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Improving CX During System Repair Shutdowns

Just imagine. It's a normal Saturday morning, and you're about to hop on the train to get to your waitress shift when you hear a service announcement. It's hard to hear but it says something about construction and a bus bridge, and you're just hoping it's not on your line.... Unfortunately, though, it IS your line. You get halfway there when the train operator tells everyone to get off and you're escorted by employees in red vests to a bus stop. Naturally you are worried about getting to work on time, and maybe even worried about how your boss will react....

Boston MBTA Bus Bridge - August 2022
Boston MBTA Bus Bridge - August 2022 Photo: Boston Herald

As rail systems around the country fix aging infrastructure, this scenario is more and more common. A rail line closes a section of track for repairs during the late evening or on weekends, and a bus bridge is set up. That means everyone has to get off the train, onto a bus, then off at another station and back on another train to your destination. The track closure allows the transit system to more efficiently repair or replace track, electrical infrastructure, station platforms, or other infrastructure. It gives them more time to get all their equipment staged and exclusive "wrench time" on the trackway to get the work done.

MTA workers replace switches on the Lexington Avenue 4-5-6 line.
MTA workers replace switches on the Lexington Avenue 4-5-6 line. Photo: MTA

This is both a customer experience challenge and an opportunity. If communications are clear and ubiquitous, if you are told the total delay will just be say 10 minutes, if transit ambassadors are there for you at every stage to point where to go, and if there is a bus waiting for you when you are directed off the train and a train waiting for you when you get off the bus, CX impacts can be pretty well mitigated. An impacted rider might even say afterwards "That wasn't so bad." Of course, in the worst case, it can be a nightmare, if the information is spotty, there's no one to answer questions, the bus bridge and trains aren't synchronized, and it adds 45 minutes to your trip.

Tip: When preparing a bus bridge plan, think about the diverse needs of diverse riders. Discuss every step of the journey from the perspective of a wheelchair user, a blind customer, or a family toting kids in a stroller, for example, and plan special mitigations that meet the needs of each group. This is also a great opportunity to go above and beyond expectations. Think about offering refreshments or other goodies. Riders welcome that kind of special touch when they've been inconvenienced. It helps them feel cared about.

In some cases, construction outages can be mitigated by closing just one track instead of all tracks. Whether this can be done safely just depends on the section of track and its characteristics. With single tracking, there is usually no need for a bus bridge and while there are delays, the overall impact on customer experience is often less.

Many transit agencies have gotten pretty good at planning outages to fix infrastructure. They spend time analyzing whether they can single track service or need a full closure, they anticipate customer needs and prepare a comprehensive service and communication plan to make the experience as smooth and comfortable as possible. And they provide clear information to customers: what is happening, where and when, how the repairs will improve future travel times, reliability, or safety, and most importantly: what customers need to know to use the bus bridge (e.g. just get on, no fare is needed).

Even with these efforts, the fewer shutdowns the better from a CX perspective. Transit agencies should consider adopting policies to decide whether a shutdown would be justified based on the impacts on cost, the pace of the work, and the customer impacts. A policy should include criteria for deciding on shutdowns, threshold levels of savings needed before a shutdown is considered, and a clear decision-making process, with big shutdowns requiring approval at a higher level.

Shutdown policies also need to provide certainty to those who are planning the repair work. A contractor considering how much to bid on a repair project will want to know exactly how much track access they will get, as this will impact their costs significantly. So often shutdown decisions need to get made a year or more in advance, prior to bidding contracts if there are contracts involved.

Tip: just like with every major CX issue, develop solid KPI's to track impacts on the customer experience, and conduct debriefing sessions after each shutdown to take stock and course correct as needed. This can provide everyone with insight and data to support future track outage planning. KPI's could include metrics like:

  • The average wait time offboarded customers experience waiting for a bus after they offboard the train that is going out of service.

  • The average wait time customers experience waiting for a train after they get off the bus bridge.

  • The ratio of customer service ambassadors to impacted customers

  • The # of compliments or complaints received

  • Customer ratings about the experience in follow-up surveys

In summary, track shutdowns and customer delays are CX moments of truth. Treat these occasions with that in mind. Only allow shutdowns when absolutely essential, and plan carefully to make them not only streamlined but even opportunities to wow your customers with your attention to detail!


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