Commuter fatigue

Commuter fatigue – inevitable or manageable?

How do we rebuild Australia’s transport infrastructure without totally pissing off commuters?

Victoria’s Big Build is only getting started and road and rail commuters are already being bombarded with “we are sorry”, “unprecedented interruptions” and “construction blitz” messages. “Be sure to plan ahead”.

It is estimated that 1.5 million Melbourne rail commuters are currently being bussed into Melbourne’s CBD while necessary line upgrades take place.

How many ‘sorry for the delays’ will it take before commuters reach the tipping point?

I am a train commuter. It is also part of my job to manage community expectations on major infrastructure projects like rail and road upgrades. From a professional standpoint, I’d like to say, “sorry”. I believe we need to be doing more for commuters (road and rail) to avoid the constant uncertainty as to whether we will miss that meeting or time with the kids, again.

I know, like most people, that delays are necessary part of upgrading infrastructure. It is my job to convince others of the importance of these works and that interruptions are kept to an absolute minimum.

We are sorry for the delays

BUT when I hear ‘we’re sorry’ on what appears to be a daily basis (planned or unplanned) it’s starting to piss me off as a commuter.

My train line recently had its nine-day construction blitz. It ended up being two weeks of uncertainty and mayhem. The trip on buses took 2.5 hours (one way) on a particularly busy day – that’s double the normal time. On average commuters were expected to take one for the team and graciously accept the additional 45 minutes (on average) on the trip each way.

Then, with little warning, planned interruptions were extended. I would argue that they are not planned if they were extended with little notice.

Customer fatigue from too much delays

After three more days, relief was in sight:

Train delays and stakeholder engagement

I wept for my professional counterpart and the reputation of infrastructure projects when I saw this note on my train notification app:

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The headline in the regional paper says it all:

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Then the day after:

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I love it – ‘train pain’. I still call it ‘commuter fatigue’, because this example is not isolated to rail. Roads, water, power, in fact all upgrades impact certain stakeholders. With so much infrastructure going on, I wonder if the businesses, commuters and communities are going to put up with the inconveniences much longer?

I’m using my very recent example to illustrate a point. That point is that commuters are people and they are pissed off.

I have attempted to de-identify the line in this story because this is the line that I travel on most days. I very much appreciate that hard working people are transporting me safely to my destination every day. 100 per cent of the time I have arrived safe. They have also, according to the stats, being consistently reliable (90-95 per cent) and around 85 per cent punctual. By my standards they are doing a great job.

My profession does however have a tough job selling construction blitz’s when stories like this unfold. It is these episodes that commuters remember. It is when confusion reigns or a missed birthday party occurs, or when on the 24 October 2018 I was helpless and late in picking up the kids from their new school.

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The tipping point

Word on the train is that commuter sentiment has plummeted. Commuters are united in their frustration and choruses of frustration unite us when another delay is announced.

Unfortunately, my line is not alone and, unfortunately, delays are not over anytime soon.

It’s my prediction that this issue will be a key platform of the opposition at the next state election. I can see the slogans now:

‘Commuters traded like pawns to protect the king’ 

If commuter fatigue becomes a political debate, think Trump, not facts. Trump won votes based on emotions. Every commuter that is pissed-off with delays accounts for most working voters. The ‘fact’ is that delays are necessary to deliver this infrastructure. See where I’m heading with this?

The solution is not to slow down construction to or avoid delays at all cost. Manage commuter’s expectations and if nothing else, treat us as paying customers.

Better strategies are needed to relate to commuters and avoid them feeling helpless and confused about whether they’ll get to work or home on time tomorrow.

How can we engage commuters better?

I’m writing this article as I am reaching out to my network and fellow commuters for your suggestions on how to manage this better. There is a lot more coming so let’s get on top of this sooner rather than later. 

All I know is the solution involves a complex set of policy, strategies and tactics that are tackled from multiple directions. 

I’m certainly open to criticism of my ideas but I don’t welcome comments that are not contributing to a solution. Here are my suggestions to get things moving:

1.    Coordination

It is pleasing to read that the Premier’s decision to merge the roads and rail authority this week into a mega-agency is a set in the right direction. It is my hope the new department will assess expected delays across all project and consider things like:

  • the absolute necessity of an interrupt to commuters;
  • determine the impact of the interruption in quantifiable terms;
  • approve or require measures to minimise interruptions;
  • review other works in the area and the likely impact on other works; and,
  • establish penalties for failing to adhere to approved conditions of an interruption.

2.    Transparency

As a commuter, I am losing touch with what is a signal failure interruption and what was planned. If we were more transparent with commuters, we could communicate delays into:

  • acts beyond our control (out of anyone’s control);
  • problems with existing infrastructure (the reason why we need to upgrade); and,
  • planned interruptions (to reduce delays experienced from old infrastructure).

Don’t tell the public planned interruptions are necessary to make our commute more reliable and quicker if the works involve adding new platforms. Tell me we need to accommodate a growing city.

Separating out the type of delays will help commuters feel better informed about upgrade works. If it means less signal fault delays or speed restrictions during hot days, I’d like to know that. 

Have you seen the safety messages at worksites; 0 injuries for 300 days? Putting up a tally of planned and unplanned interruptions will help commuters understand why they were delayed.

3.    Messaging

We should be more goal-oriented in our communication approach, rather than focusing on the problem. It is great that our Premier is often the spokesperson when we face delays. This shows good accountability for the problems we are facing.

However, instead of ‘construction blitz’ and ‘unprecedented delays’ why don’t we talk about how the current situation isn’t good enough. Consistent key messaging needs to be shared across all projects and partners. It needs to focus on the most important reasons for the works, for example:

We are getting Victoria ‘On the Move’, again’.

‘Your trip will be quicker by . You’ll get a seat. You can plan your arrival time with more accuracy, and our service reliability will improve.’

Give them something to look forward to. Don’t tell me I have to catch the bus for a week so that you can lay drains.

‘To get commuters on the move, again, we will need to access the line safely.’

If we humanise the story we tell commuters, they may feel more valued as paying customers.

Yesterday’s delay was caused by an animal strike. Your safe arrival is so important to us, we had to make sure the train was up to the task of getting you to your destination on time and safely.’

Or:

‘Yesterday’s delay was the result of congestion and a signaling fault. That is why important works are being planned to upgrade this line. The short-term coach rides help us get on with the work to make this line more reliable.’

4. Commuters are people too

Poor ticket inspectors and platform staff cop the brunt of commuter’s frustrations. People then chatter amongst themselves and because they have no one to express their frustrations to, and they vent on social media as a way of therapy.

I’m not expecting a personal apology, but it sometimes feels that there is a faceless fat controller playing God with our daily commute. When a delay occurs, staff go into hiding.

There could be message boards saying:

‘sorry about yesterday, this is what happened. Our staff fixed it in x min so you’re good to go this morning’.

Messages can be placed on the trains as well as the next stop.

When asking for feedback online, respond in a timely manner. I receive quick automated messages that sometimes receive a response weeks later.

All is not so bad with Melbourne’s rail commute. I really like the staff on my commute, they do a great job. We are apparently much better off than Sydney commuters. The courtesy that Melbourne train staff offer to commuters, often under trying circumstances, is to be commend. This article illustrates the point beautifully. https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6514616976403460096

5. Contractual obligations

The government departments running these infrastructure programs are placing more and more emphasis on contractors demonstrating how they will manage their stakeholders during planning, delivery and operation of projects. Enormous energy is being invested to minimise the impact. Unfortunately, many of the projects I have been working on recently have resulted in the engagement budget being reduced during contract negotiations.

We need project people at the stations, not just posters. People to say sorry, not voice overs. Cups of tea on cold frosty mornings would go a long way while we wait for a delayed train.

Guaranteed service levels would provide penalties for faults caused by the provider. Refunds or compensation to commuters if service dropped below standards.

I’m sick of seeing pictures of the big machines, smiling faces and self-promotion by government and contractors on social media. It doesn’t, in my opinion, relate to the commuter’s sentiment. On the ground, contractors are getting things done. Instead of seeing a tunnel borer in action why not show the extent of work involved in a ‘construction blitz’ in a five-minute video. To see how much pressure and how much work contractors are actually expected to do whilst shutting down a commuter’s line might shed a different light? For many commuters they have no concept of what goes on in a planned shutdown.

6. Commuter flexibility

We collectively need policy that incentivises commuters to work from home during expected delays. If I bought daily tickets it would cost me many thousands of dollars a year in public transport (I live on a rural line). To make it manageable, I buy monthly tickets. There is no incentive for me to get off the network during delays. I pay even when I don’t use. I’m lucky that I can work from home but there is no flexibility in the current pricing arrangements that encourage this.

7. Social procurement

Instead of giving everyone free travel, using local suppliers to help build and maintain our country’s infrastructure is the way to go. Investing in local and social businesses that many commuters are involved in or at least familiar with can ease commuter fatigue. It may not stop the fact that we will continue to be delayed but if I knew the machines used on the upgrade had regraded the footy oval or students were employed to hand out cups of tea during delays, it would make me feel there is a sense of giving back.

The opportunity for local business involvement, giving back and compensating communities directly and indirectly will go a long way to settle commuter frustrations.

Social procurement and these initiatives have now been legitimised in the Victorian Government’s policy. No longer are projects assessed only on cost, but also how they contribute to ongoing social and environmental benefits. Here is a huge opportunity to manage commuter fatigue that will require innovative thinking and more focus on the impact on stakeholders during construction works.

Summary

Each disruption has a personal impact on each commuter. It could mean a missing a business meeting or the child’s soccer game. I hear stories daily amongst commuters, who are fatigued by all the interruptions.

Don’t ignore commuters because you won’t like what they have to say. Don’t communicate only when you want something.

Involve commuters and communities in your projects. Don’t make them feel unimportant. Meet with them. Make commuters want to come back once upgrades are finished. For public transport, don’t give them a reason to jump in their car instead.

When all else fails, buy a push bike or motorcycle.

I welcome your suggestions and comments on how we can lessening the impact on commuters why we rebuild the nations infrastructure.

The opinions and suggestions expressed in this article are the authors and not necessary that of his employer.

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