Greg Wright: The howls of rage from Northern commuters must not go unanswered

Train delays are eroding trust in the transport system, says Greg Wright Picture by Simon Hulme  S
Train delays are eroding trust in the transport system, says Greg Wright Picture by Simon Hulme S
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SORRY seems to be the hardest word.

Especially if you’re a company whose trains have a tendency to cause mayhem by breaking down.

Every great business guru - from Dale Carnegie onwards - stresses the importance of apologising for mistakes that harm customers.

But, if you believe Northern Rail’s Twitter feed, a broken down train is a circumstance beyond their control. No apology necessary. An act of God, perhaps?

On Monday, Ilkley railway station at rush hour resembled a scene from a post-apocalyptic drama. No trains arrived or departed for the best part of two hours. We might have returned to the era of horse and cart. By the heaviest of ironies, the station did have plenty of “revenue protection” workers to check tickets for non-existent trains.

The chaos that ensued on one of the most heavily used commuter routes into Leeds was due to a single train breaking down between Guiseley and Ilkley. Commuters were left to guess when the next train might arrive.

Angry commuters who took to Twitter received the blandest of responses from train company Northern. Although Northern was sorry to hear about commuters’ frustrations, the broken down train on this line “was out of our control”.

As one enraged commuter pointed out, this problem wasn’t out of the company’s control. It was a Northern train that had broken down. It was the third breakdown on the Ilkley line in rush hour within two weeks.

So Northern’s defence was something like this: “We’re a train company. But we don’t actually control our own trains. They just do their own thing. Like break down. A lot.”

It’s a bit like a motorist dumping their broken down car in the middle of a busy road. The fact it won’t move is due to the owner’s shoddy maintenance work. The road is blocked. Nobody can move. But, using this logic, none of this is actually the car owner’s fault.

If Northern had run the railways during the era of Brief Encounter, the characters played by Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson would still be stuck in the waiting room, pounding out anguished tweets to Northern Assist over their smartphones.

Why does this matter? Let’s leave aside the damage inflicted on the economy by the countless hours of productive labour that are wasted due to malfunctioning trains. It’s the lack of contrition from the train company that really grates.

The great Dale Carnegie always stressed the importance of displaying emotional intelligence when dealing with customers.

A swift glance at social media channels suggests that our major rail operators aren’t great at displaying real empathy with their customers’ plight

It might be a different story if we had a Transport Secretary who was willing to pound his fist on the table and issue threats to rail firms across the North. The buck should stop with our elected representatives.

But we seem to inhabit a surreal world, where the trains run or break down at the whim of some unseen hand.

Lawyer Helen Dandridge said on Twitter: “It’s some sort of Hogwarts magic that trains in Yorkshire run it all - nothing ever seems to be the responsibility of the train companies, Network Rail or the transport minister.”

One of my contacts who works for a major law firm described the stresses and strains caused by her colleagues turning up late for work through no fault of their own.

She added: “ Seeing working parents struggle to get home to collect kids from school or nursery is painful to watch. The true cost of the current rail disaster is far more than just monetary.”

You can always claim for compensation for delayed journeys. But that can never quite make up for the stress and confusion caused by a delayed train, or the erosion of confidence in the transport system.

A show of contrition is the first step towards redemption. Instead of focusing resources on “revenue protection” personnel - who are usually friendly and helpful - why not just hire more people who can fix and drive trains? That’s hardly a revolutionary concept. The howls of anger from Northern commuters cannot go unanswered forever.