Why can’t we get passenger information right?

Back in November Passenger Focus released it’s findings on what passengers needed when things go wrong; it didn’t paint a very good picture of how the railway industry handles problems.  The recently issued National Passenger Survey continued to show a high level of dissatisfaction amongst passengers.

We know it’s not usually done well because of the recurring story from passengers when things go wrong is “we weren’t told anything”. As travellers we all know the feelings this generates in us about the organisations we have to use.

So why can’t we get it right?  It’s clear what passengers need…

(1) Passengers want an explanation of the reasons for the delay.  This shouldn’t be couched in operational language but in terms
that are understandable.  It doesn’t have to be about blame but tell them what is going on and make them feel like you are taking
ownership of the problem.
(2) The main need is what is the impact on their journey?  Do they need to change their plans? How late will they be? This requires information to be specific – generic descriptions of lateness or potential cancellations don’t help passengers make decisions.  Should they seek a different route?  Crucially what alternatives are available?  This is a hard one as it often crosses over to other operators.
(3) Timing of the information – can they be told before they set out?  Is it too late for them to find an
alternative?  So timing is critical. We’ve seen examples of emails sent by TOCs about trains when they already
departed and the passengers can’t do anything.  It doesn’t help that trains are usually not considered late until after they should have departed.
(4) Consistency.  The same information must be available across the
various channels – from information boards in stations, social media, other online sources, staff, etc.  We got examples of receiving messages warning of problems only for there to be no sign of similar messages at the station; this relates to…

(5) Information that can be trusted – as an example, we all know that we lose trust in the motorway signs telling us of tailbacks that never materialise.

(6) Make sure staff are the best informed people.  Nothing is more frustrating than asking staff
and seeing them look up at the information boards – it shouts that they don’t know any more than the passenger!
(7) Work all the channels – this means people and digital.  Digital good for broadcasting information but don’t rely on technology: people are more interactive and provide a personal service

Perhaps the biggest barrier to delivering this is how operators are organised, how they function when things go wrong and how they collaborate with other companies.  The common mode we see is that organisations get into “fixing the problem” – all resources are put into sorting the incident and restoring the service.  Informing passengers and spreading the message to those on the front line is a secondary consideration.

Part of this is about being able to quickly diagnose and determine the actions.  In our view, the focus should be on better organisational and service design to
get the information right and pushed out.  This needs to come ahead of investing in new passenger information technology: if the information pushed out is poor, more display boards or twitter feeds won’t help.  This is especially true around consistency and quality of information across the different channels.  For example, social media is not different from information displays in stations and operators are realising this isn’t a function to be provided separately by the marketing team.  
We’ve done some work with some rail companies to try and shorten the chain of
communication between controllers making decisions and those who disseminate information – so there is some appetite to address this but more
clearly needs to be done. It would be great to see more innovation and more collaboration to really tackle this and do it right.
So step one we suggest is to look at your
organisation solely through the lens of the passenger and providing better information and see where you can improve.

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