The Blog

On the Rails: The Art of Saying Sorry (Properly)

When you’re running a train service, saying sorry comes with the territory.

Three examples in recent days show us the wrong way to go about it…and the right idea with the wrong words.

1. Jargon

train saying sorry in crisis.

Firstly, my early morning commuter train from Glasgow to Edinburgh was hideously overcrowded.

“Scotrail would like to apologise for the situation”

announced a disinterested voice,

“which is due to the short-forming of the train.”

What he meant was that six carriages of passengers were crammed into three carriages of train.

So stop hiding behind jargon and tell the truth.

2. Attitude

girl on train saying sorry in crisis scotland.

Secondly, Emily Cole was travelling by Virgin East Coast from Edinburgh to London.

She told the train manager she would be complaining about a blunder over her seat.

“You go ahead honey,”

was his patronising response.

When she then tweeted about the “sexist” nature of his response, Virgin tweeted back:

“Sorry for the mess up Emily – would you prefer pet or love next time?”

Hitting out at your critics, however tempting, makes a bad situation worse.

So play it straight – and apologise for the upset.

3. Honesty

woman on train saying sorry in crisis.

Finally, I sat for several minutes on a packed evening rush-hour Glasgow commuter train, engrossed in a book and oblivious to the delay.

The announcement changed all that.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve just got into my cab to find this is NOT the 5.18 fast train to Neilston.

“This is apparently the 5.25…calling at all stations…and it’s the first I’ve heard about it.

“Shocking behaviour!”

At which point most people burst out laughing.

I leant in to speak to the woman opposite.

“Do you think he’s straying from the company line?”

I asked.

“I don’t care if he is,”

she replied.

“At least he’s telling the truth.”

Honesty helps you regain people’s trust.

virgin train saying sorry in crisis.

So much to be learned from these three examples:

  1.  If you’re going to express regret, sound as if you mean it.
  2.  Speak in pictures and plain English rather than jargon.
  3.  Avoid sarcasm – and sexism – as both will make a bad situation worse.
  4.  Avoid criticising the people who pay your wages. Just explain what’s happening
  5.  Always tell the truth – but do so constructively.
  6.  Structure it as Regret, Reason and Remedy…starting with the word “sorry”.

At Pink Elephant Communications, it’s a principle we’re passionate in using on the training courses run mainly from our Glasgow studios…or wherever we’re working across the world.

If you say you’re sorry, you have to mean it.

Then explain what’s happened.

And how you’re going to sort it.

We’ve written extensively on that here, as part of a 10-step crisis communications plan.

The train companies get plenty of practice in announcing delays and changes to trains.

They really need to apply the Three Rs to pacify passengers.


Bill McFarlan is the Executive Chairman of Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can view his full profile here


Photos by train_photos / CC BY-SA; mattbuck4950 / CC BY-SA; Giuseppe Milo ( / CC BY; hernanpba / CC BY-SA; Ninian Reid / CC BY  all on

12th January 2018 Featured in: Blog By:

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