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The Snow, Its Impact And Failing Websites

The advent of any amount of snow seems to bring England to a screeching halt.  That’s not just my observation, it is the observation of friends who come from countries where there is lots of the stuff, like Canada and Poland.  It wasn’t just Londoners who found the excuse that the snow was “the wrong kind of snow” back in the 1990s pathetic, it was proffered in the Midlands too.

If memory serves, the snow that caused such delays on the Cross-City Line was different to the snow in Austria where these trains were tested.  Let’s take the inevitable dissection of this excuse as read (surely one would test them in the environment they are supposed to operate in?) work on the basis that Britain’s infrastructure doesn’t get on well with the white stuff and look at recent events.

Monday morning.  8 inches of the stuff on the driveway.  The road I live on is pretty much unpassable without a Land Rover and snow chains.  Anything less will (and does) struggle.  Transport for London had announced early on that all bus services would be cancelled.  Tried to get on to SouthEastern railways’ website (this is 0715 on Monday morning).

Southeastern site 0713 020209

The picture is a screengrab of my browser and it says “No suitable nodes are available to serve your request”.  Thankfully BBC Radio London was keeping people updated about the situation and had a reporter at London Victoria who confirmed that all SouthEastern services were cancelled.  One of the presenters was asking why England is so poor at dealing with snow when, for example, Sweden and Poland (which I have visited a few times and they just get on with life in the snow) don’t have a problem with it.

Tuesday morning.  Snow had continued, frozen somewhat and it was still dangerous on the side roads.  TfL said services would be running (there’s a hill on the local bus routes which, if iced or slippy becomes horribly dangerous) and they were. Guess what SouthEastern’s website said?

Southeastern site 0753 030209

“Network timeout” this time – nothing back from the SouthEastern site.  I wasn’t the only one getting this snow-induced outage from a train website, as this article on The Register shows.  Anyway, a trip to the library bore fruit (“Bomber Offensive”) and the day was spent positively, as are all my days.

This morning.  Snow is clearing but still frozen over in a lot of places.  Something resembling normal service seems to be the theme of the day.  Let’s have a look at SouthEastern’s website…

Southeastern site, 0716 040209

Note the bit at the top:

“Today’s planed service”

Does this mean aircraft or large woodworking tools will be running SouthEastern services?

Now note the bit at the bottom:

“We’re publishing this text-only version of this website to allow faster, more robust, access for as many people as possible”

There’s a lesson here for service providers’ websites.  It’s one anyone even vaguely familiar with the work of Jakob Nielsen will already know.

Keep your front page as plain as possible.  Now call me picky but surely a Train Operating Company website should, by default, be accessible to as many people as possible?  Have I missed something?  Gadgets and gizmos may look nice but when customers are trying to get to your site and they get error messages like the first two photos here then you are not achieving anything like good service.

Alternatively keep a plain text only emergency page in reserve and don’t be afraid to activate it.  Getting good information to customers is always preferable to error messages on websites.

I chose SouthEastern because they are my local train operator, not through any desire to pick on them in particular.

For the record I have been in organisations where the proverbial brown stuff has hit the air redistribution device through incelement weather.  And their response was excellent.

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