What do rail delay excuses really mean?

Passengers at train station

Rail passengers want franker and more factual explanations of delays, a report suggests. So how do you decode the excuses for lateness?

The train expected at Platform 4 is no longer just delayed, behind schedule or late.

Over recent years, ever more opaque explanation has spilled out of the nation's station tannoys - much to the annoyance of commuters. A driver late for their shift is a "staffing problem", while "passenger action" is used to describe everything from violence against staff to a sit-in.

The rail passengers' lobby group Passenger Focus commissioned a report, which highlights the growing exasperation with the messages coming from train companies when the trains aren't turning up. The report says commuters want more information on when services resume so they can possibly find an alternative, but it also lists the lack of plain English as a major bugbear.

Here, we list five real-life reasons why services fail, and get rail experts to decode them.

Reason for delay: "Tanking train toilet"

What is it?: Refilling the water tanks used for flushing the train toilets.

According to Guy Dangerfield, the rail passenger manager at Passenger Focus, the problems with reasons fall into two camps - overly technical terms, or generic and bland.

This is one which falls into the first camp. "You have to wordsmith it a bit to get the right phrasing. But there must be a better way to explain there's a delay because they're filling up the water tanks so the toilets can flush. There is a very general challenge for any industry where the language and the dictionary isn't how the customer speaks."

Reason for delay: "Passenger action"

What does it mean?: Anything from abuse of staff to doors being opened on moving trains.

Rail industry journalist Roger Ford is a man used to the jargon of the trade, but admits there is room for confusion.

"Passenger action could [even] be people opening the doors and jumping off the train because they're tired of waiting," he says.

"But you have to remember these messages might be coming from the control room, so the staff are depending on what they are told. You have to look at the point of view of the control room staff, who might be having to pass the information out to other driver."

Air traffic controllers are in a similar situation. They must use precise and often technical language for reasons of safety, but passed on to an outsider it sounds like baffling jargon.

"There's a conflict between giving people important information or going back and checking the exact reason," says Ford.

Reason for delay: "Poor railhead adhesion"

What is it?: Slippery tracks due to snow, rain, or leaves on the line.

Rail companies have been ridiculed for admitting snow or leaves on the line have led to delays - not a laughing matter, as mulch or snow can cause braking problems.

"This one is a bit of a paradox," says Dangerfield. "It's quite a precise explanation, but it's quite difficult to convey to people. You're trying to convey the message that weather conditions are not letting the trains grip the tracks as they would on a sunny day."

Reason for delay: "Congestion at London Bridge"

What does it mean?: The station is too busy.

"This means it's due to overcrowding at the station," says Mr Ford. "It means you can't allow more people on the platforms because they might push each other on to the tracks.

"I guess what you need is some kind of Plain English campaign, which has done wonders for written language. What are the confusing terms? Give the drivers a little book that says, 'When you're told this, this is what you tell the passengers.'"

Reason for delay: "Signalling problems or vandalism"

What does it mean?: [Often] cable theft

The theft of copper wiring is a growing problem on the rail network as the global price of metals continues to rise. But you are unlikely to hear these incidents described as such - they're more usually covered by generic phrases such as vandalism.

Dangerfield is not sure why. "It's described as a signalling failure because that's a consequence of it, or it will be described as vandalism. I don't know why they don't say 'It's because some so-and-so has stolen 150 yards of cable.' That's going to get people on-side."

Dangerfield says the big question that needs to be asked is "how can the language used during service disruption be changed so that passengers believe what they're being told and understand what they're being told".

It's a problem the train companies say they are addressing.

"We understand that people want information that is straightforward and jargon free and we admit that that's not always the case at the moment," says a spokesman for the Association of Train Operating Companies.

"We are looking at this as part of a wider programme to improve the information that train companies provide for passengers during disruption."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 317.

    Proof of a person smoking inside railway station. Nab him and fine him. Selfish guy doesn't bother about others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 316.

    When I worked for British Rail, many years ago, commuters got the honest truth - signalman asleep.

  • rate this

    Comment number 315.

    The point about the Swiss system is that they operate a punctuality rate of 88% of all trains with less than 3 mins of delay and have almost an entirely electrified system.
    Oh and thats in the alps, think they get a bit more than dirt and leaves.
    "And Britain is the most expensive rail system in Europe."
    Couldn't hurt to at least try and implement their example.

  • rate this

    Comment number 314.

    #301. corkie1965 "Regular users of Liverpool Lime Street in rush hour have suffer station staff doing a disappearing act when things start to go wrong"

    I think you may be overestimating the numbers of staff at Lime Street Station in rush hour. You do, of course have a fine new main information board on the main concourse with all the information you will need to find your train.

  • rate this

    Comment number 313.

    I have grown up with family members working for the railway since it was british rail. Unfortunately the "someone under a train" problem is too common and really cannot be helped. I think most people would be shocked to hear just how common an occurance this is!

  • rate this

    Comment number 312.

    Travelling between Exeter and Bristol one evening, an extremely fed up-sounding train manager announced several times that the delay was due to kids on the line. I'm pretty certain that the third time, he muttered something about running them over...

  • rate this

    Comment number 311.

    @ 310. missedmytrain
    "Railrunner, we don’t run more trains in Kent than the Swiss do."

    The Swiss are running trains in Kent now?

  • rate this

    Comment number 310.

    Railrunner, we don’t run more trains in Kent than the Swiss do. This story was started by a throw away remark made by a director to IC, who then repeated it to the railway minister who then repeated it in parliament.
    IC gave a great talk about his experience and even created a management principle around. Everything I say to be true will be true….

  • rate this

    Comment number 309.

    @ 271. sandwich steve
    "Please, it is leafs on the line not leaves! "


  • rate this

    Comment number 308.

    I think absence of information in the face of a delay can be more frustrating than the delay itself. When you're late for a job interview because you've been sat on a train 3 hours longer than you needed to be you feel you need a valid reason. 'Sorry I'm going to be late; someone jumped' or 'sorry, the trains broken down' is more understandable than turning up late muttering about late trains.

  • rate this

    Comment number 307.

    My favourite on the tube is "due to a person under a train". Not because I'm some sadist of course. But they say it like it's the most normal thing in the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 306.

    I appreciate knowing why we're delayed & I think the majority of people do. I accept stuff happens, people make mistakes etc, but I'm a true Brit and do enjoy having a good moan about it.

    The best staff talk to you. A driver explaining we're at a red signal, they don't know why and are trying to contact someone is much better than utter silence or fiction.
    Share your ignorance & we sympathise!

  • rate this

    Comment number 305.

    For those claiming fibre optic cables will solve all the problems, try passing between 6.25 and 25 Kv along them and see what that does to your train service. Too many quasi-engineers on this comments page!

  • rate this

    Comment number 304.

    I get a bit of a giggle when a train is somehow "On Time" but "On Time" was 5 mins ago... Is Scotrail equipping their trains with Flux Capacitors?

  • rate this

    Comment number 303.

    Where did you get these "experts" from?
    Congestion at London Bridge is usually caused by one or more routes runiing late and the others trying to stay on time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 302.

    Just curious - any bankers/traders/financial troubleshooters/MP's commenting on this? If so-take a bow for the rest of the mess in the country/world. If not-how many bank tellers and other front line staff have you all shouted at for the major problems their colleagues caused? Sometimes the problems go higher than the people left to deal with it facing the public! Makes you feel good though-yeah?

  • rate this

    Comment number 301.

    It's not the jargon announcements that cause annoyance it's the absence of anyone at the station who seems to be making decisions about which train will leave when and from which platform when delays occur. Regular users of Liverpool Lime Street in rush hour have suffer station staff doing a disappearing act when things start to go wrong. Those that are left simply shrug their shoulders.

  • rate this

    Comment number 300.

    Manys the time the PA operators don't know what is holding the trains up. It can take quite a while for the reason for a failure to become apparent. These are not the days where every signalbox had technician ready for deployment at a moments notice, The few on the ground staff left may be quite some way off dealing with another problem. More railway staff have desks than screwdrivers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 299.

    Ah yes, Switzerland. Their trains always run on time, (they don't by the way) but since the whole country runs fewer trains in a week than run in Kent in a day, hardly surprising. Yes I've caught trains there, very nice ones, but delayed by both snow and leaves same as everywhere else in the World.

  • rate this

    Comment number 298.

    Smitty your trains in Canada are affected by leaves as well as I can testify following a mile long slide past my stop on a commuter train out of Totonto. Leaves get crushed on the railhead and form a Teflon like surface with all the adhesion qualities of ice. The laws of physics apply over there as well as here.


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