Copper’s Laura Cunliffe-Hall explores the expectations placed upon UK infrastructure at ‘the most wonderful time of the year’ and the accompanying communications challenges.

Taking Santa’s deliveries out of the equation, Christmas is nevertheless one of the busiest times of the year for UK infrastructure. Transport networks are placed under extreme levels of pressure, unique to this time of year, as the demand for improved and increased connectivity grows each Christmas.

Infrastructure companies are faced with a different audience in the festive period. People that may not usually travel on a regular basis are journeying across the country with an additional sense of anxiety and urgency as they seek to make it home in time for the holidays. This means that the general public expect more from infrastructure companies, right at the point when those within the infrastructure sector are ramping up their workload in a bid to deliver vital works on time. The tension between public expectation and infrastructure delivery makes clear communications a necessity across the festive period.

This year in particular looks likely to test if UK infrastructure is able to withstand the sheer volume of Christmas commuters. On the railway tracks, from 23 December onwards, at least 25,000 engineers will be carrying out £148 million worth of upgrades across Network Rail, affecting major London stations including Victoria, London Paddington and St Pancras.

These works are part of Network Rail’s multi-billion five-year railway upgrade plan – the biggest sustained investment in UK rail since the Victorian era.  Network Rail are hoping to deliver more than 330 projects across the UK over the Christmas holiday period – an ambitious undertaking that will rely upon a strong performance from engineers. This must be accompanied by clear communications from various rail operators and providers to ensure that a New Year public relations disaster is prevented.

Network Rail have demonstrated their understanding of the importance of a clear Christmas communications strategy, through explaining the reasons for the sustained works over the festive period in advance in an accessible and straightforward way, learning from communications mistakes of the past. By emphasising the future benefits of the works for service users, such as creating more reliable rail infrastructure that will improve passenger services, Network Rail have communicated effectively to remind stakeholders of the bigger picture and long-term dividends for rail users.

However, infrastructure companies can still do more to cater for Christmas travellers. Companies need to recognise that they must communicate differently to festive audiences and understand their individual needs, as these audiences will engage with infrastructure differently. To do this, they must produce different communications messaging targeted specifically at Christmas travellers, rather than the average infrastructure customer that travels all year round.

Off the railway line and taking to the roads, RAC traffic trends have indicated that Christmas will be one of the heaviest driving periods of the year, with on average around 30 million Christmas car journeys being made over the Christmas fortnight up to New Year’s Day. Because the majority of UK schools break up later than usual, it is estimated that Friday 21 and Saturday 22 December will be the busiest days on the road, with roads such as the M25, M6 and M40 looking to be the hardest hit. This follows on from high festive mileage levels in 2017, where a poll for The AA delivered by Populus found that around 13 million drivers expected to drive over 20 miles on Friday 22 December.[1] In order to alleviate the burden on the UK road network, Highways England will ensure that more than 97% of the network will be free from roadworks on England’s major motorways and A-roads, from 6am on Friday 21 December until 12.01am on Wednesday 2 January.

Both Highways England and Network Rail have avoided potential communications pitfalls by taking a clear line explaining the need for their respective works programmes over the festive period and drawing attention to the efforts they have made to improve connectivity. By telling the right Christmas story, providers can create and control a strong narrative that enhances their reputation, taking the sting out of the usual ‘Christmas transport chaos’ headlines that recur without fail every year.

It is impossible for infrastructure companies and organisations to guarantee safe Christmas passage, as volume of traffic, necessary improvement works and even unpredictable factors such as the weather can derail the best-laid plans. But by emphasising their commitment to helping everybody get home in time for Christmas and clearly articulating their plans to make this happen, providers can help prove to the general public that UK infrastructure is in the best possible shape to meet the demands of the festive season.

Nevertheless, from a communications perspective, perhaps infrastructure companies can do even more to have the right kinds of conversations at this time of year with Christmas travellers. Infrastructure companies need to use dedicated approaches to engage people and to reassure stakeholders that they understand the unique travel anxieties induced by the festive season – and that they will do their best to withstand the Christmas pressure on infrastructure networks and structures.

This goes beyond the usual leaflets and posters in train stations approach, and rather embracing social and broadcast media to reach people who will not travel at other times of year, or who travel differently during the festive period. It’s not only Santa that makes a special trip at Christmas and companies need to recognise this, while as consumers we need to acknowledge the pressure companies are under.

[1] Populus received 18,547 responses from AA members to its online poll between 14th and 21st November 2017. Populus is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.