Heathrow and heatwaves: managing comms for necessary evils

01/07/2015 By Heathrow and heatwaves: managing comms for necessary evils

1 July 2015

This morning there have been a couple of news stories about getting around and into or out of Britain: the Davies report has recommended a third runway for Heathrow Airport, and Network Rail has been forced to announce speed restrictions on rail lines because of today’s heatwave, which will cause cancellations and disruptions.

The media and public reaction isn’t exactly positive in either case. Some newspapers have highlighted the plight of Harmondsworth, for example, a village which could be demolished if the third runway goes ahead. And, while the odd tweeter welcomes Davies’ recommendations, more of the commentary feels either sarcastic or expresses opposition on a range of different grounds. Reaction to Network Rail’s safety measures is summed up by this tweet:

"Apparently in England if we have any weather, the trains won't run."

Of course, there have also been much-publicised problems for commuters using London Bridge station, currently in the throes of a rebuild. Passengers’ misery has been reflected in results for the National Rail Passenger Survey which we published last week. Opinion of London Bridge has crashed 15% in one year, with less than half of users now satisfied with their experience at the terminal.

But despite their unpopularity, large scale projects and smaller-scale (but still disruptive) safety measures are of course necessary. And generally the public agrees. Granted, there are plenty of incredulous pleas for railway construction to take account of the British tendency for both hot and cold weather (although the idea of closing down and replacing large stretches of railway… let’s not go there) and there are groups with sincere arguments against any airport expansion in Britain. But on the whole a need for infrastructure development is recognised, and safety management is unquestionable.

The key thing is how these necessary evils are communicated. A couple of examples from recent studies we have conducted highlight this issue.

The National Rail Passenger Survey (latest results published last week) consistently finds that where rail passengers are dissatisfied, the most important contributor is not a delayed train but how the train company handles that delay. A large factor in dissatisfaction is a lack of information and communication.

Fascinating research (to be published soon) among passengers who travelled through Reading this Easter, when trains were disrupted by station upgrade work, revealed three ‘levels’ of success for provision of information:

  1. Passengers who were aware of the engineering work at all ahead of time were actually quite satisfied with the travel experience on the day
  2. Those who also understood the purpose of the engineering work were more tolerant (and had a stronger perception of value for money)
  3. Those who could see a benefit to themselves personally were more tolerant still

Big transport infrastructure decisions will rarely please everyone (and sometimes no-one) and communicating with the public about them is a huge challenge in itself. This of course is made increasingly difficult to control now that social media is a firmly established information source for many. But where evils are necessary, communication has to be a big focus for those who must implement them. Highlighting not only the benefits, but the personal benefits to individuals can be powerful.

Any views, or want to find out more about our research for the transport industry? Contact me at mail@bva-bdrc.com.

The Davies report
The latest NRPS report