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Romance or disruption? Understanding the train passenger experience through social media competitor monitoring

Significantly reduced service. These are words that send shivers down the spines of most commuters, and this week, they’re the words that many commuters in the UK will be confronted with. These words, or worse: all departures cancelled.

As the majority of the UK’s train and underground network prepare to go on strike next week, the golden age of romantic rail seems long behind us. We’ve used our competitor intelligence tool to unpick and compare this passenger experience between rail operators.

From the glamorous Caledonian Sleeper to the gritty Greater Anglia; from the far-reaching Avanti West Coast to the historic Great Western Railway – it seems that passengers will always have something to say about these entrenched rail institutions. Collecting their comments from Twitter, we’ve conducted a social media competitive analysis to reveal what passengers really think about their operators.

Competitor monitoring

Even outside of periods of industrial action, it is inevitable that most rail-related tweets stem from complaints. Quite simply, the war room of Twitter is the natural place for wronged passengers to vent – and be heard.

Yet this creates a headache for any trainline wishing to conduct a competitive landscape analysis: how do you see through the sticky seats, the shortened carriages, and the broken barriers, to unearth the real difference between competitors?

Competitor monitoring with Relative Insight offers just the ticket. By comparing thousands of tweets about four of the biggest UK train operators, we’ve identified the trends that define the trainlines.

Greater Anglia: the language of disruption

Pronounced in our analysis of Greater Anglia is the prevalence of disruption-related language. And this isn’t just any disruption-related language: this is industry jargon.

“Passengers are advised of reduced service from Tottenham Hale.”

In tweets that refer to Greater Anglia, the word ‘suspended’ arises 90.3% more often than for other trainlines. Similarly, the word ‘reduced’ is used 9.9% more often in Greater Anglia tweets.

These are industry synonyms that stand in for words with more negative connotations: cancelled, disrupted, delayed, worse. In adopting such language, as well as a passive voice (“Passengers are advised…”), Greater Anglia encourages customers to follow suit in using unemotive, less loaded language. It is a defusing tactic.

“FYI trains are also suspended from Chelmsford to Witham”

Great Western Railway: the personal touch

If Greater Anglia is decidedly hands-off when making updates about disruption, Great Western Railway (GWR) is the opposite.

Among GWR tweets, the word ‘afraid’ is used 30.3% more often than for other trainlines, while there are 70.8% more incidences of the word ‘sorry’. When digging more deeply into this, it’s clear to see where this is coming from: an apologetic messaging strategy from GWR’s customer service team:

“I’m afraid your tickets can’t be added to your wallet.”

“I’m sorry to hear you were unable to experience first class today.”

This personal approach perhaps gives the brand more accountability, and may even help customers to feel as though their complaints have been heard. However, the language of regret and apology may be more powerful if coupled with the language of action and solution.

Avanti West Coast: passengers take action

The need to provide tangible solutions is made clear by our Avanti West Coast analysis. In Avanti tweets, the strongest voice comes from passengers – and specifically, those who have developed strategies for dealing with their train operator.

Avanti tweets contain 7.2% more mentions of the word ‘glad’ than tweets for other trainlines, and often, this refers to the relief of avoiding particular problems or trains.

“kinda glad I grabbed an early train back to Manc. sounds like Avanti up to its usual shenanigans”

“I’m so glad I take Chiltern trains to and from London now. don’t think me hangover would survive the smell of an Avanti train”

Avanti tweets also contain 51% more mentions of the word ‘free’, here referring to the demand and receipt of free tickets in exchange for disruption.

“Perhaps Avanti should have just allowed a free ticket change on your website to avoid these embarrassing issues?”

“Avanti gave me free standard advanced travel, due to poor customer service”

For Avanti customers, it’s important to follow errors with action – and passengers aren’t afraid to pursue what they believe they deserve.

Caledonian Sleeper: the outlier

While most rail-related tweets come from a place of disruption and complaint, Caledonian Sleeper appears to be the exception to this rule.

Compared with other train operators, tweets about Caledonian tend to focus far more on scale, speed, destination, and journey:

  • Tweets about Caledonian contain 11.5x more references to the topic of measurement (speed and distance, for example)
  • Tweets are 1.7x more likely to mention specific locations (namely, London and Scotland)
  • Tweets are 1.8x more likely to refer to the topic of travel (‘trip’, ‘journey’, ‘visit’, and ‘arrival’, for example)

Unlike its competitors, and in spite of modern-day disruption, Caledonian Sleeper has retained the golden-age reputation of train travel as glamourous, adventurous, and fast.

The competitive landscape

This form of competitor benchmarking indicates that there is as much that sets these train operators apart as there is that brings them together. If disruption is acknowledged as just another part of the Great British rail experience, our competitor monitoring shows that what’s important is not the disruption itself, but how it’s dealt with.

There is the passive, unemotive handling of Greater Anglia; the apologetic, human approach of Great Western Railway; and the crusading, action-imperative demand on Avanti.

Then, of course, there is the untouchably romantic notion of travelling between countries, by night, which continues to captivate and distract the passengers of Caledonian Sleeper. Thanks to competitor monitoring we know that, for Caledonian at least, the romance continues to outweigh the disruption.

Conduct competitor analysis


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