Online and on track

Online and on track

Fri 1 Jul 2011

Dr Craig Nelson, senior consultant for Steer Davies Gleave, tells's Kate Ashley how social networking technologies can be a valuable asset for the rail industry.

The Information Age is developing at an almost exponential rate, with new technologies and services becoming readily accepted and mastered as soon as they hit the market.

Industries and service providers must look to embrace these new technologies quickly to maximise the potential benefits for their customers. Mobile phones with internet capabilities are now widespread and social media such as Twitter and Facebook represent opportunities for service providers, including in the rail industry, to interact much more closely with their customers.

Craig Nelson, of transportation consultants Steer Davies Gleave, is in no doubt as to the power of social media. Speaking at the Rail Champions’ Intelligent Cities Hub debate in May, he offered a clear view of how social media can be used to open up new avenues of communication with passengers, and said that Twitter especially came into its own during the winter 2010 travel chaos. When official information systems failed, some operators encouraged passengers to update each other through social media.

Nelson stressed the importance of contact with passengers, especially in difficult circumstances, saying it “is paramount to ensuring good service and satisfied customers”.

He told “Social media is a great way of getting and supporting real-time data, sharing information out to people in real-time and assisting local authorities to improve their communication.”

Social media can provide a great deal of detailed information for both those using and those running rail services. The interactive element means that both parties can engage and collaborate to increase performance. In this way, it is a chance to learn as well as an opportunity to inform.

And social media does not have to be seen as a replacement for more traditional methods of contact. To avoid the development of a two-tier level of access towards information, which could leave behind the millions who do not wish to make the leap online, tools such as Twitter can be used in conjunction with existing modes of communication like leaflets and face-to-face assistance.

Nelson explains: “Social media is going to be very important as a support for traditional means of communication, such as electronic signage and printing materials.”

Twitter can provide a vast amount of data pertinent to rail companies. The public can highlight incidents as they happen, as well as giving honest feedback about their experiences. Responding to customers who contact organisations via social networking sites helps develop trust and this direct engagement can help to promote customer relations, he said.

Nelson continued: “The information that becomes available can then be exploited by developers and website designers to ensure that the right data is built into journey plans, making it easier for people to plan A to B journeys which are accurate and reflect the real-world situation at the time.”

This means that journeys can be updated as soon as information indicates that there is a change, or if passenger preferences are pointing in a certain direction. Journeys become more personal and appropriate. Data that the public provides can be tailored specifically to their needs, ensuring that rail companies’ responses are relevant to the individual.

“In the future, I think Twitter and Facebook will become more sophisticated and more in tune with the way people use the interfaces,” Nelson adds.

The way information circulates on social media platforms means that it becomes available to a large number of people in a short space of time, so this free publication of data can achieve results whilst being cost and time effective.

This new system of sharing information encourages people to become ‘active passengers’ who are aware of the amount of control they can exert on the rail services available to them. People can choose to receive automated alerts for certain services, which provides another way of adapting their experience to fit their lifestyles.

Multi-modal websites allow travellers to access information in a variety of mediums, which caters to different preferences, dependent on the type of passenger. Again the key is choice and relevance for each person. This could involve a website with a search engine for train tickets combined with a regularly updated travel alert application that also offers a variety of ways to contact the company.

Rail companies could also consider generating and distributing crowd-sourced maps containing information about problem areas, to help other passengers avoid similar stress when planning their journeys.

In terms of a loss of reliability, all information collected from the public should be checked with official sources, ensuring validity of content, Nelson adds. Additionally, if a story has been repeated in several different places, it can be taken more seriously than a single comment.

If the rail industry takes some of these ideas on board, customer relations and service could greatly benefit. The fact that social technology is constantly updated means that problems in this approach can be highlighted, considered, and resolved quicker than ever before.

As Nelson says, social media is a great way to get information across to the millions who use the rail network.

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