Over 20,000 commuters delayed and no madding crowd. Why?

The situation commuters found themselves though archetypally frustrating, was one in which there was a clear sense that everyone was in it together.

‘So why was it that people were prepared to wait politely and for considerable times for the fault to be fixed on Tuesday?’

‘So why was it that people were prepared to wait politely and for considerable times for the fault to be fixed on Tuesday?’

 

Given the now well-documented phenomena that is road rage you might expect the extensive disruption caused by an Irish Rail signal fault to have resulted in pandemonium on Tuesday.

There were in excess of 20,000 people relying on public transport unable to get to their destination. And whilst there was certainly some irate commentary on social media, there was also politeness, acceptance and understanding in evidence. The TV footage from Heuston did not suggest a madding crowd.

The problem with the main-line rail signalling system emerged first thing in the morning, just in time for rush hour when commuters are most likely to be under time pressure. Trains full of passengers bound for one location, stranded in another. Many stuck at stations, ticket in hand, unsure of how to proceed. For a considerable period, there was no information about when services would resume, or indeed alternative public transport available .

How did those waiting on the platform make their decisions to hold or fold? Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize winner whose work has turned on decision making, famously demonstrated people are particularly sensitive to losses.

So spare a thought for those who were on the way to a job interview or under pressure to be on time for a big day at work. For this subgroup of commuters, yesterday was a perfect storm. This stress was likely to mean their decision making ability in the face of these disruptions was at an all time low. If combined, as it was for some, with no obvious alternative transport options, their’s was a day from hell.

But where did the patience exhibited by the remaining commuters, stranded around the country, emerge from? Well, Kahneman tells us that “losses hurt more than gains feel good”. And in a situation where loss is already felt, for example where we are already late, probabilistic loss is preferred to definitive sense of loss.

This gives rise to what is called a phenomenon known as sunk cost fallacy. Economists see this as leading to “irrational” decision making. From a psychological perspective, it reflects a feeling that people often have of having past a point of no return. In this scenario, a sense that “having waited this long, I may as well hang on”.

Their patience was all the more surprising given that Irish Rail provided commuters with little or no information for a long period that morning. On this point research is clear, regular updates and a sense of progress is crucial to managing the situation as people wait.

In fact it irks us so much that we are routinely assured our calls will be answered “in strict rotation”. Airports are increasingly using “serpentine queues”: long snaking lines where the next person in the queue attends the next available desk. Choosing a line does not become a dilemma.

Indeed there is a whole area of research in psychology dedicated to queueing. Many commentators believe that Disney World have mastered the science of waiting. You are told how long you have to queue, people are kept occupied as they wait and the snaked line gives a strong sense of regular progress and movement. In many of Disney’s theme parks, it is not unusual to wait, with small children, for 45 minutes to experience a four- minute ride.

In these situations, the emergence of anger and irritation is often linked to wider social cues. We have all been there. We have all chosen the wrong lane in the supermarket, or the wrong lane on the motorway. It irks.

So why was it that people were prepared to wait politely and for considerable times for the fault to be fixed on Tuesday?

The situation commuters found themselves though archetypally frustrating, was one in which there was a clear sense that everyone was in it together. No one was getting to their destination.

This is likely to have been a really important factor in keeping the situation cool. I didn’t thankfully experience yesterday’s delays. But thinking about it brings me back to the very many delays I experienced on the Belfast-Dublin line over the ’90s and noughties. The time was easily passed, reading, working and sometimes where the delays were particularly long chatting with fellow passengers. That sense of being in it together, making the best of it, is often the best antidote to the vagaries of travel.

Orla Muldoon is Professor of Psychology at University of Limerick

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