Why do railway companies talk like this?

There are lots of great things about the railway, but the industry’s use of language is not one of them.

I have often been amazed by the linguistic tangles conductors often find themselves in when they try to “talk posh” during announcements. Clearly they are not trained about the importance of plain English. This problem was covered excellently by the Guardian’s Mind Your Langauge blog calling for railspeak to be terminated.

Another recent article on the BBC News website looked over some of the dodgy phrasing of railway delay excuses. The cryptic but common explanations include “tanking train toilet” (the loos won’t flush) and “poor railhead adhesion” (the track is slippery).

On the ubiquitous “signalling problems”, the article notes that this is usually caused by cable theft.

I don’t know why they don’t say ‘It’s because some so-and-so has stolen 150 yards of cable.’ That’s going to get people on-side.

This evening my eyebrows were raised by a tweet I spotted from the National Rail Enquiries ScotRail Twitter feed.

[blackbirdpie id=”124222866723049472″]

This “DISRUPTION CLEARED” is a dead body. It can’t just be me that feels that there could be a more sensitive way of describing this than “DISRUPTION CLEARED”.


  1. Here in London we get told of a “person under train” when someone has jumped in front of the tube. When I first moved here I naively assumed it was a cryptic reference to a train being worked on by a mechanic.

    I understand why they do this – they don’t want to encourage imitators. And you have to think, it must be utterly horrific for the poor train driver, who has no chance of stopping in time.

    But in your case the language used does seem a bit rough. I’m sure they could come up with something better.

  2. Euphemisms, spoofenisms πŸ˜‰ I know it’s in bad taste, but I suppose they could adopt your suggestion for message announcements following ‘signalling problems’ (aka ‘cable thefts’) and tweet something like:
    “It’s because some so-and-so has topped him-/herself by throwing him-/herself in front of a train”.

  3. I like it when the automated information system for the tube (the one that says there will be a delay on the weekend etc on the PA system) puts on a ‘LANDAN’ accent. I presume for the tourists.

  4. I think the scotrail feed for this just said “person hit by a train”. Call a spade a spade πŸ˜‰

  5. I once had a refreshingly honest “Train Manager” come on the Chiltern Train tannoy with the following message:

    “Many apologies, but we are going to be held at the next station while the idiot running the line lets the slower local service that cannot stick to their own timetable past us, making both of us late.”

    Laughter erupted through the train, and I think it really lightened the situation for everybody.

  6. The one time I’ve been on a train service substantially delayed by cable theft, the train manager went on a five-minute rant that was just this side of acceptable protocol. Apparently it had been the last straw after encountering one actual signal failure, a separate electrical problem (with the track, not the train – the manager was especially annoyed since his train was *diesel*) and congestion that would have been missed had the timetable been kept prior to this news. The miscreants responsible for the delay got called pretty much every name under the sun that wouldn’t result in a complaint about bad/offensive language*. The conversations among passengers about stupid criminals made the 40-minute delay feel considerably shorter.

    No mistaking the delay for “signalling problems”. Still, I had to worry because the poor staff had another 5 stations to go before they were due to finish the day’s route…

    As for people hit by trains, I’ve heard “train strike” but this seems to get used whether the train hit a person, a large animal (I think there was once a delay when a train hit a cow), a large inanimate object (I’m not sure if a train’s ever been damaged by a shopping trolley but in this area someone might try) or the train’s simply stopped moving because of industrial action has left it without staff. So it’s quite vague.

    * – You’d think the criminals would have learnt from two fools who tried it early in the summer. They ended up getting electrocuted and nearly killed. Note the nearly – they got arrested and charged with trespass and attempted theft when sufficiently recovered to stand questioning.