How Waterloo avoided chaos

By Nick Grigg

#LondonWaterloo was billed to be the biggest scene of chaos and distress this summer, outside watching Dunkirk at the cinema. But how has this actually played out, over the period of the redevelopment works?

The background

From 5 to 28 August, South West Trains and Network Rail were upgrading the station to accommodate longer trains, increase passenger capacity in the station and improve the overall passenger experience.  As a result, 10 out of 24 platforms have been closed, significantly reducing station capacity. As a major London terminus, Waterloo handles about 100 million passenger journeys a year, and potential disruption was expected to be severe.

Excepting the unforeseeable blip that was the train derailment on 15 August, the impact seems to have been subdued. This came as a surprise, to the extent that the lack of disruption was newsworthy.

How planning, research and comms helped avoid chaos

Transport Focus, South West Trains and Network Rail commissioned BDRC to monitor passengers’ awareness and understanding of the works and to evaluate their reactions to the planned alterations and how these were communicated.

We ran focus groups and three waves of a quantitative survey in the run up to the closures to understand: what passengers needed to know; how, where and when was best to communicate; and perceptions of the reasons for the works and future benefits.

 

The findings

By early July, a whopping 91% were aware of the planned infrastructure upgrade works.  An encouraging 66% supported the upgrade works, a figure which had grown wave on wave.  This is testament to the communications put in place by South West Trains and Network Rail to drive awareness of the disruption and the reasons behind it.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, however. Whilst most people were aware of the impending disruption, only 42% were satisfied with the information they received. Many reported a lack of revised timetable and information about how their particular journeys would be impacted during the works.

“It's all well and good warning in advance that it's going to be a massive nightmare - at least I have good notice of that. But what are my options? I haven't seen any practical information of what I'm supposed to do. What alternatives will there be? How do I explain this to my bosses? What happens if I face disciplinary action for not being able to get to work? What about annual season ticket refunds?”

So how has mass scale misery been avoided?

28% of commuters said they would take annual leave and 41% planned to work from home/another office to avoid travelling to Waterloo. Others planned to travel earlier or later than usual (35%). And some had alternative routes.

Others had more inventive solutions:

So what are the lessons for stations and train operators?

Keep passengers in the know.

Implementing a communications campaign with a clear message, shared via varied and relevant channels, over a considerable time period was clearly a success in terms of raising general awareness and avoiding chaos at Waterloo.

Had they kept to Transport Focus’s “tell it as it is” policy when the derailment occurred, Waterloo could have avoided the public frustrations shared in reaction to the derailment. It took over two hours before the term ‘derailment’ was used in announcements and passengers disliked the vagueness of ‘operational issue’ and ‘additional issue’ as explanations.

Informing passengers what the problem is (or will be) and how they can avoid affected routes/stations will go a long way to keeping people happy – or at least minimizing any unhappiness...

And if all else fails, the free ice-cream and bottled water being offered to Waterloo commuters will have had some effect on keeping people on side.

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You can read more about this research on Transport Focus’s website.  Our transport research team also run a perfect companion to industry reports (such as Transport Focus’s NRPS), called The Rail Reputation Index. We have designed this study for train operating companies to understand the emotional dimensions behind passengers’ relationships with rail brands. The study reveals net promoter score (NPS) benchmarks and the factors which drive of customer advocacy. Recent findings are now available to subscribers and the top-line results are publicised in the Global Railway Review.

 

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