Gerrards Cross Tesco tunnel collapse, 10 years on

Collapse! Tesco tunnel after the disaster

Collapse! Tesco tunnel Gerrards Cross after the disaster

Ten years ago today, I had a lucky escape. I was on the last train through the ‘Tesco tunnel’ at Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, before it dramatically collapsed, closing the Chiltern main line for almost two months.

The tunnel was created to allow a Tesco store to be built over the railway cutting. The project was controversial, and many people in the village protested against it. It only went ahead after John Prescott overturned the council’s refusal to allow the store to be built.

I was on my way back from a work trip to Chester that evening, Thursday 30 June 2005. It was a lovely evening, and I had enjoyed the journey south. My train passed through the tunnel at around 7.15. It collapsed about 15 minutes later.

The scene three days later

The scene three days later

The weekend after, people flocked to the scene to see the damage.

Witnessing the aftermath

Witnessing the aftermath

Work resumed on the project two years later, and Tesco Gerrards Cross opened in November 2010, some 14 years after it was commissioned by the company. Despite the protests over the years, it’s proved popular with locals.

The Tesco tunnel, 29 June 2015

The Tesco tunnel, 29 June 2015

My lost iPad: Chiltern Railways come up trumps again

I left my iPad on a train last week. I had a very busy day and didn’t get the chance to report the loss to Chiltern Railways until I got to Dublin that evening.

The online lost property page suggested it would be at least 10 days before I heard whether it had been handed in. So imagine my delight when Kala from Chiltern called me ten minutes later to tell me they had it.

It was just the latest example of Chiltern Railways’ outstanding customer service culture. Kala told me her day finished at 7pm, but she decided to call me (at 7.30) when she saw my online report to give me the good news.

Thank you so much, Kala!


The iPad that Chiltern Railways found – the day I got it in 2010

Nice and fast: our Chiltern Railways day out to Birmingham

Chiltern Railways Mainline: next stop Birmingham!

Chiltern Railways Mainline: Birmingham here we come!

Once upon a time, Britain had real trains. Powerful engines pulled rakes of elegant coaches. On most of our main lines this is just a memory, but happily Chiltern Railways has brought back the best of the past on its Mainline service between London and Birmingham – with the welcome addition of modern touches like free wifi and the most stylish toilets I’ve seen on a British train!

We had a family day trip to Birmingham on Mainline yesterday, courtesy of complimentary tickets from Chiltern.

Setting off

Setting off

As a former regular traveller to Chester on Virgin, I was very impressed by the legroom in Chiltern’s Business Zone. (Virgin’s Pendolinos and Voyagers aren’t the roomiest of trains, especially when they’re crowded.) And the big windows show off the advantages of the British Rail Mark III coach.

Chiltern's Mainline Business Zone - plenty of room for your breakfast and practising your writing

Chiltern’s Mainline Business Zone – plenty of room for breakfast and practising your writing

Chiltern’s Mainline service is a lot cheaper than Virgin’s trains from Euston, as the sign at Moor Street cheekily points out…

It’s good to see Chiltern transforming the former Marylebone to Birmingham line, as it was nearly killed by British Railways. Chiltern has invested millions restoring it to mainline standards – gone are the days of holding on tight when your train took the Marylebone line at South Ruislip!

Sadly, today’s Snow Hill is a shadow of the magnificent old station – more of a bus stop than a station for a country’s second city. So I was pleased that our train terminated at Moor Street station, which has been restored as a Great Western terminus, complete with a GWR 28xx heavy freight steam locomotive. It’s a fitting counterpart to Marylebone, London’s most civilised terminus.

Welcome to Birmingham - our Chiltern Railways train on right

Welcome to Birmingham – our Chiltern Railways train on right

We liked Birmingham. We enjoyed the walk to the National Sealife centre (Owen loved running around Victoria Square) and the sealife displays were very impressive – and we did well to visit when Octonauts Peso and Kwazii were visiting… And Brindley Place is really attractive, even when there’s still snow on the ground. (It was rather warmer last time I visited in March 2010.) On the way back, Owen insisted we pop in to Waterstone’s, which is less than 10 minutes’ walk from Moor Street station. Who were we to argue…

Owen and Peso, National Sealife Centre, Birmingham

Owen and Peso, National Sealife Centre, Birmingham

The Great Western lives - Birmingham Moor Street 2013

The Great Western lives – Birmingham Moor Street 2013

We got the 15.55 home, smiling at the group of fellow passengers enjoying a couple of bottles of champagne.

We thoroughly enjoyed our day in Birmingham – and getting there was a big part of the pleasure. Thank you, Chiltern Railways.

PS: the trip was memorable for another reason. It relived a famous film that we love: the 1962 British Transport Films production, Let’s Go to Birmingham, which was a speeded up Blue Pullman trip from London Paddington to the original Snow Hill. It was a real period piece with many steam trains along the route, from the Paddington pilot engine to the steam express that passed the Pullman as it approached Moor Street. There’s a sad sequel as the driver, Ernest Morris, was tragically killed when his diesel train collided with a steam freight train at Dorridge in 1963.

Disclosure: we travelled on complimentary tickets from Chiltern Railways.

Social Brands: Lego and Chiltern Railways

I love Lego. So it’s no surprise that Lego’s Lars Silberbauer was the star of today’s Brand Republic Social Brands event in London.

Lars started on a high: his business card is a Lego character. But his most compelling message was the way the brand has inspired its fans to share their creations and suggest new products.

Lars showed this brilliant video telling the story of Lego. It’s 17 minutes long, yet it’s been viewed by almost four million people. Over half have watched over 15 minutes, showing its appeal. I watched it with my four year old son Owen tonight, and he was enthralled. It shows the timeless truth: great content is compelling. It’s not a corporate video, but a magical story, beautifully told and animated.

I also enjoyed the story of how Lego rode to the rescue when an 11 year old American boy, James Groccia, found the Lego Emerald Night train set he had saved up for had been withdrawn. Lego sent James the precious set. It’s a great example of how delighting a customer can spread goodwill. (The home video showing his delight has been viewed over 1.6 million times.)

The other highlight of the day for me was meeting Nicola Clark, head of marketing and communications at Chiltern Railways. I’ve blogged many times about Chiltern’s excellent use of social media, so it was nice to hear more at first hand. Nicola said that social allowed Chiltern to become the brand it always wanted to be: human, caring about the customer, with real personality. She explained how the company started its social presence after seeing it as a great way to keep customers informed after the snows of 2009.

As Nicola said, passengers often just want an explanation when things go wrong. Tweeting photos of a line blocked by a tree shows us that there’s a good reason why the 0721 is late. By coincidence, Will McInness from Nixon McInnes made the same point, citing client First Capital Connect getting drivers to take photos of flooded tracks.

I took part in a panel discussion with Simon Nicholson from Honda and event chair Andrew Smith, co-author of Share This. I explained how PayPal is growing its social presence and how the company’s president, David Marcus, instinctively understands social as a way of engaging with customers and learning from their feedback. I added that the debate about who ‘owns’ social – PR, marketing or customer service – is meaningless. It should be a partnership with the needs of the audience centre stage. ‘Don’t ask what the customer can do for you. Ask what you can do for the customer.”

I’ll end with a personal story about Chiltern Railways. On Tuesday morning, I told Owen about the famous Pontcysyllte canal aqueduct in North Wales. I added that there was a railway locomotive named after it. I showed him photos from the internet of the aqueduct and the engine. That morning, I saw the engine racing through Gerrards Cross as I waited for my train. When I got to Marylebone, I took a photo (below) to show Owen later. We agreed we’d go on a train pulled by the engine one day…

Pont Cysyllte at Marylebone

Dyfrbont Pontcysyllte at Marylebone

Disclosure: I am Head of PR & Social Media for PayPal UK

How social media can win your brand friends for life

Companies around the world are waking up to the power of social media. They’re looking for the magic sauce that turns customers into fans. So it was no surprise that today’s Social Media for Results conference in London revealed some great examples of the best of social media practice.

I spoke about how organisations can use social media to help their customers, especially when things go wrong. I quoted an amazing finding from the United States: 47 percent of social media users had turned to social for help (this rises to 59% of people aged 18-24). And 71 percent of people who have had a positive experience will recommend that brand, compared with 19 percent who got no response. [Source: NM Incite: State of Social Customer Service 2012.] Incidentally, the figures are remarkably similar for men and women. In short, handling complaints well on social could turn an unhappy customer into a friend for life.

I spoke of my own experience as a Vodafone customer: how I enjoyed outstanding customer service after the social customer service team contacted me after I blogged and tweeted about my unhappy experiences. I also cited the example of Vodafone’s rival, O2, which did a great job keeping people informed with humour (and allowing critical comments) on its social channels after service interruptions recently.

My favourite experience however was Chiltern Railways. Last year, I got on the wrong train at London’s Marylebone. I tweeted about my stupidity. Within minutes, Chiltern’s excellent social team tweeted back the best train to return home on. Experiences like this make you feel special.

My other point today was that it’s so important to ask what’s in it for the customer (or council tax payer…) when you’re developing a social media presence. So many companies think: we need a Facebook page. Yet they don’t ask what value it will give. What content will you share? Are you simply going to churn out sales messages and dull news releases? Or do you have something interesting and relevant to say?

I also repeated my favourite subject at any communications conference: the need to use simple, compelling language. I quoted RIM’s apology (during the 2011 service failure) to customers in ‘EMEA’. As the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones mocked, ‘Where on earth is that?’ It doesn’t exist, except on corporate organisation charts.

Finally, a plug for an excellent book raising money for a very worthy cause. Behind the Sofa, compiled by Steve Berry, is a collection of celebrity memories of Doctor Who. All profits from the book will go to Alzheimer’s Research UK. I called Steve after we at PayPal had let him down. I was keen to find out how we could put things right and learn from the experience. Seven months later, I was delighted to read the book. Well done Steve!

[Disclosures: I am Head of PR & Social Media at PayPal UK. Steve Berry kindly gave his permission for me to mention his experience.]