June 13, 2014

“We are very sorry about the delay to this service”

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A stopped train on a hot day. Increasingly frustrated passengers. And a railway journalist sitting in coach F.

Any railway press officer would probably stop reading there. Indeed they would probably be right given the trend for public statements of dissatisfaction from today's connected society. Fortunately I am not about to join the realms of passengers who take to social media to voice their displeasure (and that is putting it politely!) at a service's supposed continual failure. In fact I do not plan to use a single expletive to praise (yes praise!) the response of First Great Western to the delay of its 16.06 service from London Paddington to Penzance on June 12.

Common sense would tell you that informed and regular delivery of information is critical to keeping a few hundred passengers on a packed service stopped in the English countryside under control. I have used a lot of long-distance trains in Britain and unfortunately been the victim of a number of big delays - late night taxi journeys from Reading to Bristol and Bristol to Yeovil spring to mind. On those and other occasions information about why exactly we were stopped and why I was missing my connection was not forthcoming and was frustrating to me and other passengers.

It was then refreshing to witness the professionalism and attention to detail of train manager Paul on the London - Penzance train. As soon as the train had stopped just outside Westbury in Wiltshire, and before the dreaded automated message alerting the train manager to contact the driver had sounded, which was received by the inevitable comments of "that doesn't sound good," he had been on the intercom informing passengers of the delay and promising an update as soon as it was available. This duly arrived within a few minutes, with details of what was causing the problem - an issue with the points just ahead of our train - as well as news that Network Rail (NR) had been contacted and was en-route. He also reassured us that updated arrival times and connection information would follow as soon as our journey resumed.

He continued to offer updates - the problem had been identified as either a blown fuse or transformer - and provide estimates of our expected delay as well as the status of the NR engineers. He did this while passing through the train to answer any concerns that passengers had individually, adding a personal touch to the man behind the voice. He even offered passengers his mobile phone to use if they did not have their own to contact family members and friends about the delay.

Contrast this to my colleague Keith Barrow's recent experience in the United States. Travelling to Norfolk, Virginia, from Washington, DC, Keith's Amtrak service stopped in Richmond, Virginia just after 19.00. No service announcement took place, which wasn't too much of a surprise, delays are common on Amtrak services which operate on freight railway-owned tracks. But as the minutes and then the hours ticked by, it soon became apparent that the train's crew did not have a clue what was happening and were unable to inform passengers about what was going on to put them at ease. Their chosen response was to say nothing at all.

Eventually Keith inquisitiveness took him to a Richmond newspaper's website where there was a report about a man-hunt underway on the railway. All services were stopped while police scoured the area for the suspect. While it might not have got things moving any sooner, this was the information Keith and the other passengers craved, and would give them the reassurance that were stopped for a viable reason.

Clearly this was not the way to deal with the problem; it was only because of Amtrak's onboard WiFi service that the information required was retrieved. But unfortunately it is an experience repeated too often around the world, much to the dismay of passengers, and to the detriment of an operator's reputation. With today's technologies there is simply no excuse for this not to happen.

Back in Westbury, and thankfully a blown fuse was the cause so we were soon on our way, 78 minutes late, and for me still around 3h 30min from my destination.

While the delay was certainly annoying, the train manager had remained in control of the situation, and mine and other passengers' emotions, throughout, preventing the emergence of a potentially more difficult situation. Some passengers' evening plans had been ruined and they were undoubtedly frustrated. But as I saw many of them leave and disappear into the beautiful summer evening, at least they still had the chance to watch the opening game of the World Cup. I was left to watch the light fail and write this blog, while sipping some complimentary water.

Kevin Smith

Kevin Smith joined IRJ in 2009 as features editor and since then has travelled the world reporting on developments in the world's railways. Before joining IRJ, Kevin worked for several local newspapers in the United States and as a freelance technical writer for a university engineering magazine. Kevin graduated with a first class honours degree in American Studies from Lancaster University, Britain, in 2006, and with a Master's degree in American Studies from Purdue University, United States, in 2008.