Public Sector: Rescuing the railways

The Government has pledged £180bn to update public transport. But what does this mean for rail PROs? asks Robert Gray.

All change, fittingly, encapsulates the history of the UK's railways.

Landmarks include nationalisation in the 1940s, a return to private ownership under John Major's Conservative government in the early 1990s and the ignominious collapse into administration of the largely unloved rail infrastructure company Railtrack in 2001.

Now a fresh wave of change is afoot. In July, the Department for Transport published its White Paper 'The Future of Rail', which set out a new structure for rail with the avowed intention of cutting bureaucracy and financial waste while making rail less industry focused and more customer focused.

The Government has pledged £180bn in its 'Transport 2010 - The 10 Year Plan', which aims to modernise Britain's public transport infrastructure with spending on rail and roads. It is intended that private sector investment will contribute half of the pledged money, bringing the total of business investment to around £70bn over the next ten years.

Changes Afoot

Among the specific changes proposed in the document are the winding up of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), with the Government taking charge of setting the strategy for railways. Network Rail, meanwhile, is to be given clear responsibility for operating the network and for making sure passengers get a more reliable service. Safety regulation will transfer from the Health and Safety Executive to the Office of Rail Regulation; track and train operating firms will be expected to work more closely together in the expectation that, in time, the number of franchises will be reduced and aligned more closely with Network Rail's regional structure.

This large-scale shake-up has created numerous PR issues for the key bodies involved. Overarching all of this are perennial passenger concerns over service reliability - an issue that simply will not go away.

A Which? survey of Britain's railway passengers released in September 2003 highlighted severe problems including late trains, cancellations and overcrowding, reaching the conclusion that trains are less punctual and more crowded than when its previous passenger survey was carried out in 1998.

Passenger pessimism

A December 2003 YouGov survey, undertaken for the Rail Passenger Council, found widespread passenger pessimism about the future of the rail service, with 42 per cent believing that getting a seat would become harder, 38 per cent anticipating a decline in service frequency and 36 per cent predicting that punctuality would deteriorate.

Ironically, the most recent quarterly performance figures released by the SRA on 23 September, which cover the period April to June 2004, showed that 84.5 per cent of trains ran on time. While this was a tiny increase of 0.2 per cent over the same quarter in 2003, it was at least a move in the right direction.

However, with 15 out of every 100 train journeys still involving delay there is plenty of ammunition for critics, not least in the media - making PR seem a perpetual issues management job for most PROs working in the rail industry.

SRA director of comms Ceri Evans says: 'The railway needs to stop patting itself on the back over minuscule improvements and really deliver for passengers. You can't fix the railway overnight but to get better media coverage you have to keep up a constant dialogue. You have to take the trouble to go to the local media and explain what you are doing.'

Leading transport journalist Christian Wolmar, author of acclaimed no-holds-barred books on the industry, including Broken Rails and The Great British Railway Disaster, believes that only a few firms active in the sector are paying enough attention to reputation management. 'The rail industry has never learnt PR really. It's been incredibly backward in PR terms and gets the worst PR in the world. Most of the companies don't understand that you have to nurture relationships with journalists and have to engage with them. If they don't bother, they pay the penalty when things go wrong.'

Despite his comments, Wolmar has some sympathy for the firms involved, pointing out that performance is not as poor as some critics portray it.

The big challenge as he sees it is to convince the public that the current way of running the railways is effective - and will be even more so once the proposed changes are implemented.

Association of Training Operating Companies director of comms Edward Funnell believes the Government's plans, spearheaded by Secretary of State for Transport Alistair Darling, will simplify current structures, allocate responsibility more clearly and help create a 'more joined-up railway'. He points out that a trawl through the archives as far back as the 19th Century in publications such as The Times and Punch shows that there have always been negative stories about the railways.

The best way to address the criticism, Funnell contends, is through a 'constant drip-feed' of positive news stories: 'More people than ever are using the railways. There are 4,000 new trains and a £4bn investment in train protection systems is coming into place.' He also cites the September 2003 opening of stage one of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and that last year the railways carried a billion passengers: the first time this significant figure has been reached since 1962.

The Rail Passenger Council (RPC) is to be restructured under the Government's plans, its current federal structure abolished due to concerns that it was confusing to passengers. A new project, Passenger Voices, aims to promote the existence of this consumer body more widely. 'We need to be more high profile as a consumer body,' admits RPC comms manager Caroline Jones. 'And the opportunity exists to be more of an advice and information body.' She believes that the rail industry, as a whole, has a genuine opportunity to tell people directly about the improvements being made 'so that they can be less cynical, even if the media are not.'

Buckled rails, shabby customer service, missed reliability targets or tortuous train journeys from hell make good journalistic copy and always will. There is no avoiding the fact that the railway will be confronted with negative coverage from time to time - and the occasional large-scale crisis. But it is certainly fair to conclude that rail's image is far better than four or five years ago.

This year MORI and Rail Magazine presented an award for the most impressive press office/communications department in the rail industry to Network Rail. It is hard to conceive of such an honour being bestowed on its predecessor Railtrack.

In reputation management terms, there remains a long way for many of the firms involved in the sector to travel. It remains to be seen whether the Government's plans will inspire some to raise the standards of their PR game, or simply provide a new stock of ammunition for media commentators ever hungry for a story that knocks the railway.

THE WHITE PAPER: OPINIONS

CERI EVANS, DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS, SRA

'It has emerged that the SRA will be wound up in 15-18 months. Some functions may move earlier. Even in the changed world post-White Paper announcement, there is still a significant comms job to be done.

'We made the decision that we would not make public our views on the results of the White Paper. (Transport Secretary) Alistair Darling is an elected politician. His team needs the space and time to implement the White Paper - people chanting and jeering from the sidelines would only be counterproductive and self-serving.

'Franchise renewals will be the biggest issue for us. (RMT general secretary) Bob Crowe can continue to audition for Jurassic Park 4 if he likes, but it is important for investors and passengers to understand that the franchising programme is on track and the model has been improved.'

CHRIS RUMFITT, HEAD OF EXTERNAL COMMUNICATIONS, NETWORK RAIL

'Overall we welcome the White Paper. We think it gives clarity, improves accountability and will enable us to work better with the train operators.

Our communications need to reflect that - and the fact that rail performance is improving. We've had 11 successive months in which performance has improved, which hadn't happened in a long time. Our challenge is to transform that impact into perception.

'I think there has been a tremendous amount of progress. If you compare press coverage of 18 months ago with what we get today, then it was relentless negativity - today it's more of a mixed bag.

'On the day of the White Paper release the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) chairman (Keith Ludeman) came to Network Rail and we responded together. ATOC was quoted in our press release and we in theirs.'

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