It’s not enough to make the buses and train run on time these days, many managers feel the need to be on Twitter as well, including Alex Warner

In my glory years when I had a job in transport, those of us in charge whiled away our working days engrossed in spreadsheets, budget reviews, appraisals, board meetings or just talking management jargon and winging it. Bizarrely, today’s transport movers and shakers are also fiddling around on Twitter, entertaining us all with their antics or indulging in a mutual love-in with their followers. There’s thankfully also some laudable engagement with real customers too and with my voyeuristic penchant I’ve been travel testing the bosses’ tweets of late.

They say that size doesn’t matter, but in Twitter it certainly does. In my not hugely scientific league table of followers, First are literally first when it comes to the bosses on Twitter, with National Express second and the likes of Arriva and Stagecoach just lagging behind.

Go-Ahead is mid-table, buoyed by Go South Coast’s MD, Andrew “nine a day” Wickham (@AndrewWickhamGo) whose near double figures tweeting on July 22 was deserving of a bigger audience than his 130 followers. Alex Hynes (@AlexHynes), a close-season transfer from Go-Ahead to Northern Rail as MD, puts more pressure on Wickham to bring home the bacon for David Brown’s mob – Hynes led the way across the industry for his former employers with several years of insightful and witty tweets (a mind-boggling 4,721 tweets and 958 followers).

Meanwhile, National Express is recovering from the sideways shuffle of former coach MD, Andrew Cleaves into an international role. Cleaves, who set the pace when it came to his “#MDonthemove” live updates from his nationwide network tours, doesn’t appear to have his own Twitter account, so he’s disappeared into the tweeting retirement home. Thankfully, his successor Tom Stables has taken up the @NX_MD account, albeit it’s a litany of corporate tweets, regaling the joys of coach travel versus rail or the latest propaganda exercise. We struggle to get inside his mind or understand what he gets up to at home of an evening.

With his 617 followers but only 412 tweets, Stables lags behind Jeroen Weimar (@firstbuscoo), FirstGroup’s chief operating officer UK Bus, and his 558 followers and 1,618 tweets (albeit Stables has a greater tweets per followers ratio giving him a better goal difference). Weimar is discerning in whom he hangs round as he’s only following 198 in return, meaning that many of his followers don’t come up to scratch for him. The key, which transport big-wigs miss, is to be promiscuous – follow all you can as it generally follows (pardon the pun) that they will politely reciprocate and improve your tally. How do you think a deadbeat loser like me (@AlexWarner5) managed to “pull” 326 times?

Weimar’s my favourite to watch – you can feel the madhouse at First as he returns from a holiday on funicular railways to a “Whirlwind first day back. Early train to Lawrence Hill to go and make sense of it all”. He has us hankering for more, but it’s a giggle watching his team getting in step with Twitter, if only to keep the governor happy. First Cymru boss Justin Davies (@FirstCymruMD) is among the newcomers while his opposite number at Hants and Dorset, Marc Reddy (@MarcReddy), is an experienced tweeter. He intersperses proud tweets about First’s glory with his antics as a Coastguard and it makes invigorating following.

Over at stiff upper lip civil servant world, there’s a surprising lack of tedium. Michael Holden (@holdmch), chairman of East Coast Trains and my top notch former gaffer at South Eastern Trains is a Twitter fanatic – yikes, I’d never have foreseen him getting the social media bug, but there he is, updating us about the local swimming club, his views on sport and giving a good and Department for Transport-compliant insight into his daily routine at Directly Operated Railways. I also feel as though I’m enjoying every step of his USA holiday with him too.

Holden’s penchant for twitter is rubbing off on his MD at East Coast, Karen Boswell (@flicksmrs), who is gradually coming to the party – only a few tweets but enough for me to learn we were at the same cricket match at Lords a few weeks ago.

Then there’s DfT’s director general, rail, Claire Moriarty (@ClareMoriarty) who tells us of a “great session yesterday with a group of Indian civil service leaders – fascinating to see our system through their eyes” – I’d love to know what it was, indeed, that they were thinking, but the public service code probably precludes Claire going all that far, so instead we discover that her name appears inadvertently as “mortuary” on her new mobile phone . Moriarty has 552 followers which puts her right up there vying for a Champions League spot.

The beauty of the movers and shakers messing around on Twitter is that they really do strengthen their company’s brand. So, for someone who lives miles from the East Midlands, my insight into the TrentBarton brand and daily diet is based on Alex Hornby’s obsessively frequent and energetic tweets from Trent Barton land (@alextrentbarton), rather than the irregular visits I pay on his equally energetic buses. Hornby’s seldom at his desk in Heanor but is instead always tweeting delightedly from the back of a bus, or combusting with excitement at a Trent “VIP breakfast crew” (whatever that is) or chuntering about the “engineering wizards” fixing stuff quickly.

Just down the road and David Horne (@DavidHorne), East Midlands Trains MD gives me my dose of his TOC’s brand – impressive, dependable, trustworthy and informative, with lots of tweeting about signalling upgrades at Nottingham and track ballast which I’m sure are vital for the locals, but they struggle to divert my eyes from the Sky Sports updates on my Twitter feed.

Elsewhere, HCT’s brand is strengthened by Chief Executive Dai Powell’s tweets (@Dai_HCT) that extol the virtues of social enterprise that are sufficiently juxtaposed with retweets for various other good causes, to keep interest levels high.

The only cynicism about all this is what I call the “look at me” syndrome of Twitter – the opportunity for those in charge of our transport system to put themselves on a stage and flatter egos that surely must be massaged enough by them running multi-million pound businesses and their big battalions. There’s just a hint of smugness amongst some as they tour their fiefdoms and tell us all how they met their people, as if this made them some kind of special manager, when really all their doing is the basics of their job – stick to talking about how you get out and about on your patch at the job interviews, please folks.

Some of the “what a fantastic team we have” comments about their people can also come across as condescending too. Frankly if everyone is so great (as we keep being told) why aren’t we running the perfect transport system? Whilst we’re at it, don’t underestimate how employees get wound up by their leaders’ well-intentioned leader tweets that forewarn of unfolding disruption, before bothering to inform their own customer relations department or frontline staff who are about to feel the brunt of it.

Twitter mercifully strips away the aura of seniority. When I was a humble clerk in the corner, I was fazed by the Keith Ludemans and Adrian Shooters of the world, but as my dad reminded me – “they all wear underpants, just like you”. Twitter cuts to the chase too and the quickest way to bypass the gatekeeper PA or belligerent call centre is to drop the industry big-wigs a tweet and get their attention – ready to light up in light blue on their Blackberry!

For those who fear the “trolls”, not joining Twitter can also be harmful. Type in the names of TOC MDs on twitter and witness the slating they get. Twitter provides an opportunity for them to defend themselves. Mind you, the corporate comms police and the media are watching, and any top dog at the peak of their game is only one misplaced keyboard comment away from their career being destroyed. That’s why I stick to spouting rubbish about sport on Twitter and not a lot else, not that I’m a transport big cheese anymore – but I’ve still got more followers than many of you lot, even if I’m not in the same league as the godfathers, Hynes, Hornby, Stables and Weimar. Check out my drivel at @alexwarner5.

 

Verdict:

Two or three years ago, if you’d have shown transport managers their tweets or said they’d get into this Twitter lark, they’d probably have cringed with shame or disbelief, but now they can’t live without it and who can blame them? Their followers are growing and their colourful tweets present the industry in a personable light. Don’t quit the day job though folks, please.

 

Transport’s Top Tweeters

  • Alex Hynes: Managing Director, Northern Rail – 958 followers
  • Alex Hornby: Commercial Director, TrentBarton – 696 followers
  • Tom Stables: Managing Director – Coach, National Express – 617 followers
  • Jeroen Weimar: COO, First UK Bus – 558 followers
  • David Horne: Managing Director, East Midlands Trains – 558 Followers

 

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