Off the rails

By Kathy Van Looy

I always expect a train to be on time. I don’t know why:  trains are usually late. Somehow you think you are better off by train than by car. So when my colleague Molly Verbeeck and I had to go to Amsterdam for the gala of the European Excellence Awards last week, we decided we would go by Thalys: quick, easy and we could get some work done in the meantime. The train left on time – as we expected. But after about an hour, we came to a stand-still.  Five minutes later, we were informed via the speakers that something got stuck under the train. We started making silly jokes (I will not repeat them, because they were quite rude and I am only rude amongst friends and colleagues). The crew said they were going to perform a check-up. OK. We could live with that, they were communicating and trying to fix the problem, let’s be confident (communication in 3 languages by the way, not bad). Another 20 minutes later, the voice re-appeared (well, 2 voices really, one for French and Dutch, and one for English). The Dutch voice announced that “rescue teams were on their way”. Huh?  I couldn’t help but see an image of a bomb under the train that was about to explode, and I just wanted to get out.  Luckily, I also speak English and French, and when the message was repeated in English, I understood that the person speaking Dutch was really not fluent in Dutch and hence didn’t make himself very clear. In fact, he mixed up the words and made it sound very dramatic. The message in English and French was a lot less negative than in Dutch. So I calmed down. Half an hour later however, “The Voice” spoke again and said they would “evacuate” the train. What the hell? So do we get off now in the middle of nowhere? But the doors did not open. Then the lights went out for a couple of minutes. Now THAT was scary. Luckily, a few minutes later (when the lights were on again) the train started moving. We drove into Rotterdam station at a terribly slow pace, where we were “evacuated” and put on another “normal” train. We finally arrived in Amsterdam, two hours later than planned. Bummerrrrr.

So we were terribly late, and that was no fun, but as a communications professional, I was shocked. Communication is everything. A few simple sentences, correctly delivered by the Thalys crew, would have made a big difference. Do not try to speak the language if you are unable to do so, especially in times of uncertainty. Miscommunication can lead to panic situations. It was good they did try to communicate, but trying is not good enough. So dear people at Thalys: please make sure your personnel knows the standard communication procedures. Give them a communications training, or prepare some simple statements. They shouldn’t go into detail, they should just say what they need to say. Correctly.  In three languages. How hard can that be?


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