How to make the best of a bad situation

07/12/2015 By Tim Sander

5 ways to keep train passengers on your side when things go wrong

Last week I sat on a train just outside Darlington station for an hour and a half, going nowhere.  Even my whole hour’s contingency couldn’t allow for a broken down freight carrier to be moved from our path.

Yes, I was late for a meeting.  But guess what?  When I did arrive I wasn’t flustered; I wasn’t angry.

Why?  Because the train company (Virgin Trains East Coast) did everything right:

  1. They explained the situation (promptly) and gave an ETA as soon as they could
  2. The announcer was matter of fact, but polite and apologetic
  3. They updated me frequently
  4. They helped people out: individuals with awkward connections were identified, and staff explained their options in person. And we all got free tea/coffee and wi-fi
  5. They pro-actively drew attention to my 100% refund entitlement, and how to claim it

These points worked for me, and I see other passengers valuing the same things all the time in feedback we gather for our clients in the public transport industry.

Feedback in the studies we run also explains why these things matter.  My 90 minutes outside Darlington demonstrated this:

  1. Understanding the cause of the delay gave me some idea of the size of the problem. I was able to judge that it was unlikely to be sorted out quickly and alert the person I was meeting. Later, when they were able to give me an ETA, I could plan my next move; I could do something constructive.  (Of course train companies can’t always give an ETA, but our evidence suggests that understanding the reason for a delay can, in these circumstances, mitigate this)
  2. Good manners!
  3. For an hour, the ‘update’ was simply that there was no new information. Though frustrating, two things were clear:
    • the on-board staff had on-going communication with someone ‘out there’ and were doing their best
    • they cared enough to tell us at least something
  4. Practical help can be invaluable especially when ending up elsewhere than intended (as for some people in this case). In fact we’ve often seen in our research that practical help can turn a negative impression of a transport company right around to become much more positive than it was to begin with
  5. The compensation offer implied acknowledged accountability. But more importantly, Virgin made it easy for me; I felt they were being transparent and genuinely helpful even though it would result in them losing a little money. (Even better another train company, c2c, will soon automatically re-credit delayed customers who use smartcard tickets).

We’ve worked with lots of travel organisations who need to understand customers’ needs when things go wrong.  There are nuances around the points above – priorities vary for different people and different circumstances – but these things are always important.  Pay attention to these five points and, while you may not be able to prevent freight trains from breaking down across your rush hour path, you can at least put passengers back in control.

Rebecca is part of a dedicated team of expert transport industry researchers at BVA BDRC.  Their work includes the National Rail Passenger Survey and its bus and tram equivalents, and a wide range of both quantitative and qualitative approaches to the huge variety of issues that transport clients come up with.  Get in touch if you would like to know more: