UK Rail Company Trains Its Headlights on Making Customer Connections

Thom Weidlich 10.04.18


The New York Times had a nice piece on Great Western Railway’s operation for social-media listening — and responding. The company, which runs one of the largest train franchises in the U.K., has issued 30,000 apologies on social media, mostly Twitter, since the beginning of the year. From our point of view, it’s all worth it in terms of having money in the reputation bank when a crisis hits.

The article, by David Segal, focuses heavily on Andrew Couch, who’s on Great Western’s six-member social-media team. Passengers seemingly can’t refrain from tweeting about every delay, littered seat, or loud quiet car. The company responds with bespoke messages. “You can’t repeat yourself,” Couch says. “You’ve got to understand the situation and you need to mix it up.”

In addition to apologizing, the employees try to assist customers by offering guidance and explanations. One example: a passenger who was furious at missing a connection due to a two-minutes-late arrival. Couch explained that often trains can’t wait because that could interfere with other connections down the track (literally).

The social-media team is counseled in apologizing, while workers who toil on the actual trains go through a program called Great Experience Makers that tries to imbue them with empathy. Again, this helps in crisis communications in that the company develops relationships with one of its most important audiences — its customers — who at least know someone is listening to them and who may be supportive later when a crisis comes along.

Extra Reasons

The U.K. train system has had extra reasons for apologies of late. Network Rail, the government-owned company that oversees infrastructure, recently revised train schedules with seven times the usual number of changes. Add that to problems with new and larger trains, and the franchisees have much to mea culpaabout these days (read: delays, cancellations), as recently outlined by The Guardian.

A website that tallies apologies from the Twitter accounts of 25 U.K. rail companies found that they have said they were sorry almost 424,000 times so far this year (as of today).

Just yesterday, “Rachel” from the Great Western social-media team tweeted to a customer who complained about crowding on a train: “Hi Jack. Sorry for the busy conditions. Have you managed to find a seat on this service? – Rachel.”

Despite Jack’s woes, in July Great Western was able to boast that it was nowhere to be found on a government-released list of the ten most overcrowded train lines; it had been responsible for all 10 of them in 2010. It also reacted positively when the Secretary of State for Transport scrapped his plan to split the franchise by forming a separate operator for western England. Clearly, Great Western appears to be doing several things right.

Photo Credit: Great Western Railway

This is an abridged version of an article that appeared today on the CrisisResponsePro paid subscription portal. (CrisisResponsePro subscribers can access the full version by clicking here. ID and password are required.) To take advantage of all of the content, data, and collaborative resources CrisisResponsePro has to offer, contact us at