How TfL transformed its Twitter updates service

Transport for London needed to rethink how it could provide accurate service information on the go, through Twitter. Its updated, streamlined and easy-to-use offering - designed for mobile and through a channel of choice for the customer - won the Mobile category at Campaign's Marketing New Thinking Awards, held in association with Sky Media.

TfL began using Twitter to provide travel updates during the 2012 Olympic Games and its audience on Twitter has grown steadily since. Now about a quarter of all Londoners say they get travel information through social media.

TfL has 26 Twitter feeds, six million followers and fields up to 100,000 mentions a month.

In 2015 the Twitter platform changed and tweets stopped appearing in chronological order. It meant that TfL’s approach to providing minute-by-minute service information no longer worked.

Around the same time, its research showed a noticeable increase in the number of people who, on social media, expected to be able to ask complex travel questions normally handled by phone. This ever-increasing expectation and volume set TfL another challenge – of handling much more time-consuming queries with the same resources and staff. 

A fresh strategy

Understanding the limitations of 140 characters (then the character limit for tweets) for situations that might need more details, TfL looked at ways to further support customers by offering information to help them replan their journeys. Its metrics gave a clear indication that direct messages were increasing in popularity, and the privacy and space to write more details seemed like an opportunity to improve its approach.

  • It could no longer rely on manually tweeting service updates because it was likely that people would not see them in the right order, so they would be misleading.
  • It needed to focus more agent time on answering customer questions.
  • It needed to better use technology to improve efficiency and deliver a more comprehensive service without increasing load on the customer-service team.

TfL presented its challenges to Twitter and asked for help to find a solution. The two then worked in partnership with a third party, Hobbynote, to come up with two ideas.

Severe disruption alerts (passive/advance sign-up mechanism)

TfL launched severe disruption alerts in June 2016. The idea was to use its API and Twitter’s platform to provide automated notifications to customers when there was severe disruption to services. Users could choose the lines they wanted to know about and personalise the times of day they wanted to receive the notifications, so the service ran only at times that were convenient and relevant to the user.

It was important to consider exactly what TfL would inform people about. It couldn’t use everything in its API because it didn’t want to spam. It was decided that the threshold should be a disruption that is severe enough to make it necessary for the user to replan their journey, on the basis that if you receive an alert it is because you will be affected by the issue, so you should take notice.

This was a world first at time of launch.

How it works

  1. Open a TfL Twitter feed and tap the Message button.
  2. Choose ‘Subscribe’ or ‘Edit alerts’ from the list at the bottom of the screen.
  3. Choose when you want to get alerts, and for which line.

Status checker (active/request response mechanism)

In November 2016 TfL launched Quick Replies, functionality that felt like a chat but is very easy to use because the message is predefined.

This service allows customers to check the status of any of Tube or TfL rail lines at any time of day or night and get the latest information – including the confirmation of a good service.

It means customers have the opportunity to check the latest status, including confirmation of good service. The "self-serve" functionality is instant and provides the full details available from the system – not just a basic "good/bad service" message.

Now the Status Checker is available TfL can focus on handling queries, including end-to-end refunds or complex journey planning advice. It no longer needs to manually tweet about minor delays and customers can be certain the most up-to-date information is available to them.

At any point it is easy for customers to speak to an agent, so the Checker is designed to act as an extra resource for common service queries, rather than take away the ability to receive high quality customer service.

How it works

  1. Open a Twitter feed and tap the Message button.
  2. Choose ‘Check status now’ from the options at the bottom of the screen.
  3. Choose your line and it immediately returns the relevant results.

When TfL launched this service it was one of only five international partners working with Twitter.


These innovations have several benefits:

  • Information for customers is much better – more accurate and consistent across channels (dissonance between information and actual experience is reduced).
  • Speed is the fastest possible – the data triggering the information has no human delay and is available to customers instantly.
  • It means TfL no longer needs to tweet about minor delays, which frees up customer-service agents to tackle more complex questions.
  • It was an opportunity to start exploring automation through social media. It started the learning process for TfL to use emerging technology and best practice in bots and AI, as well as introducing the concept of bot behaviour to customers at scale.
  • It allowed TfL to set benchmarks and KPIs to help deliver future improvements and uses across other forms of transport, including road traffic and buses.
  • It was an opportunity to influence how Twitter develops platform features so TfL can get the functionality that benefits its customers prioritised.


Since launch 3.9 million alerts have been sent and nine out of 10 users remain subscribed to the service after they try it. Customers have interacted 160,000 times with the quick-responses mechanism and Status Checker. This is without any extensive promotion at this stage of the rollout.

There is continuing strong growth in users of the Status Checker service.

The future

The next development will be to introduce tools for London’s bus passengers, who take two billion journeys a year.

TfL has scoped how the service will work, using Twitter’s new geo-sharing features to make the process convenient and low-effort for customers.

It will be possible to check when the next bus is due at a bus stop, or by sending your location, it will be possible to find your nearest stops and the services that run from them. You won’t need to know where you are or the bus stop code, because the smartphone’s location services will provide the details. People will be able to use the tools even if they are completely lost.

TfL is also exploring automation on other platforms such as Facebook and aiming to make use of any unique features each platform offers.


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