Southeastern Rail: Nudging to reduce passenger-caused delays


People are creatures of habit, and nowhere is this more evident than on our daily commute to work.

If you are a regular commuter, you will probably recognise this phenomenon; sometimes you arrive at work and cannot even recall your journey. This is because your brain has switched into System 1 mode – as coined by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman – allowing you to minimise your cognitive effort and effectively putting you on autopilot.


But if someone takes your favourite seat – or if you suddenly need to change your journey plans – you are thrown out of ‘auto-pilot mode’ and must engage in conscious thought about your journey. You start to rely on your slower, more conscious System 2 processes, making the details of your journey more salient and more memorable.


At BVA Nudge Consulting, we focus on applying behavioural science to understand and influence subconscious habits, often through small interventions (‘nudges’) that break established patterns and encourage positive behaviours. And as a regular Southeastern train passenger, I was particularly pleased when they asked our team to help address the problem of train delays.


Specifically, the focus was on reducing delays that are not tied to engineering or operational problems such as signalling faults, but instead the often sub-conscious and unintentional actions of those of us travelling on the trains.



Behaviour-related delays are a significant problem.


These tend to be things like passengers holding open train doors, trespassing on the tracks, using the emergency alarm (either by accident or for non-emergency situations), and sometimes for unavoidable reasons such as when a passenger becomes ill on a train.

Whilst Southeastern have fewer delays than most operating companies (compared to other large rail operators Southeastern is the best performer with the lowest level of average passenger delay and cancellations) there have still been over 50 days’ worth of delays in the last five years due to certain unintentional behaviours. Our analysis of their data showed there are 4 four primary causes:

  • Passengers boarding/alighting (e.g. grouping near specific train doors delaying departure);
  • Disorder, drunkenness and trespassing onto the tracks;
  • Emergency alarm activations;
  • Falling ill on the train and not knowing how to get help quickly


Our task was to develop nudges to encourage different behaviours where possible and reduce delays without compromising safety.  We began by analysing data on where and when these incidents were occurring, before travelling the rail network and speaking to passengers and team members. This gave a rich depth of insight, focused our efforts, and confirmed that most delays were caused by habitual, instinctive or unthinking behaviours (rather than conscious intent).


For example, we found that the emergency alarm was often pressed by unsupervised children and saw that boarding/alighting issues were often caused by uneven distribution of passengers along the platform.  These insights fuelled our NudgeLab workshop, in which we collaborated with twenty people from Southeastern – including engineering/safety staff, drivers, guards and station team members – to co-create over 400 ideas to influence passengers’ patterns and nudge different behaviour that would help reduce delays.


We then screened, enhanced and prioritised these ideas, resulting in a total of 38 ‘finalist’ nudges – roughly half of which are focused on boarding/alighting and preventing disorder, while the other half aim to prevent disruptions tied to passenger illness and/or activation of the emergency alarm.


We are very pleased that a subset of these nudges are being piloted on the Southeastern network in the coming months. For example, there will be interesting announcements which will be much more salient to passengers. There will also be more visible reminders of CCTV and that police officers are often on board subtly deterring those who may be inclined to misbehave.


These are the very definition of nudges.


They are small changes in the environment that don’t force change on people, but instead facilitate and gently encourage positive behaviour. And since none of us want our trains to be late, encouraging these behaviours is a ‘win-win’ outcome; passengers will benefit from fewer delays.


Lucy Bryant, Communications Manager for Southeastern, is looking forward to seeing the results; ‘When the brief came in from our Performance team, we knew that we needed to do something different to keep improving punctuality for our passengers. Applying behavioural science is a really powerful way to encourage different behaviours because it simply makes them easier to adopt. BVA Nudge Consulting and BVA BDRC did a great job of advising and guiding us through the process.’

Dan Tall, Head of Performance for Southeastern, has been pleased to support this innovative approach to helping reduce delays; ‘Working with Network Rail, we analysed large volumes of data to understand exactly where and why delays were occurring. 

BVA Nudge Consulting and BVA BDRC were instrumental in getting to the bottom of how we could apply behavioural science to best reduce delays.’


We’re grateful to our clients at Southeastern for their collaboration, support and endorsement of this work – including the insights, openness and enthusiasm of all team members we worked with and interviewed. We can’t wait to see the results!


Richard Chataway is Vice President of BVA Nudge Consulting UK, and a board member of the Association for Business Psychology. His book ‘The Behaviour Business’ will be published in early 2020 by Harriman House.