NEWS ANALYSIS: ATOC comms push seeks to win back passengers

Railtrack's future remains cloudy, but the operating companies are

to launch a PR drive aimed at helping the network recover from recent

setbacks, says Adam Hill.



The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC), the trade body for

the UK's 26 operators, is to launch a PR campaign to win back what it

calls 'lapsed' customers who deserted the railways after last year's

Hatfield crash.



It is sorely needed: passenger revenue losses totalled £354m by

last May, with intercity operators accounting for £238m of that.

Christian Wolmar, transport consultant and author of the authoritative

account of railway privatisation, Broken Rails, says things have

improved, 'but there is a real PR problem for rail that must be

addressed'.



ATOC says this PR work is part of an ongoing effort to reassure

customers - 'the industry has taken a battering; we need to get

passengers back,' says one member - even though it has faced claims from

some sectors of the media that it is designed to capitalise on the fears

of a travelling public concerned about air travel following the terror

attacks in the US.



ATOC insists the new work, for which seven agencies are understood to be

pitching, is not aimed at snatching passengers from domestic airline

routes. 'It will depend on what comes up in the tenders,' a spokesman

says.



Indeed, it is only three of the TOCs - Virgin Trains, GNER, First Great

Western - that are conspicuously threatened by domestic air traffic:

airlines are competitive on price and speed over distances that take

trains more than three hours to cover, London to Glasgow for example.

The association denies there is a temptation to exploit air's

troubles.



GNER head of corporate affairs Alan Hyde says the campaign is 'a

question of communicating the advantages of rail, which don't get the

treatment they deserve'.



Even if there is no plan to exploit air's troubles, there are pitfalls

to any rail marketing campaign following 11 September according to Jim

Boyd, an adviser to London operator Go Ahead: 'Positioning advertorials,

say, is hard without appearing to gloat. Much more effective is likely

to be well-placed comment by hawkish PR teams'.



As Virgin Trains media relations manager Jim Rowe accepts: 'Roles have

been reversed since 11 September. Some airlines made direct reference to

rail's problems last year.' He says ATOC's plans would do well to

concentrate on rail's claimed advantages over both road and air - the

absence of check-in or sudden areas of congestion.



British Airways and bmi British Midland, both of which run substantial

domestic passenger services deny making capital out of rail's problems

and say they are simply emphasising the security of their services in

any PR activity.



And ATOC is a conservative body, which requires wide membership

consensus for action. 'It is riven by indecision and bureaucracy when it

comes to this sort of thing. The campaign won't be negative because I

don't think they've got the guts to do that. It will be "We're going to

talk about the benefits," one airline PRO predicts: 'There may be a big

launch with someone like (Virgin founder Richard) Branson there. But I

am not quaking in my shoes - they could have had fun knocking Go,

Ryanair and easyJet,' he adds.



An ATOC spokesman confirms this: 'It will gain passenger confidence

after the "Time to Return" ads earlier this year. We will reassure

people it's a good time to come back,' a spokeswoman says.



Hyde says a consumer PR campaign must interest a wide audience,

including regional development agencies and local authorities, which

need to see rail's role in facilitating business.



PR is especially crucial because no matter how many ad campaigns are

wheeled out to win passengers back, it is editorial that has done so

much to wound rail's image. The media have played a key role in public

perceptions.



Rowe says: 'The press has tended to see rail as a topical story out of

sync with the amount of people who regularly get train.'



Hyde sees a need for subtlety: 'You need a more targeted media relations

plan. The railways make easy knocking copy and there is a process of

education to be done. The negativity doesn't stem from the honest,

jobbing transport reporter but from columnists, editors and leader

writers.



'A campaign has to tackle that inner sanctum and has to accept some of

the failures of the past. It is an attritional process, over time, not

"jam tomorrow" stories, but signs of incremental progress,' he adds.



The timing of the ATOC campaign also needs careful handling. With

Railtrack in administration and a new chairman for the Strategic Rail

Authority, there are other weighty rail matters on the news agenda.

There must also, despite improvements, be a question mark over rail's

ability to deliver on promises.



And ultimately, economics will play a role. Seven months ago, with

highly-publicised delays on the rail network after Hatfield, airlines

might have been expected to hold the high ground over domestic airlines.

It is therefore worth remembering that in March 2001 easyJet gave up its

Luton to Liverpool service after 18 months of trying. A cautionary tale.



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