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Social Media Strategy Was Crucial as Transit Agencies Coped With Hurricane
The rider was growing more and more frustrated. Again and again, her questions were met with virtual silence. It was like waiting for a bus that never came, which was in fact what she had been doing.
“I have asked nicely several times about what’s going on with the 317 bus,” the rider, who identified herself as Mary Scandell, fumed on the Facebook page of New Jersey Transit a few days after Hurricane Sandy. “Now I’m gonna ask in a nasty way.”
Change the scene to New York. A commuter named Jim Temple posted a question on the Long Island Rail Road’s Facebook page, asking for a status update of the damaged Long Beach line. The railroad promptly replied. “Thank you for the info,” Mr. Temple answered.
If there is one lesson transit officials have learned from Hurricane Sandy, it is that in the Internet era, keeping riders up to date is just as important as tracks and rolling stock. Blow it, and they will let you know. As workers raced to bring washed-out tracks, flooded tunnels and swamped electrical equipment back online, they also faced the daunting task of keeping millions of riders informed of conditions and schedules that sometimes shifted by the minute, using tools that included Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube.
A look at how New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road communicated, as viewed through the prism of Facebook, showed how approaches to messaging could make the difference between shaping expectations or fueling the ire of customers forced to find new ways to get to work and home.
The Long Island Rail Road continually updated its Facebook page with photographs and videos of storm preparations before Hurricane Sandy hit. The dispatches continued as high winds and surge waters ripped down power lines and clogged rail lines with wayward boats and other debris. The agency frequently answered passengers’ questions and posted other helpful updates, like where to seek federal assistance for damaged homes.
New Jersey Transit also regularly updated its page — but did not start posting photographs until after noon on Oct. 30, after the storm had barreled through. It answered riders’ questions sporadically, sometimes referring them to incorrect information on its Web site, even as commuters grew more confused trying to figure out shifting schedules.
The result: the Long Island Rail Road conveyed a narrative of shared pain, of workers fighting back against unprecedented damage that was beyond their control. Passengers frequently and vociferously critical of the railroad suddenly sympathized and even praised communication efforts that, if not perfect, were viewed as improved.
New Jersey Transit’s communications, on the other hand, became for many commuters yet another source of misery.
“Long Island Rail Road learned the lesson of telling their riders what’s going on,” said Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at the New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. “And it turns out that is as important as the level of service you are providing.”
The Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit also used Twitter extensively. But The New York Times examined the Facebook pages of each agency because they allow for more detailed comments — providing a deeper look at how passengers were viewing communications — and more of a back-and-forth discussion. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which was also criticized for its communications, used Twitter but does not have a Facebook page.
New Jersey Transit has come under scrutiny after the storm damaged more than 300 train cars and locomotives parked in rail yards in Hoboken and the Meadowlands that prestorm warnings indicated would flood.
But even before that decision became widely known, passenger tensions were spiking.
New Jersey Transit officials defended their communications throughout and after the storm.
“We were tweeting information practically 24 hours a day,” said John Durso Jr., the agency’s spokesman. He said the agency also continually updated its Web site; sent out e-mail alerts; placed advertisements in newspapers on emergency shuttle, bus and ferry service; and made frequent appearances on television and radio broadcasts.
The Times reviewed the comments from Oct. 29, the day the storm hit, until Nov. 6, the day before a northeaster threatened a new round of service disruptions. Though an inexact measure of performance, taken together, they provide a timeline of the chaos that transit customers faced, many living in the dark and reliant on smartphones for information.
They also provide a look at the promise and perils of modern disaster communications, when governmental and quasi-governmental authorities have broader avenues of communication, and vastly greater expectations from a public used to instant updates.
At 11:34 a.m. on Oct. 29, as Hurricane Sandy pushed up the coast toward New York, the communications staff at the Long Island Rail Road began posting photos of workers preparing for the storm.
As the devastation became clear the next morning, the updated images, including one showing a boat on the tracks near Reynolds Channel Bridge in Island Park, became a source of humor and awe.
“If a boat believes hard enough, he can be a train,” one person mused.
The photograph and video postings mirrored the communications strategy of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the railroad’s parent agency. Other subsidiaries oversee bus and subway service in the city and train service to the northern suburbs of New York and in Connecticut.
Frontline workers at all the agencies were encouraged to send in photos of what they were seeing.
“The philosophy was: Everything we find out, let’s put it out as fast we can,” said Adam Lisberg, a former Daily News reporter who is the authority’s director of external communications. “There are no secrets here. Everyone in New York has an obvious interest in mass transit. So even when it’s bad, put it out.”
The updates supplemented hundreds of e-mail alerts to riders who signed up for them. Some riders complained of getting too many updates. But for others, it was a welcome improvement over what they complain is often too little available information.
“The picture e-mails are appreciated; one of the few times L.I.R.R. has actually told people what is going on,” Ron Troy, 56, a longtime commuter on the railroad’s Port Jefferson line, posted on Oct. 30.
Helena Williams, the railroad’s president, said she hoped the carrier’s efforts would finally turn a page on communication efforts that she began trying to improve when she arrived at the railroad five years ago.
“We take very seriously our analysis of disruptions and what went well and what went wrong with communications,” she said.
Both agencies received fairly even shares of negative comments from riders during the nine-day period that The Times reviewed. But most of Long Island’s had to do with overcrowded trains once service began groaning back to life — a problem attributed to repair work to flooded East River tunnels controlled by Amtrak.
Complaints of New Jersey Transit customers, meanwhile, tended to focus on their inability to get reliable updates on repairs and modified bus and train schedules. Riders complained about inaccurate modified schedules on the Web site — a criticism the agency sometimes acknowledged. Some complained that schedules were hard to find or too small, especially on smartphones.
To be fair, New Jersey Transit also had bus and light-rail customers to deal with. And many of its displaced train customers had the added stress of navigating dense crowds and hard-to-find gates at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, a difficult task even under normal circumstances.
If there is such a thing as a confusion quotient, it might be the number of answers posted by the agency divided by the number of customers who posted questions or tried to share information with one another when an agency response did not come.
By that measure, the Long Island Rail Road posted an answer for about every two questions and information-sharing posts — though some answers responded to several questions. New Jersey Transit responded to about 13 percent of such posts.
Ian Meagher, a former New Jersey Transit bus driver who still visits its Facebook page even though he now lives in Western Pennsylvania, became something of a hero to passengers after he began answering their questions himself, using his knowledge as a former agency employee to help them sort through confusing schedules. Mr. Meagher, 28, said he sympathized with the agency.
“I thought N.J.T. did the best that they could, given the circumstances,” he said.
On Nov. 6, Molly Hoke, 40, fired off a note from her phone after waiting nearly two hours in the cold for a train at the Princeton Junction station without any word on the train’s status.
“People are trying to be patient as we recover from this storm, but you all need to do a much better job keeping people informed,” she wrote. “Please improve your communications to passengers!!!!!!”
In New Jersey, Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski, a Democrat and the chairman of the Assembly’s transportation committee, said the complaints highlighted shortcomings in the agency’s storm planning. “I should say all of this is a result of the storm, not because of any particular decision of transit agencies,” he said. “But what it is indicative of is New Jersey Transit has to do a better job of organizing and laying out contingencies for commuters.”