Crisis response is all about information

At a very interesting meeting yesterday on crisis management hosted by the Independent Transport Commission, it became obvious that so much of the response to emergencies is  about information. And yet many transport organisations are  nowhere near understanding this or upgrading their procedures to ensure they can get information out.

During the recent ‘snow event’, the best train company was London Midland which had a very active Twitter service, sending out informal but informative messages and responding to individual complaints. At the meeting one transport provider made the good point that people do not necessarily want a detailed explanation of what is going wrong, but they do want accurate information and a likely prognosis.

Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook will clearly be the way that people are both informed and, crucially, inform the providers in the future. This two way information is happening in other ways, too.  TomTom, for example, already makes use of the knowledge it receives from people using its devices in their cars to build up a pattern that will inform other users.

One of the satisfying outcomes from the snow chaos was that for once the railway did far better than aviation. Heathrow was a debacle, but BA did not cover itself in glory either. For example, its website suddenly – and not surprisingly – received forty times its usual traffic but was actually set up to resist such events as they were perceived as a cyber attack. But that shows that BA is an organisation that has not thought through what its website is about and is more concerned with its own security rather than its passengers. As I have said frequently, we are all still learning about the new IT dominated world , and many companies are only in primary school.

  • Maarten Otto

    There is a lot of improvement to be made on SoutEastern then. Rip-off fare increases and no information or twitter account at all. And the odd thing is that it is the same transport group (Govia) as, and I quote Christian… “the best train company, London Midland which had a very active Twitter service”… well well.

    So the skilled workforce is in house but the office still has a thin paper wall between the two teams. I wonder how Southern did.

  • Bill F

    Am I being too simplistic, but given the disjointed nature of railways organisation, isn’t the provision of information something that should be controlled and mandated by the regulator as part of franchise provisions?
    Based on one personal experience on-board a delayed Virgin Euston-Glasgow service at the height of the bad weather I was able to keep myself and fellow passengers up to date on progress by simply logging on to Live Departure Boards at the NR website, yet those waiting at stations had no information

  • South of London

    OK but what % of passengers have mobile access to Twitter when they are on the platform.

    There is one place where we need clear information and that is on the platform not in some cloud computing land. Second place would be their own websites and phone services.

    I think the quickest fix would be to arrange platform announcements from central control. These could advise existing customers standing at isolated platforms what is going on.

    I have to say when I was stuck on the first Tuesday of the snows – the train driver on Southern was the best source of information as he kept us totally informed of what was happening as his train was constantly diverted in our 3 hour journey. Also the Southern platform staff were excellent as well but announcements and Train information systems were worse than useless. How would twitter have helped most of the passengers trying to get home that night?

  • Julia

    Not sure that the Railway faired better than the Airlines. In some areas, Network Rails infrastructure was working fine, fully staffed and waiting for trains to run. However Train Operating Companies (TOCs) trains failed to work properly and they ended withdrawing the normal service and putting in contingency services which were ill conceived and totally confused the train running information systems. The TOCs failed to let customers know what the contingency services were. Their own staff were totally confused as they were ready and in position for a full normal service, as a result the contingency services never operated fully as staff were unaware where they should be.

    It is time that the TOCs just provided the rolling stock and ran the business side of the of getting customers onto trains. Network Rail should have complete control of running trains with no need to consult every TOC involved to make a decision on what to do in times of perturbation. Network Rail should provide train running information, who better to and in the know! Better use of Information Technology, we are in the 21st Century, why does train running information rely heavily on manual input? I have stood on platform 6 at London Bridge waiting for a Bedford service that according to the Customer Information Display(CIS), is on time. As the time for the train approaches, it counts down, five minute, four minutes, three minutes, two minutes, ah should be outside waiting to come in. No not a sign of it, one minute, must be running in, no not there! Then the train is wiped from the CIS! On asking the South Eastern platform staff, who despatch South Eastern(SET) and First Capital Connect (FCC) trains on a Network Rail run platform( oh yes), they state not our train but think it was cancelled at Brighton! Brighton is an hour away yet the CIS said it was running. On contacting FCC, they responded that CIS relies heavily on manual input and that the train concerned had not been manually removed, a known problem. Well if it is a known problem, why hasn’t someone agreed a method of working to let customers know each time until such time the CIS problem is fixed?

    This and other responses I have received on numerous complaints about lack of accurate information, leads me to believe that TOCs are not customer focused but are driven by performance figures that have to reached even at the detriment to its own customers.

    Another example during bad weather. It took several hours for some SET trains to come from Hastings or Ramsgate into Charing Cross, but because of the TOCs drive to keep performance figures up to avoid costly pay outs to their customers, they terminate some of these trains short at London Bridge to turn around and hopefully recover a few minutes starting at London Bridge vice Charing Cross. Never mind their customers for Charing Cross and Waterloo who have endured the hellish journey into London Bridge. Oh no, just chuck them out into the cold and cross platforms to then stand on a platform of customers waiting for a train to Charing Cross, but because of the implementation of contingency plans means there is presently nothing for half an hour! It is ludicrous, no customer care, their customers have already suffered a long journey so they added further woes to them! Had the train running been in Network Rails hands, they would have seen by terminating the trains that there were no suitable connections and would have let the trains carried on to their destinations thereby not inconveniencing customers further.

    Social networking sites should not be the way forward in providing train running information. It takes the onus off providing real time info at actual locations. Already several TOCs are announcing at stations for further information to contact their websites. That is okay if you access the internet, or have a mobile phone that accesses the internet. By making that announcement, one gets the feeling that it means the TOC doesn’t need to make an effort and provide extra visible staff to answer customer queries. But then as was seen in the recent snow, the websites become very unreliable, in fact TOC websites failed to agree with the National Rail website and even their own CIS on platforms. The most important and accurate information should be available at the platform, where the customer needs it. This then, once ascertained to be 100% reliable, could be mirrored on a website so that customers who can and wish to, can access the information before going to the station. And the only way this can be taken forward is for one source to be provided, Network Rail. They do actually signal the trains and know where the trains are in real time, who better to provide accurate information.

  • Maarten Otto

    @South of London:

    I think around 30 to 50 percent of the passengers. Everyone with a smart phone (iPhone, blackberry, HTC) has a mobile internet connection these days. Next time you travel by train, just have a look around and you’ll be amazed.

  • Maarten Otto

    @Julia: I can only comment for my own country… but here in Holland ProRail (Dutch Network Rail) is responsible for the CIS and announcements. The guys doing the work (I’m in my last month before I start working for the Hispeed TOC) sit next to the signaller and know exactly when a rain get cancelled and will act accordingly.

    I’ll be more then happy to explain the Dutch way of doing it at Network Rail office… I’m sure there is a lot we can learn from each other.

  • Dan

    Julia makes a very good point, and also if 30 – 50% of customers don’t have phones that can deal with the info then that is a lot of people who need another way. You have to move at the speed of the slowest ship in the convoy with much info.

    Isn’t the real story that many TOCs have got rid of the behind the scenes people who would be the ones collating the info and disseminating – either by CIS, tannoy, web or text – both to staff and customers? Without them tweets would be too generic and useless as a result.

    As far as many TOCs are concerend it’s easier to just throw in the towel then try to provide a vital service – as people said on the Wetaher Again thread – the attitude is too often – ‘forget it and try the road network’ – it’s very sad.

  • You might want to have a look at Southeastern’s utterly inept response to disruption before concluding how well the railways did…

  • Dan

    great post darryl – that blog link gives the reason for all this poor communication – the spin masters would not actually want to admit that things are as bad as they are so the PR people are dominating the information objective in a way that fails to serve the customer interest but makes the organisation look good…..a common problem when public services are run for profit as other motives start to come into force.

  • South of London


    I have a HTC phone – it does my work mail, personal mail and some surfing. I don’t have twitter and rarely use Facebook. However – on the Tuesday above I tried getting on the web to find out what was happening but couldn’t get a signal in Victoria Station (Vodafone) as is often the case.

    It is far more important to get information to people on the ground so they can properly assist passengers who want to get home and also to proper clear announcements that are not automated.

    I do think the basic concept of service to the passengers has gone out of the window in cost cutting forced on the TOC’s by making them compete for the franchises at the lowest possible price. Not only the comments on SouthEastern’s failures above but also the continual cutting of stations from trains running a few minutes late – again cost cutting preventing trains from sitting at a terminus for more than 10 minutes has forced this to occur. Tends to affect me about 2/3 times a month and delays my journey by 30/40 minutes each time rather than the 10 minutes the train was late.

    I don’t think that they should invest too much on Twitter etc as this is another cheap but not really effective method of communication.

  • Flitwick Livestock

    Passengers standing on station platforms should not be forced to use their own communications equipment at their own cost to find out information about a train they have bought a ticket for.

    By all means encourage the TOCs, Network Rail, etc to use the fastest means of communications possible, but at the point of service delivery there should be clear, concise announcements made, backed up by written information.

    One particular TOC which shall remain nameless (but it paints everything purple), encourages travellers wishing to Connect through the Capital to visit its Twitter feed for regular updates. Tonight when everything has fallen apart for a multitude of reasons that are not its fault, the most current Twitter information was dated 3rd December 2010.

  • Dave Holladay

    In the real world a vacuum sucks in matter to fill it. Such might demonstrably be the case for Southeastern Trains, where after a little settling down the twitter RT facility @_Southeastern provided from the front line reports of late departures, short formed trains and failures, whcih within a short while had migrated to a Crowd Source application which mapped the position across Kent and East Sussex, refreshed every 15 minutes.

    The demand for good information boosted the Facebook population for Cardiff bus by 50% (400 additional subscribers) in a single day, and the good operators have directly or (ATOC take note) through providing the base data to third party developers, delivered the information in forms which are relevant to the individual users. A wonderful example of this is the offer by Stagecoach SWTrains of a departure information at the ‘local’ station to sites where potential passengers will need it, initially provided at the Isle of Wight piers and slipways, cleverly using time lagged departures to give the trains relevant to the ferry docking at the mainland. I gather a system is going in at Ascot, to let punters spend more time at the turf and the most popular coffee stalls at major termini are the ones with a direct view of the CIS displays.

    By chance I bumped in to an Edinburgh-based IT specialist when doing my own High Speed Rail day-out, leaving the Dolphin Centre in Darlington at 15.50 and arriving at Greenford Town Hall at 19.10 – 3h 20 door to door*. He and his colleagues noted that their use of rail travel had measurably fallen since the loss of freely available information from ATOC. *This incorporated the 15 minute Cross-London transfer – compare the time with the official Network Rail timetable version. Of course such resource wasting scrambling around and the need to get rapidly between places nowhere near where people actually want to go is likely to be a thing of the past as teleconferencing replaces a large chunk of long distance business travel. one major computing operation slashed their business class jaunts to meetings world-wide and made a savings which came close to matching their previous year’s gross profit. With first class return fare costing several hundred pounds a corporate video conferencing network has a very short pay-back period. My pointer – the major public transport groups should seriously consider offering walk-in teleconferencing facilities as an alternative to traveling on their coaches and trains.

  • Paul – Worcester

    London Midlands were very good at tweeting and I was kept well informed with developments. I passed on your twitter site to a number of people I met on the train and at work. I think you could publicise your twitter page on your trains and at stations. I only came across the site by accident. Well done.

  • Ian Raymond

    Have to give full credit for Merseyrail; on the whole their website provided accurate updates, staff at stations and on board kept everyone updated and they maximised info thro the local press. A lesson to others in how it should be done.

  • Dan

    A while since I’ve been involved in serious disruption and delay but an experience today raises some questions about industry practices (I suppose in a similar vein to ‘skip stops problem’ that others have commented on).

    On a Cross Country service going west to Derby it was diverted due to signal problem. So instead of running along Derby – Burton – Brum route it was routed via Leicester / Nuneaton skipping Derby and Burton etc. Conductor announced that journey time would be extended but passengers for Tamworth etc should alight Nuneaton, go to Tamworth on WCML then change again if needs be.

    In my case that would have taken so long that the reason for the trip was lost, and it was simpler to go home. I went to ask if he could let us off at another station sooner, simply so I could take my chances or go back home. At that time he admitted he did not know if he would be stopping at Leicester. This seemed to me a) improbable and b) daft (given the station layout).

    In the event the train pulled into a platform at Leicester, but the doors were not released. After a minute or two (when it looked like we would not be allowed off) guard announced anyone wishing to get off could do so via the rear door. I asked why doors were not being opened (there were people on the platform who may have got where they were going quickly by letting them on board – and the train was lightly loaded) and the explanation given was “not permitted to let people join the train here as this is not a scheduled stop” – However the platform screens were telling anyone the correct destinations for this diverted train – presumably thanks to Network Rail….The stop time was certainly long enough for anyone who wanted to get on to get on.

    So my question is, what system of financial penalties / incentives exists within the industry that means a diverted train is not really able to collect / drop off passengers at intermediate stations even if this would make their travel easier / reduce the impact of disruption?

    I have sympathy when things go wrong – it happens, it’s when sensible decisions based on the situation that then occurs are not taken that it becomes extremely frustrating!

  • Brilliant example, Dan. Its all about the railways being unable to serve the public because of the complex rules under which they have to operate. I have written in similar terms in the latest issue of Rail about the Brighton line. The fundamental point is that the railways are not run in a way that is at all rational, but rather for the benefit of the regulators and rule makers.

  • Dan

    Thanks Christian. I’ll read the column soon in my paper copy. I’m sure this is the case. A privatised equivalent of the ‘non customer service’ that the privatisers told us was inherent in state monopolies and would be done away with by the customer service standards entrepreneurs bring (not that they necessarily do bring it – but that is another story).

    I wonder if the gaurd let us off on his own initiative (after some polite pressure from me and a few others) or had even had to ask his control if he could do that – hence the delay in being invited to leave via the back door.

    Yet the situation would have been equally frustrating for passengers at Leicester seeing a screen indicating a train for Brum and points west (that NR had presumably put up on display, and thus would have expected people to be able to join?) that they could not then actually get on.