Friday, 14 December 2012

Don't Tweet Back In Anger......

How the huge benefits of social media in public transport also have a downside for those doing the tweeting.....

One of the recent phenomenons of our time has been social media. Seemingly everyone is Tweeting or Facebooking, and the public transport industry is increasingly taking it up to keep passengers informed in “real time” of happenings on the network.
There’s no doubt that this is mainly a force for good. Delays can quickly be broadcast and alternative arrangements made for a nation that seems more on the move than ever.
But with such instant media comes a new set of rules. Or in many cases, a complete lack of.
Social media, apart from being a simple tool of information, is also built increasingly around the human element of what is being said. Conversations strike up between travellers and “tweet-masters” (or whatever we call them). On the plus side, this helps to break down barriers, adding to the more human face of what might seem a faceless, monolithic public transport operator.
It is, though, with that “human” element, interesting - and often depressing - to see the negative side to some people’s communications when things inevitably go wrong.
Take for instance the recent staff shortages at London Midland’s rail operation. Whether or not you take the view that the whole episode could have been something that could have been realistically anticipated, the effect on the travelling public was sometimes one of sheer inconvenience and frustration. The operator – which has won awards for its Twitter operation – was steadfastly professional and very useful in how it disseminated the issues on the ground that passengers faced on a daily (and often hourly or less) basis. Yet some of the vitriol it received back was, at best, expressions of frustration, and at worst mindless insults.
I suppose we just shrug our shoulders at all of this and accept it as “one of those things”. People are going to get frustrated at public transport delays and vent their spleen, and this is just another way of doing it.
But I wonder what the worst perpetrators of this cyber-aggression are really thinking as they type their diatribe into their smartphones and hit send? If, pre-Twitter, public transport was indeed this large, faceless organisation, it now often has real people at the other end of the social media page. These are the people who type in the updates, who try to gather information about what has gone wrong, and ultimately are actually trying to help travellers with their journeys.
Public transport is, of course, a huge operation. Inevitably things will go wrong, journeys will be disrupted and people will get frustrated.
What fascinates me, however, is the lack of understanding that transport professionals too are frustrated with delays. Who would ever want to delay trains and buses, as if to satisfy some adolescent mischief-making? Do some people honestly and truthfully believe this?
Working in public transport, I have met several public transport company “Tweeters”. Every one of them a consummate professional in their work, and often adding social media on to their “real” occupation. I have seen them tweeting at all hours of the day and night, offering advice and alternatives for passengers affected by delays and cancellations. I am sure they must mentally desensitise themselves from the quite offensive rubbish that some people choose to throw at them, simply for trying to help.
Some recent Passenger Focus research offers some thoughts on the whole social media scene. Would one way be to simply use the likes of Twitter and Facebook as almost a one-way information service and avoid the friendly chat that some operators offer? National Rail tends to do this on Twitter, but many operators are very open and human in their efforts – and obviously suffer from frustrated individuals who lack the social skills to engage meaningfully and politely. There are even people who spend time “re-tweeting” complaints about operators for others to see. What they are hoping to achieve is anyone’s guess.
I suspect the best of the Facebooking and Tweeting transport operators will want to keep the friendly, open channels between themselves and their customers. Abuse of public transport staff is, of course, nothing new, but isn’t it a pity that some people see fit to rant at and mock people who are only doing their job and trying to make things better?


  1. There are two sides to the coin here Phil, and I saw one TOC twitter feed sinking to a pretty low level of carping about the decision by some of their staff to go on strike in a just over a week's time.

    They had previously flagged up the official website page describing the company stance, and the Union's position, setting out some general detail of the services they hoped to be able to operate on the strike days. But the later tweet left me shocked - if behind the scenes efforts were being made that tweet certainly fired a shot across the bows.

    Still come your next HS2 post it might be worth reading of the Birmingham Business community's thoughts and and actions in support of a slower rail service to London, which has seen 40% growth in passenger numbers within a year when the competing service is 10-15 minutes faster. Worth noting that the fastest time I've seen reported for a service which cannot travel above 100mph, to get to Birmingham is 87 minutes. Mix in a very basic upgrade to the standard 125mph options and, and you should manage 60-65 minutes, deliverable in a faction of the time for a fraction of the cost, and if the endorsement of the existing offer (10-15 minutes slower than the fast trains) holds then HS2 will see many sticking with a slower, cheaper and better service.

    1. Chris Neville-Smith15 December 2012 at 03:59

      This idea is quite a nice theory that only falls down on the "fraction of the cost" claim. The Chiltern Line is double-track almost all of the way, and it's simply not possible to get services any faster whilst you've got fast and stopping trains using the same track.

      This has been looked into, and it's part of Scenario C. The good news is that a 60-65 minute time is indeed possible. The bad news is that in order to do this without cutting local services, the "basic upgrade" needed is four-tracking most sections of the line where there are local stops. The total cost? £8 billion.

      Given the far smaller scope for benefits than HS2 phase 1, I cannot see any government considering this value for money.

  2. Dave, I haven't seen the tweet you refer to. My point was generally about the abusive over the top tweets that I've seen. I accept that people get frustrated but some of this stuff is way over the limits of acceptability.
    Regarding your comments about the B'ham-London service, you're talking about the Chiltern service? Yes, it's an effective alternative, but HS2 isn't just about speed, it's also about capacity and future capacity. A good market economy will always have market segmentation, and HS2 will fit a certain market whilst adding to a complete revamp of how the railways are used, bringing with it extra capacity and allowing new routes and more freight to be used. Got to be a good thing!