Hold ’em, fold ’em or walk away: how effective engagement helps you close a train line

In November 2018, IAP2 Australasia hosted a Sydney event: Here comes the boom: engaging with communities during Sydney’s infrastructure boom. Lachlan Mckenzie from Transport from NSW shares his contributions from the event.

As a communications practitioner, when I talk to professionals from other expertise areas like engineering, transport planning or construction, it’s usually assumed that engagement, particularly consultation is most appropriate for the planning part of an infrastructure project. It goes without saying, you’ve got more scope and flexibility in which to identify areas where stakeholders could provide feedback or drive a particular outcome to then be reflected in the final plan or proposal.

In an academic sense, it’s also the part of a project that appeals to me as a certified IAP2 practitioner. Typically stakeholders are either supportive and informed, or neither. In a strategic sense it’s the stakeholders you get in the tent and break bread with before you build that are the most likely to stick it out and become the advocates that help maintain good will. The time for more challenging conversations with stakeholders usually comes later when expectations might not be met and the realities of very complex infrastructure delivery tend to become more apparent.

It’s about this time in my article where you really want to know how Kenny Rogers is relevant to IAP2. In his timeless classic “The Gambler,” Rogers lays out an approach not just for engagement but life. The difference between knowing when to fold, hold, count your winnings or not is the same kind of judgement you hope to apply when developing and delivering sound engagement. Firstly, in terms of how it applies to consultation, it centres on knowing what’s appropriate to offer up for feedback and as a result create expectation that a stakeholder will want to see their views reflected in some way through a feedback loop. Secondly, on being realistic about how honest you might have to be with a stakeholder, despite it being a conversation filled with trepidation. Finally, knowing when to proudly claim a win for the project and inform a stakeholder as good news, or just let the same stakeholder figure it out for themselves without fanfare. These are all the same judgements Rogers guides us through in his song.

And so we get to the case study of this article, where I try to fuse the two related but disparate ideas together. The first, that engagement extending even to consultation during project delivery is an underrated and ever-necessary discipline, and second, that Rogers’ advice is even more relevant if you’re taking the first idea on.

Transport for NSW shut the Epping to Chatswood train line on 30 September for around seven months to upgrade it for the start of Metro North West in the second quarter of 2019. This is a major part of Australia’s largest public transport project, sweeping through greenfield out at Cudgegong Road and delivering 19 new stations, arcing through the Epping-Chatswood line and then under the harbour to crisscross through the CBD. Our job was to engage like our jobs depended on it to make sure the customers who used that Epping-Chatswood line for work, study or just to get out of the house and back, knew what was happening and how to use the bright pink, turn up and go Station Link bus service during the upgrade.

In November Coordinator General for Transport for NSW, Marg Prendergast took a room of IAP2 practitioners through the approach her team took to the Station Link operation. Apart from early and intense engagement with the top 60 businesses rounding out at more than 170 business engagements, we also engaged customers through 96,090 pink shirt interactions at key transport hubs and a multilingual marketing campaign targeting CALD customer groups. The popular social media campaign achieved over 9 million engagements and over 200,000 trips planned on transportnsw.info in advance of the changes.

Part of this engagement involved taking the original temporary transport plan to each stakeholder, to make sure their staff, or students were informed and going in with an open mind about what kind of feedback we were likely to receive. Some of the most constructive feedback centred on the bus plan and how the seven different bus routes would operate and mostly importantly why they would operate that way. For example, we added a shuttle service for Macquarie University students during each impacted semester and exam period. One of the largest employers worked side by side with us to compare their existing offering to find ways for our bus plan to complement what they were already doing for their staff.

Once the delivery started, the engagement and importantly two way engagement didn’t stop. ‘If you’re going to play the game, you gotta learn to play it right.’ For close to two months we had teams of people dedicated to monitoring customer feedback collected by our Pink T shirts, Bus Marshalls, Bus Drivers as well as on Twitter and Facebook. This provided us with important information on customer perception as well as intelligence on our operation from the ground. It was a time critical task to jump on any requests for assistance and advice to ensure the goodwill we had worked so hard to build up, wasn’t eroded because one tweet asking for advice on the best Station Link route to Chatswood was ignored.

I wouldn’t want to count our winnings too early, but so far we’ve had almost 2 million customer trips. Over 10 per cent of feedback received has been complimentary – a high proportion for a change of this nature. The service will continue for the next few months and along with the active management of the road network and light touch engagement with those who have opted into our update eDMs or larger stakeholders who have a direct line to our engagement staff, Station Link will keep moving close to 28,000 customers a day until Metro Northwest starts in mid-2019.

If you’re interested in our engagement program reach out at stationlink@transport.nsw.gov.au

Lachlan McKenzie
Director – Communications Strategy & Media
Transport for NSW