Tick TOC; why the new rail timetables are a wake-up call

05/06/2018 By Thomas Folqué

The disruption caused by the new rail timetables has been inescapable. Either you’ve been directly affected, or you’ll have heard about it from the news, social media, and frustrated co-workers, friends and family. But where exactly did it all go so wrong, and how can train operating companies (TOCs) turn the negative publicity into an opportunity?

There appear to be two core issues at the heart of the commotion. The first is poor operational management of the implemented changes. The RMT claimed to have reports of a ‘shortage of crew and fleet’, whilst a joint statement released by Network Rail, GTR and Northern stated that the process of approving new journeys ‘took longer than anticipated’, giving them ‘less time to prepare’ and creating ‘a requirement for training that had not been anticipated’.

The second (and arguably more avoidable) core issue is poor communication. There have been instances of cancelled trains being removed from timetables without being announced, accusations of a lack of transparency and a notable social media faux-pas involving Poundland, whose Retail Director responded with this rapid (and damning) response.

It is hardly surprising that the disruptions and subsequent failure to properly communicate with customers has damaged some TOCs’ reputations. According to our social media analytics platform, Netbase, between 20th May and 1st June Gatwick Express and Thameslink’s Net Sentiment dropped by 37 points each. Figures for Northern Rail weren’t as clear (unsurprisingly, there’s been plenty of sarcasm on social media, which requires complex filtering to accurately gauge sentiment), but with a post mention increase of 133%, the timetable changes clearly had an impact – and the number of #NorthernFail hashtags suggests exactly what kind of impact that was.


The most discussed TOC-related topics across social media since 20th May:

The ugly truth is that, in the age of social media, brand identity is becoming less about how TOCs position themselves and more about how consumers perceive them. Advertising and PR will only go so far against word-of-mouth. One example is Network Rail’s official brand tagline, ‘Working for you’; that may be the way they position themselves, but take a look at social media over the last few weeks and you’ll find a very different brand identity being projected by customers.

It’s a daunting time to be operating, when a single misstep could see your brand condemned across the internet, but there are also huge potential benefits. Every criticism is an opportunity to pinpoint areas for improvement – to create an effective business development plan grounded in real customer opinion. Understanding your reputation is the key to improving it, and all the data you need is at your fingertips. It’s time to let your customers guide you rather than define you, or accept that your reputation is in their hands.

Want to know how your customers have been defining your brand, and how you can make it more resilient?  BVA BDRC’s Rail Reputation Index is dedicated to providing an understanding of rail brands’ reputation and helping TOCs to improve their public sentiment. Get in touch if you’d like to learn more.