This is the Age of Sorry for nearly every train company in Britain.
SWINDON, England — Andrew Couch spends much of his workday apologizing, usually on Twitter, and this turns out to be more complicated than it sounds. Simply typing “I’m sorry” over and over again won’t do.
“You can’t repeat yourself,” said Couch, part of the social-media team for the Great Western Railway, one of the United Kingdom’s largest train companies. “Sometimes you say, ‘I’m sorry we’ve done this.’ Or ‘Apologies for this.’ Or ‘I’m sorry that this happened.’ You’ve got to understand the situation and you need to mix it up.”
This is the Age of Sorry for nearly every train company in Britain.
In May, National Rail, which owns the country’s entire rail infrastructure, unveiled its twice-a-year revision to daily time tables. Because of new connections and services, there were some 4 million changes, about seven times the usual number. The result was a shambles.
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Naturally, National Rail later apologized.
Train companies like Great Western, which are granted franchise rights to run different lines, are still coping with the aftermath, made worse by an ongoing and tricky upgrade to larger and spiffier trains.
There have been tens of thousands of delays and cancellations, enraging just as many passengers. The anger, in turn, has prodded train companies to a seemingly endless cascade of apologies.
A running total of online train company regrets is available on a website Sorryfortheinconvenience.co.uk, created by Omid Kashan, a fed-up commuter and web designer. It tallies up apologies from the Twitter accounts of 25 British rail companies. All together, they have tweeted “sorry” more than 417,000 times since the start of the year.
Great Western is the one of the sorriest train lines of them all.
Its six-member social-media team is split between Plymouth and the company’s headquarters in Swindon, a town that has been synonymous with trains since the early 19th century, when Great Western manufactured locomotives and rail cars here, and built houses for its workers.
The Great Western team has issued 30,000 apologies since the start of the year, an average of 110 per day. (Only one company, the Northern, apologizes more.) Customers pepper the Great Western Twitter feed, @GWRHelp, about 1,000 times every 24 hours.
“Missing my London connection again!” wrote Holly Rush not too long ago. “Well done u bunch of idiots.”
Compliments regularly pop up, too, but those are outnumbered by gripes about doors that won’t open, inexplicable odors, reservation mix-ups and more. People routinely post photographs of crowded trains, or trash that has been left by other passengers.
Many add withering hashtags, like #whenwillwelearn, #ripoffservice and #thisisnotgoodenough.
Through it all, the social-media staff patiently offers guidance, explanations — and apologies. A name is attached to each Great Western response, just one way the team tries to convey sincerity.
“When you type, it’s difficult to make it sound like you’re not being patronizing or sarcastic,” said Joanna Linzinger, who manages the team. “So we have to try really hard to make our sorries sound like they’re coming from a warm person rather than a keyboard.”
Apologies are one of Britain’s great linguistic specialties, and have been at least since the days of Shakespeare’s time. “Pardon” appears in the canon over 300 times, said Barry Edelstein, artistic director of The Old Globe in San Diego. At the end of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” an apology is offered directly to the audience.
“Puck explains that the whole story was a dream, so if it was offensive, no harm done,” Edelstein explained. “This was a common trope in Shakespeare’s period: the actors apologizing for how bad the play was. It’s all done with great irony, of course.”
Which gets to one truth about British apologies: Their abundance isn’t always an indicator of courtesy. “Sorry” is sometimes a reflex — people here say it to inanimate objects that they bump into — and the word is put to a wider variety of uses than in the United States.
“One study found four times as many ‘sorries’ in British English compared to American English,” said Lynne Murphy, author of “The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English.”
“In a lot of instances — like when someone holds a door for you — it’s used instead of ‘thank you,’ which I think reflects a kind of unease with strangers,” she said. “You’re sorry because you’re self-conscious about the fact that someone noticed you and has done something for you.”
Great Western was created by Parliament in 1833, with Isambard Kingdom Brunel as chief engineer. He would transform Swindon, a modest market town — the name is said to derive from the Old English for “pig farm” — into an industrial center, as well as a key transit junction between London and Bristol.
Today, the Museum of the Great Western Railway, known as Steam, occupies part of the old train-manufacturing site.
The works closed long ago, and today Great Western is essentially a rail service company with about 6,000 employees. The ones who work on the trains — as opposed to the social-media team, who work behind computers — do not get specific instructions on the fine art of apologizing.
Instead, they go through an extensive program called Great Experience Makers, which includes a daylong crash course in empathy.
At a recent session, Kerry Cooney, a trainee, told the class a story about getting stuck not long ago at a station on a Great Western train from Reading.
“The first announcement by the crew was, ‘I’m really sorry ladies and gentlemen, but we can’t find the driver,’” she said.
Another announcement soon clarified. The driver wasn’t missing. He was stuck on another Great Western train.
To land his job on the social-media team, Couch had to demonstrate, among other skills, a capacity to endure abuse, and throughout a recent 4 p.m. to midnight shift, he was unflappable.
His office is on the second floor of a modern building, with space for about 10 cubicles and a view of the entrance of an underground parking garage. With a bottle of Coke and a bag of paprika-flavored potato chips beside his keyboard, he worked through one question and complaint after another.
A woman named Ali wanted someone to hush passengers in the quiet car of her train. Searching through a staff directory, Couch instantly found the cellphone number of the manager on that train and called. The manager didn’t pick up.
It was the first “sorry” of the night. A passenger named James Edwards fumed that he was stuck between Worcester Shrub Hill and Pershore. “You are an utter disgrace to the industry and public service,” he tweeted. “Your comments please?”
Couch did a quick bit of research, explained what was wrong with the train and apologized.
More tweets piled up. “Congratulations you incompetent clowns,” wrote @jammyjamiejames. “Train arrived 2 mins late from Marlow Branch. 17:28 to Maidenhead had already departed.”
This one didn’t take any research. “Sorry to hear this,” Couch wrote. “The connections can’t always wait as this can cause a knock on impact on later services.”
There was outrage about reserved seats that had not been reserved and demands for refunds. One of them was from a woman who grumbled that she’d been delayed twice this week on Great Western trains. Couch asked what kind of ticket she had.
“If it’s a daily, she might get compensation,” he said, before he started to type an apology. “See? It’s not all doom and gloom.”