Doom and gloom on the rail tracks: any silver linings in 140 characters?

05/07/2016 By Thomas Folqué


In the latest results from Transport Focus’ National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS), 80% of all passenger journeys were rated as satisfactory – sounds like a high number, but it’s the lowest rating since 2008 and reflects a declining trend for the last three to four years.  The trend is driven by commuter journeys in the South East, where only two thirds (67%) of peak time travellers were satisfied with their journeys.

The latest results certainly make for sombre reading.  And they probably don’t feel surprising to South East commuters – coming amid almost daily news bulletins about on-going passenger misery on some lines.  Southern, in particular, are struggling with the impact of staff strikes and shortages, causing no end of disruption, not to mention bad press.


Trains bad press July 2016

Comments made by commuters into London who took part in the survey this Spring were along the lines of:

“Trains on my service are always late, every journey repeatedly late.  For months it’s been the same”

“Trains are late or cancelled and over-crowded on a daily basis.  The journey is so stressful…”

And one wearily summed it up:

“[I] use trains every weekday… looking for a job closer to home”

So is there anything that the rail industry does do well? 

Well, there are some notable exceptions to the overall trend in passenger satisfaction (in the South East, Chiltern Railways, Great Western Railway and London Midland, for example, all saw more positive NRPS results, and long-distance train companies also bucked the trend).

Rail is also an increasingly popular, and apparently enjoyable, way to travel for leisure reasons – for a day out or a weekend away – with leisure trips making up a greater proportion of all journeys over time, and satisfaction at 90%.

And recent re-developments at major hub stations have been highly praised: the changes to Kings Cross have paved the way for amazing re-development of the whole surrounding area; St Pancras is a destination in its own right; and more recently Birmingham New Street has been transformed, seeing a 22% (!!) rise in passenger satisfaction.

But there’s one other thing: train companies are actually pretty good at communicating with passengers.  Yes, you read correctly... but I’ll elaborate: I’m talking about communication through social media; specifically, Twitter.

BVA BDRC recently conducted its first Twystery study, in which organisations across 30+ different industry sectors were mystery shopped for the speed and, importantly, quality of their responses to typical customer queries.  Train companies came out top on average for speed, and third overall once the quality and usefulness of their responses had also been taken into account.

Sector averages Twystery arrow

Not all rail customers use Twitter, but a huge proportion does.  And Twitter engagement is highest among those long-suffering commuters, the ones who really need to be reassured that their train operator knows they are there.

There’s a very long way to go, but their wholehearted embrace of Twitter is one small way in which train companies can demonstrate to customers that, in spite of everything, they do care about individuals.  I suspect that many who read this post will be rather cynical about this, but to reiterate: there’s a very long way to go in terms of demonstrating and delivering on customer care… but Twitter is one small way that train companies can take a step in the right direction.

The reason I bring up the idea of customer care is because we all know this is important to customers.  But it’s crucial for the service providers themselves as well.  The NRPS (I think rightly) focuses mainly on the functional aspects of travelling by train: reliability, the level of crowding, cleanliness on board trains and so on, and it’s true that these things drive how positive or negative passengers’ experiences are with individual journeys.  But longer term, creating a sense of caring about customers is key to driving brand reputation for a train company and therefore the thing that, where they do have a choice (such as for those increasingly common leisure journeys), will keep customers coming back.

In another recent study, we’ve been asking train, airline, airport and car rental customers how likely they are to recommend the companies they’ve used, along with other markers of brand reputation.  To be frank, on average rail companies do the worst out of these four travel sectors in terms of brand reputation.  But where train companies are seen to have a good reputation, a major factor in driving this is a belief among users that they care about their customers.  More so even than reliability.  This is strongest amongst – guess who – the most frequent users.  Incidentally, caring about customers is a much bigger driver of the overall reputation for train companies than it is for any of the other three sectors.

The softer side of customer service is important too.  I hope train companies can give enough attention to this as they address some of the issues highlighted in the recent NRPS results.  Keeping up the good work on social media is one thing they genuinely do well, so, among many other tools and customer interfaces, this is certainly one small area of customer service they should continue to capitalise on.


Not all train companies were brilliant in our Twystery survey, and not all train companies performed weakly in our reputation study (which uses the Net Promoter Score as a basis for understanding brand strength, and builds on this with other survey metrics).  If you’d like to know more about either study, including how your company did and how to improve it, contact us at