Why Some Public Services Should Think About Their Use Of Social Media

This may seem a peculiar title for a blog, but I’m sure most of us who use social media have had occasion to tweet or post messages to providers of public services – more often in frustration than hope – when something goes awry.

I have as regular readers will know, had occasion to swap tweets with Royal Mail in the past about the performance of some of their operatives. Most recently this occurred when an item of post, that should have been delivered to the new owners of our former home, was instead re-directed to our new address by mistake. Human error is one thing and all of us make mistakes from time to time, it is inevitable; however the opposite of inevitable is evitable, meaning capable of being avoided, and provides an appropriate way with which to describe my recent experience with London Midland Trains. I suspect that the tale I am about to tell is not that unusual; but with the increase in use of social media use by public services (even privatised ones), there really ought to be a better degree of awareness when posting replies in the public domain to aggrieved customers.

On Wednesday April 17th, I went to the launch of the new Institute of Creative and Critical Writing at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. This exciting new initiative by Birmingham City University, included several readings of poetry and short stories by well-know writers such as Helen Cross, Patrick McGuiness and David Morley. Normally I try to buy my train tickets online given that my nearest station at Bloxwich is unmanned with no ticket machine, and I either collect them at a main station such as Walsall or have them sent by post if ordered several days in advance. On this occasion I caught the 17:08 local London Midland service into Birmingham New Street deciding to pay the Conductor on the train – I assume they are still called conductors – for a return from Bloxwich to New Street as is normal practice in such circumstances. When the train arrived and the doors opened the Conductor was standing in the carriage I entered, so having sat down I waited patiently with correct change in hand (£4.35) to purchase said return fare. I waited, and I waited, train stopped at Walsall, waited again, stopped at Tame Bridge Parkway where several passengers got on as they also did at Walsall, and still no sign of a conductor who by now one would have thought, had more than ample reason to move through the train checking tickets or collecting fares. Some ten minutes later we began the stop/start entry into New Street itself, and by this time it was clear, the Conductor wasn’t going to bother with such mundane matters as doing the job he was being paid to do. So at 17:36 I tweeted the following;-

BlackCountryLondoner‏@michaelcronogue17 Apr
@londonmidland conductor on train not bothering to collect fares so am hoping there’s someone at New St who can!!

Having alighted the train I found the excess fares area by the exit barrier and duly paid the fare telling the Collector that the Conductor had not bothered to collect the fares himself. He was not impressed. I did mention I had tweeted this but couldn’t be sure when/if I would get a response.

So at 17:44 I was surprised to receive this response from @LondonMidland;-

London MidlandVerified account‏@LondonMidland
@michaelcronogue which service are you on? Conductors are usually towards rear of service if you need to buy ticket

My response was to post the following;-

BlackCountryLondoner‏@michaelcronogue
@LondonMidland funny, thought it was their job to check tickets and allow passengers to buy where no ticket machine exists like at Bloxwich?

Which yielded the following from London Midland;-

London MidlandVerified account‏@LondonMidland17 Apr
@michaelcronogue Checking tickets is part of their role but main job is to open/close doors.

Firstly, the conductors on these trains usually sit in the rear cab so unless you catch them at a future stop if they don’t come through the train, going to be a bit difficult to buy a ticket. Secondly, the doors on the LM rolling stock all have buttons which allow passengers to open the doors themselves, all the conductors or drivers have to do is to close the doors afterwards before departure.

So having shaken my head in bewilderment at the ridiculous responses, I made my way to the Ikon returning in time to catch the 21:17 service home again. Upon arriving back at New Street I was astonished to find nobody manning the barrier to check I had a valid ticket before travelling. The whole place lacked any kind of uniformed official either from the railway companies or the Transport Police, which given its strategic importance as a main hub, I regarded as somewhat disturbing. On the return journey home nobody came through the carriages checking either for tickets or the state of the drunks, even though there’s usually only two coaches on this service. On getting off the train, lo and behold, the Conductor had a colleague sitting in the rear cab with him. Now he may have been going home for all I know, but clearly the person actually on duty was more interested in having a gossip than carrying out his duties.

I refrained from tweeting this as I was not confident of getting any sort of coherent response. According to figures released by ATOC, the Association of Train Operating Companies, some 110,000 passenger journeys are made each day by people evading the correct fare. In terms of lost revenue this costs some £200 million, enough to upgrade a quarter of the existing station stock each year making them more attractive and less fearful places, particularly for lone females or young people who have to use them at these times.

On other occasions I have used London Midland Services, there have times when there have been not only the conductors but several so-called Revenue Protection officers on the trains going up and down the carriages checking tickets and collecting fares, sometimes in a quite aggressive manner, thereby proving the old adage about putting a uniform on someone and they think they become God.

Do they do this because of safety in numbers? Or are they trying to show in as a dramatic way as possible, that they take a zero tolerance approach to fare evasion? In which case why do they only do this during daylight hours?

Judging by my experience of April 17th, if the railways are serious about improving services for all passengers, they should look at how their staff perform their duties for one, and then think a little more clearly how they respond to concerns raised by the travelling public.

While there are some things in life which are inevitable, most things in fact remain evitable; they are avoidable, even for those manning the social media feeds of public service providers.

Oh, and yes I know Birmingham New Street is owned by Network Rail: just in case someone at London Midland gets to read this, and decides to send in a “helpful” reply regarding the deserted station.

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