do they think the the public (voters) and the politicians are going to stump up for this if they once again can not get their acts together in what are really only mildly inclement weather conditions. Reluctant as I am to use strong language, but FFS we’re not talking 1947 or 1963 are we, it’s just the sort fo thing that happened fairly frequently as recently as the 1970s / early 80s!

    But certain people in certain places in the industry seem to be useless. The Eurostar debacle is a serious embarrassment. OK the technical problems can happen – I think we’d accept that (but no doubt many passengers would not) – but the strategy for dealing with their customers seems appaling (and if it was not appaling then the strategy for dealing with the media’s coverage of it WAS appaling).

    Richard Brown has a track record of being a good railway man, what a shame it has all gone wrong. It will be interesting to see what Christopher Garnett makes of this (a welcome return to the industry if not in circs one would have hoped for). His reputation would suggest the customer services angle might get the focus it seems to have required.

  • Dan

    Good blog outline Jon on your link. My SNCF experience is very middling. I spent a fair bit of time on SNCF services (regional ones in Brittany) in the summer – none delayed but generally staff good at ticket checks etc. Then I took a TGV from Nantes to Tours and I noted that Chef du Train spent most of that leg of the journey slouched in 1st class talking to his mate, no announcments, no ticket checks and certainly no ‘customer service ethos’. OK there were no delays but I presume staff are not paid to sit chatting to other staff in 1st class seats?

    Another negative experience was in Tours travel centre where all I wanted was a timetable booklet, but as these were not on racks I had to take a ticket and queue, the staff moved the counter on so quickly I missed my slot so I rushed to the window (alongside the next ticket holder) to explain but was told ‘tough luck go back to the back of the queue’.

    Sadly in fact it was rather like BR circa 1970s. Of course where SNCF excels is in the engineering and state of the tracks etc – none of the ‘air of neglect’ that seems all pervasive on the UK network – weeds, graffitti, bumpy rides etc

  • Sandi Dunn

    Dear Christian, I sent the following to BBC PM blog, could you comment please?

    “A story PM missed yesterday:… When Eurostar service resumed they found that many of the ‘delayed’ passengers with tickets had ‘disappeared’ and so the ‘backlog’ was quickly cleared… Yesterday on this blog I suggested PM cover the following: news of the hundreds of Eurolines coaches coming and going to and from Victoria London and using the ferries – as indeed my partner and I traveled this way from Paris on Sunday? It would have been useful to hear if more ferries and coaches been put on etc and how they were coping? A Eurolines employee at Paris told me on Sunday morning that they were all working until 3am to help clear the Eurostar ‘refugees’ So, did the BBC news editors decide this not to be such a ‘sexy’ story as “abandoned Eurostar customers etc” sounded so much more ‘interesting’?
    Also, If we had not been able to get on the coach in Paris last Sunday morning we could have taken a French train from Paris to Calais and then crossed the channel as foot passengers and thereafter a train Dover to London – relatively simple. Obviously many Eurostar passengers must have taken these routes having worked it out for themselves with no helpful suggestions or news from our BBC news service”.

  • Dan

    Sandi – not that you asked me but you make aninteresting comment. I think you’ve got the basics of it – no one in the media is interested in people who travel by coach unless there is a coach accident on a motorway (preferably a coach with children on board I fear). Bus and coach travel being the least likely mode to be used by the ‘commentariat’.

    In fairness to the BBC I’m not sure they are responsible for giving travel advice (they are certainly not qualified to do so anyway – all they can do is pass on whatever an operator tells them, in this case Eurostar – who appeared to be telling no one anything of much help.)

    In relation to your specifics though – blog entries elsewhere from people who tried to do as you said (train to Calais etc) included 1 story by a passenger (on the Guardian website) being dropped off at a location 5km from Calais then having to walk through quite deep snow to the town and then the port, then ferry companies not taking . If this was the case then that route may not have been a runner. Admittedly I don’t know the reasons for this and I don’t suppose the blogger did either!

    Also I imagine the media quotes on numbers of people ‘stranded’ simply related to a calculation based on seats on trains and number of scheduled trains, assuming every train would be full, and not a number based on actual tickets sold, which I doubt many journos would have been bothered to find out. That would also explain any ability to clear back logs more easily.

    As you say though, since travellers would have known they were to get a refund from Eurostar (plus free tickets for another trip) many would have migrated to coach, plane or ferry if they felt they could do so.

  • at least Eurostar will LEARN from this experience unlike Northern Rail who continue with their total disregard of their customers. NorthernFail know we rely on their service and they control a monopoly route all over the north of england and through rural country sides no other train company will service.
    makes you wonder how they can lie in their end of the eyar customer service reports, always with “96% custostomer satisfaction.”
    i can assure you this is a total fib because everytime someone tweets or talks about northern rail, it is not something positive.

    Eurostar learns the hard way. They DO have one of the best customer service I’ve ever experienced travelling on trains, I have to give them that. it’s unfortunate that this unravels in time of crisis, and panic leading to bad PR.

    anyway chris, you’ve got a good site. I’m gonna reference your site as a resource in here: http://northern-rail-fail.blogspot.com/

    hope you dont mind.

  • Dan

    As to general media accuracy – this is from an article supposedly authored by the Guardian’s Transport Correspondent – Mr Garnett’s prev post has been, as far as I know, repeatedly innacuratly reported as such. Is there any chance of wider accuracy in such stories? I doubt it!

    “The company has set up an inquiry panel to look into what went wrong, chaired by Christopher Garnett, the former chief executive of Network Rail.”

  • Dan

    NorthernFail – I fear you are wrong – Jon’s useful blog link indicates this all happened back in 2003 for Eurostar in terms of the faults, the customer service disaster was the same after the last tunnel fire (media spotlight just a bit less as it was not Xmas)

    I looked at the northern-fail blog spot – sadly it’s a just a whinge and moan site isn’t it? Nothing constructive about how they could improve their services, no debate about whether fares rises or increased tax support is required to pay for the investment they need. I note analysis of the UK fares manual indicates that Northern operate some of the lowest cost per mile fares.

  • Sandi Dunn

    To Dan

    I have done that route. 5 km is not so far to walk but it feels a bit strange as the port (like most) is a touch barren. But there is a bus service to the boats from the town I could have taken as there are lots of foot passengers who go regularly from Kent I think. I would find it hard to believe that the Guardian blogger could not get on the boat as a foot passenger as I have traveled on one or other ferries but never found them full up to foot passengers. I think if I were a BBC editor I would have sent someone down there to see what alternatives were available – why not ? BBC is a ‘public service’ there to ‘inform’ entertain and educate – I believe are the founding principles – not just report on the ‘sexed up’ version! “abandoned passenger at St Pancras etc” Ha!
    Come on Christian – why not do a story for us about those who found other ways home? After all, until 15 years ago most people went this way – train and boat ! People need to know the options for future reference – not least the Eurostar ‘managers’ who could have organised boats, trains and coaches surely as a contingency plan???????

    I have one more question… I was caught up with the Eurostar tunnel fire that day in 2008 and indeed taking the Paris Calais train then boat, then Dover to London by train was how I got back. And I got my Eurostar refund with no problem.
    But I never heard reported the results of the inquiry into that debacle in our news. I believe the inquiry was set up in France as it happened on their side of the tunnel. Does Christian Wolmar or anyone on this blog know what the result of the inquiry was? Many thanks Sandi

  • Hi Christian

    I’m very surprised Eurostar’s award winning Communications Team have not been in contact with you personally over the past few years.

    Of course, you make the good point that journalists, commentators and bloggers need to know the facts asap. Good PR must be about 2-way dialogue, for friends & foe.

    Regardless of the Eurostar mishap last weekend. I think they’ve done remarkably well clearing the backlog within 3-days. Credit where credit is due.

    Merry Christmas.

  • Sandi Dunn

    Hello Marion

    I think (had the story been covered properly) you may have found that Eurostar ticket holders, rather than hanging around in a ‘back log’, sorted out their own alternative travel arrangements! Which meant Eurostar had less of a backlog than you would think to deal with on the day their services resumed…
    I spoke to EuroLINES coach staff at Paris whilst checking in there last Sunday , they told me that they stayed on until 3am to help clear Euro STAR Saturday backlog. It was therefore strange that Eurolines received no recognition for their effort. I expect lots of ticket holders found other routes, flying , also by using the local trains Paris to Calais, then as a foot passenger via the ferry, then Dover to London by train…I find it strange Christian, that this aspect of the story was ignored by the press and BBC news

  • Sorry, Christian, that you didn’t receive information from us during the bad weather before Xmas. ATOC worked hard during this period to ensure that information about how the rail network was coping was passed on to passengers and the media. My colleagues in National Rail Enquiries were constantly updating the website. ATOC’s media team issued regular updates. And Michael Roberts, our chief executive, and I did a number of TV and radio broadcasts, including Today, BBC Breakfast and Radio 5 Live. It’s a pity our messages didn’t get over to you because, despite some disruptions in Scotland and parts of South East England, the network proved more resilient than many roads and a number of airports. Around seven out of 10 trains arrived on time and fewer than 5% of services were cancelled when the weather was at its worst.