How widespread is good digital communication in the Middle East / North Africa (MENA) region? The answer is it remains very patchy, with some shining examples of great practice and many dark areas where there really ought to be digital activity, but none exists. So what needs to be improved and where? To help, I’ve decided to run my own survey based on the railway systems of the MENA region. I’m naming it the ‘MENA Railways Digital Communications Index’.
Over the past decade I’ve got used to travelling by train in the UK armed with full information about prices, schedules and immediate live-running updates. Network Rail and the train operators publicise their planned engineering works months in advance.
To get such information before and during a trip I use websites such as Southeastern Railway; Transport for London; and the Network Rail journey planner app. I use these across desktop computer, laptop, tablet and phone. I follow Twitter to read what train operators write if delays occur, times when instant updates are crucial.
To add to the excitement, we can follow our train(s) in real time using a map website such as Rail Radar. Most UK and European operators use similar electronic information and an array of displays. For more ambitious journeys by rail around the world, there are fantastic resources on sites such as Man in Seat 61. In the UK and elsewhere there are also websites and social media interest by rail fans and rail modellers as well as passengers.
As I have a long interest in communications, railways and the Middle East / North Africa (MENA) region, I use Twitter to follow railway companies there and elsewhere in the world. I’ve noticed some of these railway companies do good work in running some fine publicity and information services; others less so. Hence I thought I should highlight examples of best practice and explain where other railway companies lag behind.
For many years, I’ve considered that the railways of a country reveal a great deal about the country itself. Glance at the railway and you’ll see a microcosm of the wider country. That’s because railways are a confluence of many aspects of life and technology. They have to be the same standard every day; so resilient and consistent. They require security and a functioning economy. They bring together engineering disciplines such as signalling, mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as information technology. Railways encompass government lobbying, marketing and accountancy. Many thousands of people work in different job roles, such as drivers, cleaners, engineers and managers, and unions are often strongly represented.
Then there is the infrastructure of the railway itself: to what standard are the tracks, signalling and trains maintained? Is there a rolling programme of investment, for example in electrification projects and fleet renewal? How are labour relations? What is the balance between freight and passenger transport on the network? What’s the balance between private and public ownership in the rail industry? Clearly, railways are sophisticated organisations.
The Economist has used what it calls the Big Mac Index as a short-cut to understand purchasing power between different currencies. What does a Big Mac cost in La Paz and London? How does this differ from the actual exchange rate?
In a similar way my short-cut to understanding a country is to glance at its railway system. Is it modern and forward-looking, or shabby and old-fashioned? Has war destroyed the railway altogether, as is the case in Syria and some other parts of the Middle East? Or on the contrary are there brand new railways where none existed previously, such as in Dubai and Saudi Arabia?
So I thought I would take a systematic look at the digital communications activities of nine MENA countries and mark them out of twelve. I’ve devised the marking criteria from years of experience in digital communications, both as a professional and as a rail traveller. I detail the criteria below. This isn’t an award scheme – and is in no way official! – but it does give the ability to recognise the good work of some MENA railway companies and to point out where other rail operators need to raise their game. There are some real surprises, given the history of railways in the region. I’m calling it the “MENA Railways Digital Communications Index’.
The nine MENA countries are in alphabetical order: Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, UAE/Dubai. I’ll look at what exists online in Arabic, English and French. If I have time, I’ll do the same for three neighbouring (non-Arab) countries’ railway systems too: Iran, Israel and Turkey. I’m omitting Jordan and Lebanon because their railway systems have been defunct since before the digital era. The other countries (Libya, Oman, Yemen and the Gulf cities) have no history of railways so I’m ignoring them in this survey.
So, what are the criteria I’m using to score the systems? These are straightforward and actually objective rather than subjective. I’m giving marks for the presence and activity of the railway companies on various platforms. I don’t mark their activities on these platforms subjectively or qualitatively but I do elaborate on some of their activities, particularly to highlight good practice. Each of the twelve criteria is worth one point.
1. Is there a website?
Does the railway company have a website at all? The scores for this basic question are more depressing than you might think! One point if a website exists.
2. Is the website ‘alive’?
It is not enough to have a website. Is it alive? By this I mean does someone love it and maintain it, perhaps with blogs, special offers about tickets, timetables, maps and other information. One point if the website is alive.
3. Is there an app?
If there’s an app to download for mobile phones and tablets, this scores one point.
4. Can you buy tickets?
One point if the website takes secure online payments so passengers can buy train tickets.
5. Is there live running information?
Beyond the question of an up-to-date website is the issue of live running information. Can passengers see if their train is late? One point if so.
Does the railway company have an active Twitter account? Dead (inactive) Twitter accounts are no help, so one point is only given for an active account.
Does the railway company have an active Facebook account? Dead (inactive) Facebook accounts are no help so one point is only given for an active account.
8. YouTube videos
Does the railway produce videos, for example advertisements, corporate explainers or educational videos? If the company has these on a YouTube channel, it scores one point.
Does the railway company have an active Instagram account? Dead (inactive) Instagram accounts are no good, so one point is only given for an active account.
Can passengers subscribe to a newsletter to receive regular information from the railway company? One point if so.
11. Evidence of campaigns
So far the criteria have all been technical but this moves a little beyond. If there are campaigns, it means there’s a creative team somewhere in the railway company that’s actively communicating to the public. One point if so.
12. Overall engagement
This can be the hardest feat for any organisation to pull off but great examples do exist around the world. It takes dedication and good management to provide consistent engagement with the public. It is evidence that someone is sitting in a control room somewhere prepared to try and help passengers and members of the public. One point if so.
I’ll be adding the next blogs over the next few weeks and will reveal the ‘league table’ at the end, so please stay tuned. Feel free to contact me to comment.