Author Mark Richards

Southern Rail troubles are well documented: but his week they found an unlikely social media hero – who could have a message for all companies…

Every day 300,000 people use Southern Rail: every day, a good proportion of those people are subject to overcrowded trains, delays or cancellations – or all three. Management blames the unions: the unions blame the management. And next month commuters and holidaymakers face more delays and inconvenience with another raft of strikes due at the beginning of August.

Now the owners of Southern Rail have been hit with a fine – which has only increased the bitterness between the two sides, and which will do nothing to improve the lot of the late, sweaty, stranded customers.

The Department of Transport (DfT) announced this week that Southern Rail has been fined £13.4m – petty cash compared to the fines levied on the banks or those scallywags at Volkswagen, but still significant by British transport standards.

The fine could have been higher

The Government said the fine would have been higher, but they accepted that the majority of the delays had not been Southern Rail’s fault: blame was largely placed on strike action and high levels of sick leave. Because of this, the owners of Southern Rail, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), had argued that the delays were caused by factors outside its control and that the company, therefore, was not responsible.

Charles Horton, Chief Executive of GTR, said he was pleased the “issue has been concluded and [we] are sorry that our service levels haven’t been good enough.”

Mick Cash, General Secretary of the RMT Union, was a tad less charitable.

“This pathetic response to the abject failure by Southern/GTR to deliver on their contract doesn’t even stack up to a slap on the wrist. [Transport Secretary] Chris Grayling has let them off the hook big style.”

Did Southern Rail cost Theresa May a majority?

Whatever your views on the rights and wrongs of the issue there can be no doubt that dissatisfaction with Southern Rail runs deep – so deep, in fact, that there are credible suggestions it cost the Conservatives a majority at the last election. They lost seats in Eastbourne, Brighton Kemptown and Croydon, with Amber Rudd – the Home Secretary – holding on by a whisker in Hastings.

Both the RMT union and a consumer group cited Southern Rail as the cause of the defeats. Mick Cash was especially vitriolic:

“These results prove that the toxic Southern Rail franchise was a game-changer in key seats along the routes served. We will harass Theresa May and the transport ministers in her minority government every step of the way as we step up the fight to put safety and access to services before private profit and greed.”

Eddie comes to the rescue

So not a good week for Southern Rail. Fined, battered, bruised and with their reputation in tatters. Then – in the best traditions of the silent movies – a hero arrived in the nick of time.

Eddie comes to the rescue

Was it a bird? Was it a plane? Was it Superman? No, it was Eddie.

Eddie – sadly we do not know his second name – is 15 and was at Southern Rail on work experience. The decision was taken to put Eddie in charge of Southern Rail’s Twitter feed, which (as you might guess) is usually a running stream of complaints, abuse and sarcasm. Showing that all the world’s ‘social media consultants’ are grossly overpaid, Eddie wasted no time in introducing himself:

Hi! Eddie here! Here on work experience and ready to answer your questions

Sensing that Eddie may not have the answer to why the 7:32 was delayed, overcrowded or cancelled, Southern Rail’s followers tried a different tack:

Hi Eddie! Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?

A tough one: you suspect the traditional occupants of the customer service desk would have struggled. But Eddie was unfazed:

100 duck sized horses. A horse-sized duck would be pretty scary. You? Eddie

A perfect response. In less than 140 characters Eddie answered the question, empathised with the customer and clearly identified himself. And after that, he went from strength to strength…

Eddie – would you rather have rollerblades for feet or chopsticks for hands for the rest of your life?

Rollerblades for feet. I feel like I could get used them pretty quickly and get places quicker.

Unlike Southern Rail someone darkly responded. But Eddie was on a roll, and by the end of his stint was even dishing out dietary advice.

Chicken fajitas or Thai green curry tonight? @Adam_W48 needed to know.

It has to be chicken fajitas Eddie replied with a wink.

By the end of the day Southern Rail had unwittingly created a social media star and – for one day at least – had given their customers something to smile about. But Eddie is not alone in being an unlikely star of the new media…

Let me introduce you to an ever more unlikely social media star – Jacob Rees-Mogg, or the MP for the 17th Century as he is frequently known. More correctly, the Eton and Oxford-educated Mogg – the Moggster to his fans – is the Conservative MP for North Somerset. Unlike many of today’s politicians, Mogg doesn’t pretend to be something he is not. To many, he is what the New Statesman described as ‘a cartoonish toff.’ To others, he is a future Prime Minister – William Hill will offer you 16/1.

But Mogg also has 32,000 followers on Instagram. He is not afraid to speak Latin and holds the record for the longest word ever used in the House of Commons (floccloccinaucinihilipilification – it means the habit of estimating something as worthless.) His sixth child was named Sixtus – the Guardian labelled him a ‘Tory sex machine’ – and he campaigns with his eldest son, both of them dressed in identical double-breasted suits.

You suspect that Eddie and Rees-Mogg could not be more different. But what they share is authenticity, a willingness to answer a question. As Southern Rail casts around for excuses, as United Airlines tries to justify assaulting one of its own passengers and sundry corporate and government ‘spokesman’ tell us what we know is patently untrue, maybe they can all learn a lesson from Eddie and the Right Honourable Member for the 17th Century. Customers are fed up with spin: more than ever they value the truth, openness, honesty and a willingness to engage.

Have a spiffing weekend, old bean…