I read and watched the interview with Sarah Boundy spokeswoman for Southeastern Trains defending Southeastern's appalling service during the heavy snow fall recently. I suppose the main point for me was how keen she was to talk about the improvements they had made since last time to their website. Unfortunately if Sarah had been monitoring the #southeastern twitter tag before she came to the BBC interview she would have realised that the information on the site was wildly inaccurate compared to what people were experiencing on the ground. I appreciate the fact that Southeastern had invested millions in its new website but if the content is useless, so is the website which was why most customers resorted to twitter instead of trust what was on the website.
Many of us get the fact that the third rail system doesn't work too well in snowy conditions, however what we can't get is just how bad the communication is from this company.
Joined up content channels
Even if the content had been accurate, and to be fair Southeastern started to pay more attention to their website when people got angry. All the other channels people receive content in National Rails Website and the Station PA System were showing wildly conflicting messages on what was going on.
Take for example Thursday 2nd December, I made my way down to Sevenoaks Train Station wading through knee high snow to catch a train I was told would be running at 5:30am to Charring Cross station according to National Rails website. I arrived at the station to find it closed and not a train on the platform. I decided to wait, and I did so for 20 minutes before I saw the first Southeastern staff enter the station. I waited another 15 minutes before more customers arrived at the door and finally the staff opened the door. The first thing we heard from the staff was "has anyone checked the site?" apparently the staff didn't even know what was happening. I made my way to the platform and the train the National Rails website told me was waiting on the platform (I used National Rails iPhone app) wasn't there! The stations PA system was useless, the only message it told me was that there were adverse weather conditions. You don't need all your station displays to point out the bleeding obvious, what would have been nice was it tell me that the next train had been cancelled because it had become stuck on the tracks. One screen in the station told us to look at Southeasterns website! We are in the station surrounded by Southeastern staff and are told to go to a website. Why can't the systems sitting in place at the station give us this information?
Checking Southeasterns website on my iPhone gave conflicting information which showed some services would be running from Sevenoaks station until one of the staff eventually got information (we know not where) and put up the following board, stating "Our website is incorrect and we are doing our best to get it sorted".
(Picture thanks to @Bobajobbob)
Southeastern really has to work on how it communicates the status of its service. National Rail and the iPhone apps were showing trains as running on time until the very minute the train was supposed to depart it was marked as cancelled or just disappeared from the site.
In an age where information is freely available to all through multiple devices and communication channels its key that the information you make available to your customers and your staff is the same information. Updating this information should not be difficult, make use of your staff at stations and the train drivers themselves to help drive your communication network. Actively watch twitter feeds as companies such as BT have been doing rather well to help with damage limitation. Don't post general announcements about difficulties running services, be honest if the service will run or not. Sending out a vague message makes people unsure, they have to make a decision on whether they contact their place of work and tell them they can't make it in today because of the lines. People also need to know if they will be able to make it back home. Southeastern failed not because of the third rail but because they didn't communicate well. I understand perfectly that other countries have suffered the same problems with their trains and that in many cases it just can't be helped. But what can be helped is a company that shows it cares and provides information to its customers.
Southeastern has been annoying its customers more and more, even before the the heavy snow. Trains are often not long enough for the amount of passenger because they are short of working rolling stock or trains don't run on time. When their service does work well as I remember it used to you could get from Sevenoaks to London within 23minutes which is a brilliant service when it works. For a company that charges their customers some of the highest fairs in Europe they really need to start investing more money into their network or face losing their franchise.