Why Southern Rail needs a lesson in PR


Sarah Fabietti-Dallison , Capital Markets

"Apologies for the delay to your service"

Why Southern Rail needs a lesson in PR

Every day over 640,000 commuters travel (or attempt to travel) on a Southern Rail train, with many of these commuters paying over £4,000 a year for the privilege. And though these numbers continue to rise, customer satisfaction has never been lower.  

According to Transport Focus, which conducts an authoritative survey of passenger satisfaction, only 69% of passengers were satisfied with Southern’s performance making it officially the worst franchise in England.

This is unacceptable. The reason for this decline in customer satisfaction can be blamed completely on several months of daily disruptions with delays, cancellations and overcrowding becoming a daily occurrence for passengers – indeed, an emergency timetable in early July saw Southern cancel 341 services a day.

So what is the crisis?

Southern has had to cancel hundreds of trains a day due to ongoing industrial action with the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, (RMT) which is engaged in a bitter dispute between the union and Southern operator Govia-Thameslink Railway (GTR) over the role of guards and conductors on Southern services.

Attempts to try to alleviate the situation with emergency timetables, designed to provide passengers with a more predictable service, have proved futile and have only added to the issue of increased delays and overcrowding on these journeys.  

And unfortunately the situation is bound to get worse before it gets better, with angry passengers now taking it into their own hands to vent their frustrations. According to The Sunday Times, some are occupying first-class carriages without a valid ticket and others are holding protests during rush hour at busy commuter-hubs in London. There has even been talk of utilising civil disobedience to put pressure on the rail operator.

What is Southern Rail doing wrong?

At the heart of Southern’s problem is communication - or lack thereof. It has to be said that what is exacerbating the situation the most is the absence of timely information when there are problems with the service.

Commuters, on the whole, are rational people. They understand that the improvement works going on at London Bridge are for their long term benefit, and they understand that occasionally there will be incidents beyond the control of the train operators or Network Rail.

But the public’s tolerance is stretched to its limit when there is an absence of proper information about issues the railway provider is having. Thousands wait in vain on various platforms across the south of England, running late for work or appointments or trying to get home to their loved ones, with no idea why their train is late or when it is expected to arrive.

Better crisis communications

If Southern Rail can work on improving its communications with passengers and provide them with as much information as possible, particularly when there is a major disruption, they will be well positioned to offer a better service.

Passengers will be better equipped to handle the situation and feel they have greater control over the situation, making informed decisions on how to deal with disruptions to their journeys.

It’s not rocket science: effective crisis communications are difficult but not impossible. The quicker Southern Rail can see this and act to try and bridge the divide between itself and its customers, the happier commuters will be.