Twitter isn’t quirky any more – it’s mainstream. @alexwarner5logged on and looked at how various transport operators are harnessing this tool.

I was the first twit to fall foul of my employers on Twitter, long before footballers such as Joey Barton and other miscreants. I was ticked off two years ago for upsetting the folk at FirstGroup’s Aberdeen HQ with the language I had used on the Twitter account of the group’s Greyhound coach operation (@GreyhoundUK), which I headed at the time.

I had got carried away plugging our latest deals on Twitter. The “bye bye Natex” promotion code for existing National Express customers was over the top, although it did sell out coaches almost instantly! For their part, National Express didn’t actually object to the tweeting, it was my handing their customers champagne, chocolates, flowers and free Greyhound tickets one Saturday at Portsmouth, that triggered the following rebuke: “You are a complete disgrace to the transport industry that you profess to love so much.” Whoops.

Twitter was quirky in 2009, but it is bread and butter stuff now for transport operators and my former sparring partners at National Express’s coach operation are more advanced than many of their peers in using it to provide updates, promotions and a general sense of affinity with its customers. The beauty of Twitter though is that it is unsanitised stuff from customers. This does, of course, mean that brand damage limitation is often the name of the game for operators. National Express do this well, their twitter account is littered with a mix of sycophantic stuff from its acolytes (“you really are so great”), to lots of friendly and contrite apologies from its PR machine to complaints. Luckily for the operators – the original complaints (i.e. the really juicy interesting bit) aren’t immediately visible, and are only accessible if you’ve the inclination to press the “envelope” button next to the tweet. The key to hide the incriminating customer tweet is to respond to it quickly so that it can be masked.

Go Ahead Group will have had mixed feelings about a praiseworthy tweet for its Southern subsidiary on its Twitter account (@SouthernRailUK) being followed by a positive comparison with sister company Southeastern, whose “audience were stressed and screwed again”. Southeastern, though, are being royally screwed themselves by a commuter with a grudge and probably nothing better to do. This unhappy customer has set up an unofficial twitter account (@_SouthEastern) providing regular, almost minute-by-minute whinges about the service. The account has 1,324 followers – almost twice as many as the official account (@Se_Railway).

Meanwhile, I’d heard so much good stuff about fellow Go Ahead subsidiary Go North East that I put in the bus operator’s name on a search and rather than its official twitter page coming up (@gonortheast) I was greeted immediately with “really not my day – waited 45 mins for a 98 bus. Go North East can go f*ck off”. Lovely stuff.

Tweeters can both destroy a brand or reinforce stereotypical perceptions of it. Stagecoach will probably be relatively sanguine about its cheep and cheerful Megabus brand image being strengthened by some obvious sarcasm – “me and @youleatwhatsit are going to Newcastle via Megabus – classy birds!!!”, though they may recoil in horror at criticisms on its account (@Megabus) of faulty plug sockets across the USA and comments regarding poor punctuality – “30 mins behind skeg. Thanks for reminding why I hate you so much”. Why bother to follow someone you despise or even travel with them? It can only be to hound them relentlessly. A form of cyber bullying by the small guy.

It’s funny seeing operators try and use Twitterspeak to enrich or shape their brand, sometimes to irritating effect. Spending my childhood as a transport nutter, I’ve often imagined that inanimate objects such as individual trains, buses, routes and stations were personal friends with emotions – a bit like a kid with a comfort bear. However, even I’m totally unnerved when London Underground lines talk about themselves on Twitter in the first person. “I am part suspended today,” reveals the Victoria Line (@victorialine), whilst our chum the District (@districtline) is in poor health between Gunnersbury and Stamford Brook but mercifully, “there’s a good service on the rest of me” – neither of these sentences or concepts make any sense whatsoever outside of a transport context.

In almost all cases, a matey, cool-dude conversational style is the choice of operators, the language of the street but without all the modern day nonsense text speak. My personal favourites are Chiltern’s all-girl band members running its Twitter site (@chilternrailway). They sound like chirpy Samaritans with their introductions: “We’re here to listen to you and give helpful information and advice. We are E-Emma, N-Nicola & J – Jo”. No wonder, they’ve 3,500 followers. The Chiltern chicks sound a trendy bunch, except they then keep tweeting about some bloke called Malcolm, which seems to undermine the brand image.

Frequency is the key – Twitter isn’t an ancillary task and each operator needs a dedicated tweeter, the huge growth in smartphone technology means that there’s always someone, somewhere, on the move with nothing better to do than tweet about travel. Operators set the tone, though, in terms of the regularity at which they are tweeting. National Express is first rate in the rapidity in which they respond, always informative and friendly, with a laid back, but professional style. It’s all about managing customer expectations – Southern recognise this and are up front on their page by indicating that they’ll diligently tweet during office hours but outside that then
if its travel information you need, then National Rail Enquiries (@nationalrailenq) provides the best service. It’s a similar story at Go North East who convivially tweet to tell us they are offline: “We will be back at 8am tomorrow. Enjoy the rest of the weekend!” During the severe weather disruption last winter, Go North East were anything but nine-to-fivers, generating up to 200 tweets a day, around the clock.

The biggest test for transport is the brevity that Twitter with its 140 character limit demands. This is a real challenge for an industry that has since the round wheel has been notoriously verbose and ham-fisted in trying to articulate crisply and in a jargon-free manner the reason for a delay. Most operators have developed good editorial skills, to save a character, here or there, in order to still provide a credible explanation – others, like Arriva Yorkshire (@arrivayorkshire), prefer the “owing to exceptional circumstances” line, whatever that is.

Finally, if you find the tweets dull, then it’s fun just analysing who has got the biggest following – like devouring attendances up and down the country at sporting events to see what’s the most popular attraction. Maybe transport isn’t sexy enough, but we’re not talking huge numbers. Megabus has a hardcore following of 7,864 – a sizeable figure, but it’s a transatlantic brand and most of its tweets come from across the pond. Meanwhile, despite having a daily ridership of three million, London Underground lines pull the kind of crowds akin to midweek domestic cricket fixtures – in the hundreds. FirstGroup’s various provincial operating companies attract a bigger turnout than the Tube. It’s unsurprising as First were quicker off the blocks when Twitter first hit the scene – I can recall, it’s team in Bath barely able to contain its excitement nearly three years ago when it saw how effective and warmly received was it’s first dabbling in Twitter in helping disseminate information during a major service meltdown.

First’s joy was just the start and Twitter has been an unstoppable force, even if it should still come with a health warning. David Cameron slipped up in 2009 when he remarked that “too many twits might make a tw*t”. He has a point, however, given that I tweet obsessively despite only having nine followers. But it’s not the case for those passenger transport operators who have embraced the Twitter phenomenon as a useful tool to help them to engage and communicate with their tech-savvy customers.

Twitter hasn’t yet been mastered in the sphere of transport, but it’s ahead of the game. I’m still learning, so please follow me
(@alexwarner5) and I might just make it into double figures for followers. Please?

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport. Click here to subscribe.