The Little Engine That Could Not

Yesterday’s massive rail debacle in Melbourne affected almost every running train service in the entire state of Victoria. Hundreds of thousands of commuters were delayed, some for extended periods of time.

I have no doubt that most people in the calm light of day appreciate that in any system, things do go wrong from time to time, and that some points of failure within those systems can have much greater flow on effects than might others. Basically, it is an example of that old adage that “shit happens”.

The biggest frustration as a regular rail commuter is not the inevitable delays when something goes wrong, it is the lack of timely communication as to problems having occurred. This behaviour is not peculiar to train networks, and certainly not to V/Line and Metro Trains Melbourne.

Where these two organisations fail badly is that in many instances, no information at all is provided. No announcements. No text messages. No tweets from their customer service accounts. While during the disaster that was yesterday’s morning commute, both companies made a “better than usual” attempt at informing their customers, reports from commuters varied from between no information at all, to incorrect information and bad contingency advice.

Yesterday’s problems were initiated by an overhead power supply fault that occurred at 4:55am – yet the first notification that I received was a warning of expected delays due to a major system fault in Melbourne – which I received at 6:30am. That’s a long time between the incident, and someone getting around to letting people know.

But as I said earlier – that’s better than usual, for both companies. While my train ended up only being delayed a relatively short 22 minutes, many were delayed for much longer – but at least V/Line tried to keep us up to date. In more “normal circumstances”, even when information is provided, its basically useless. Take for example the text message I received earlier this morning from V/Line:

At 09:16, they sent me a message to say that the 09:00 train was running 20 minutes late. Okay, that’s fine. Surely however, they knew at 09:00 at the very latest that this service would be a late departure, even if they didn’t know exactly how long the delay would eventually be at that time?

So why did it take 16 more minutes to let people know? Further, the people expecting to travel at 09:00 should all have been at the train already, expecting it to leave at 09:00. When it was found that would not be the case, a platform announcement would have informed all the people who needed to know. So why waste money sending out text messages to people who won’t be affected anyway?

These text messages should only be sent out BEFORE the scheduled departure time – with or without the length of the expected delay. This way, people not already at the station will know, and have the opportunity to re-assess their travel plans if required.

That, V/Line and Metro Trains, is customer service.