Monday 15 June 2009

Open Access: Railways and social media

Guest columnist Ben Smith, a technology consultant and a founder of The Really Mobile Project, argues that railway companies should use social media to better meet passengers' information needs.

I realise this is likely to get me strung-up around here, but I really don't like trains. At all.

They're a necessary evil - the rubbish bit between breakfast and getting to the office (and yes, I'm looking at you Southwest Trains into Waterloo...). It's not a problem with the idea of mass-transit - I like to save the planet as much as the next man - it's just the sense of futility when things go wrong.

I'd started thinking about how I could get more convenient access to train delay information (without paying National Rail 25p for text alerts, which I resented) late last year when I saw a tweet by the 'Digital Minister' Tom Watson MP asking "Do any train operators run Twitter feeds to give rail information for each route?" on the social media service. Eureka! (and no they don't, by the way...)

Twitter was the answer (no, honestly)... a system entirely dedicated to providing timed status updates which could be browsed on PCs, phones, netbooks... you name it. Made possible by the awesome BBC Backstage project (worth the license fee alone, so pay up) I quickly produced a service to issue disruption alerts on Twitter - either for the whole country or from one of the 25 operators the BBC tracks.

Following the snowy disruption of early February and a day spent manually updating the accounts with extra reports two things became apparent: travellers were willing and able to report disruption long before the existing services could and Twitter was better able to withstand heavy loads than the train operators' websites which crashed in response to the unusually high numbers of visitors .

I quickly added a feature to 'crowd source' disruption alerts and the users (several thousand now) embraced it enthusiastically.

Since then, amidst sporadic media interest, the train operators have started to consider the use of social media, but so far they're mostly getting it wrong - targeting messages from their monitoring network to individual subscribers... they're missing the trick.

The power of social media is the 'social' bit - on the @uktrains service people report disruption alongside the BBC's data to create a much richer picture of travel conditions and everyone benefits... (and no-one pays)

And although constructing the service cost me all of zero pounds and 2 days effort there are potentially big rewards for train operators to consider social media.

Not only could they cheaply improve customer service by moving into the places online where their customers are (like this blog), the replies and comments directed at the @uktrains service (even by those who understand it's not official) give a rich insight into customers' views on their travel providers (good and bad).

More information about @uktrains and the 25 other operator-specific feeds is available at .

UPDATE: This just in from Rudi over at Merseyrail...

Can't give you the details yet but we are planning to start using Twitter in the not too distant future to supply our passengers with travel information and keep them up to date with any disruption on Merseyrail.

Mind you, with PPM above 97%, there isn't all that much to tell them...

UPDATE: And this from John over at ATOC...

We now have a feed on Twitter for the entire National Rail network and will soon have live feeds on a TOC by TOC basis.

This is better than the existing UK Trains feed not least because they are getting their information from the BBC Travel News website which – you’ve guessed it – gets its information from us via a 3rd party.

Our view is that it’s better for passengers to hear things straight from the horses mouth as it were.

UPDATE: The Fact Compiler begs to differ...

It's fine to hear it from the horse's mouth, as long as free sources of information continue

This encouraging news posted by Shane Richmond over at Telegraph Blogspots:

The Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) announced today that it is investigating complaints about National Rail Enquiries' handling of real-time train information in regard to My Rail Lite, the free iPhone application that was removed from the iTunes App Store earlier this year after a licensing dispute.

If trains are late why should passengers pay to be told of the railway's incompetence?

UPDATE: Ben responds to ATOC...

John says ATOC's twitter feed is better than @uktrains because they are the original source for the official disruption information...

I disagree because he doesn't mention crowd-sourcing, but regardless this is brilliant news (if not about 12 months late), but where is it?

Google/Twitter searches found nothing and it's not linked from their sites very visibly (if at all).

The whole point is @uktrains barely took 2 days to build - telling people about it so it actually helps them has been far more important.