Why Northern Rail’s Twitter feed should give a little love back to its passengers - Greg Wright

Library image of passengers waiting for a delayed train. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Library image of passengers waiting for a delayed train. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
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PICTURE the scene. You are standing on a platform, along with dozens of other tired and angry travellers, waiting for a train that never comes.

The predicament is not uncommon, In fact, virtually every rail journey you have endured over the last three weeks has been plagued by delays and frustrations.

Where do you seek guidance? For most people, the first port of call is the train company’s Twitter feed.

And what does the feed contain? Expressions of regret? Acknowledgement of failure? Insights into what the company is doing to sort things out?

Too frequently, Northern Rail’s twitter feed is stuffed with content that ought to belong on a children’s TV show from the 1970s. Over the last few weeks, the company has taken to Twitter because it wants you to “spot the pumpkin” or name your favourite pickle.

They probably hope to come across as friendly and humorous. But when you’re worried about fainting because you are crammed in like a sardine on a hopelessly overcrowded train, pickles and pumpkins are not at the front of your mind.

My colleague, Graeme Bandeira, The Yorkshire Post’s cartoonist, tweeted last week: “Sat on the 18.09 behind the 17.59 and that one can’t move because of a broken down train at Horsforth. @northernassist you are an abomination of a company. The quicker you are stripped of your franchise the better. It’s Friday night. People want to get home and have a life.”

Graeme told me: “They have got it hopelessly wrong with their public relations.”

Dan Johnson, the BBC journalist, said on Twitter in response to a Northern tweet about pickles: “Guys, please – do yourselves a favour. Focus on running trains or providing information to help passengers when you can’t.

“This is so inappropriate on a day your poor reliability is in the news again – where’s the update on that? How about outlining some plans, an apology even?”

It’s the lack of empathy from Northern’s bosses that really infuriates passengers, who may lose their jobs after being forced to rely on this terrible service. Frontline staff, in general, are professional and apologetic. Not every delay is the company’s fault.

But my story, which is far from unique, illustrates the problem. Virtually all of my trains to and from work provided by Northern over the last three weeks have either been cancelled or delayed. The timetable almost belongs to the realms of fiction.

Northern must be tired of my relentless tweeting on trains that display a profound reluctance to run on time. Most of my tweets are unanswered.

The feed can resemble one of those tractor production reports from the old Soviet Union; full of cheery exhortations which are not grounded in reality.

It does not reflect the experience of everyday commuters, who have to risk serious injury by sprinting between platforms in search of a train that is rumoured to be heading to their destination.

Train departure times are often shuffled and re-shuffled like cards in a pack. There is a colossal price to be paid in lost productivity. Parents are worried about not being able to pick up their children from school or nursery.

Northern has apologised and said the increase in train miles and extra services introduced since 2016, combined with no increase in track capacity, means there are more congested railways in the North.

So here’s a challenge to Northern. Why not put your chief executive in charge of the Twitter feed for a day? Instead of hearty emojis and frivolous contests, why not fill the feed with heartfelt apologies and tell people what you are doing to make things better? Give a little love to your passengers and you might get it back. Your company would be nothing without us.