Improving buzz won’t put Northern Rail back on track

Stephan ShakespeareCEO and Co-Founder
January 29, 2020, 12:12 PM UTC

Following a year of cancellations and chaos across the network Northern Rail looks set to lose its franchise this week. With the least satisfied customers in the UK, the railway had a terrible 2019 – and its improved buzz scores (a net measure of whether consumers have heard anything good or bad about a brand in the past two weeks) will be little consolation for the operator.

YouGov BrandIndex shows that Northern Rail’s public perception rose more than any other brand’s over the last year. But the data also demonstrates that the operator’s increasing buzz isn’t necessarily a sign of a wider rehabilitation with the British public: its scores rose from -13.6 to -5.5 – an improvement of +8 that still leaves it with firmly negative buzz.

From a PR perspective, 2018 was so bad that even a clearly troubled 2019 represented an improvement. As the above chart shows, Northern Rail hasn’t had a dramatic reversal of opinion among its current customers. Positive buzz has been consistently low between June 2018 and January 2020, and its improved scores had more to do with a significant increase in neutral buzz and slight dips in negative buzz.

YouGov Profiles data also reveals that significantly more customers have bad things to say about the operator than good. Just one in five (19%) would recommend Northern Rail to a friend or colleague, while three in ten (29%) would advise them to stay clear, and while 13% say its services are good quality, two-fifths (41%) say they’re of a low standard. Almost the same proportion (38%) say the brand represents poor value for money.

Northern Rail is certainly not the only underperforming operator; the transport secretary has also suggested that South Western Railway could be nationalised in the near future. It has also bettered a rock-bottom 2018, where driver shortages, unpopular amended timetables, and disrupted services brought tensions between the operator and its passengers to a head.

But the railway’s public perception and its reputation among customers has been consistently negative. In the face of a government that’s taking an increasingly hard line on underperforming travel companies such as Thomas Cook, it’s ultimately no surprise that Northern Rail may have reached its final stop.

This article previously appeared in City A.M.