News Analysis: Network Rail exorcises its demons

As the operator of Britain's much-maligned rail infrastructure, Network Rail's comms task is never going to be easy. David Quainton asks how the firm - which has just taken on Bell Pottinger - is improving its image.

In the eyes of the travelling public, investors and the government, the railways reached a nadir when Railtrack - created by Conservative privatisation - went into administration in 2001 after seven years of underachievement.

Its successor Network Rail, which owns the fixed assets of the rail ­network, was formed in 2003. The firm has been fighting to shed the negative image it inherited ever since, and last week hired Bell Pottinger Corporate & Financial (PRWeek, 8 Sep).

Perception turnaround
Network Rail itself - which has more than 100 comms professionals - tells PRWeek that it believes it has ‘turned around the image of the nation's rail infrastructure owner'.

The organisation is becoming more like a private-sector entity and exists to make profit that is then re­invested into the network. Organisations such as banks effectively buy shares in Network Rail's debt - £17bn set to rise to about £20bn - but the Government guarantees that the money will eventually be paid back.

But as it enters a year-long round of funding discussions with the Government, what are the real comms challenges facing the company?

Ceri Evans, who was director of comms at the Strategic Rail Authority from 2002 to 2005, says the company's positioning presents a very specific PR challenge: ‘Network Rail is a contractor with two clients : the taxpayer (represented by government) and the train companies. Presently, it is neither the controlling mind of the railway nor the saviour of the passenger.'

He goes on to argue : ‘Until Network Rail prises itself from the jaws of the mistaken belief that it is anything more than a contractor with a clear (and very important) remit, then all PR spend will be a waste.'

PRWeek news editor Ian Hall sought four further views on Railtrack's comms (below).

The industry association view: Edward Funnell, director of communications at the Association of Train Operating Companies

‘Network Rail's PR has come a long way over the past three years. While this is partly due to the big improvements made to punctuality and trains, the PR team deserves credit for explaining developments on the network - to media, MPs, local authorities and devolved assemblies.

‘PR has been well organised, with a strong national hub and network of regional teams. This has enabled the firm to tackle issues and media enquiries at national and corporate level, while handling local operational matters on a local basis. As a result, the PR team appears to be well respected internally, especially by its senior management team.

‘ATOC deals mainly with Network Rail's head office, while our member train operating companies have stronger ties to its regional offices. We find Network Rail accommodating and open to industry cross working.'

The journalist's view: Chris Milner, deputy editor of The Railway Magazine

‘Without doubt, Network Rail has improved its comms since the days of Railtrack and the Hatfield train crash.

‘Pre-Hatfield, Railtrack stories generally had loads of spin associated with it being a FTSE 100 company. Post-Hatfield (October 2000) this policy was reversed, with the company adopting a defensive PR/media strategy.

‘This was compounded by the West Coast Route Modernisation debacle, when Railtrack got most of the flak.

‘In the past year, the company has adopted a more open approach to PR, and is more receptive to journalists' enquiries. Another positive step is the revamp of the company's website, with a media section that allows each route/zone to put its own releases and images out for general distribution. Before this, access was limited to high-level corporate stuff.

‘The challenge for Network Rail is how to manage the relationship between the Government and its creditors.'

One train company's view: Arthur Leathley, Virgin Trains director of communications

‘A slick communications operation by Network Rail has exorcised many ghosts. The message - "We are not Railtrack" - is widely understood by opinion formers who now recognise the huge performance improvements and safety record.

‘The company has positioned itself as an effective custodian of the network, but it will be under increasing political scrutiny, as seen by recent comments from the Conservatives.

‘Network Rail will want to convince political and media sceptics that it can do more than run a "steady state" railway.

‘Its next challenge is to prove it can be the catalyst to future growth and that it shares train operators' vision to attract more customers to the railways.

‘The combination of increasing road congestion, airport disruption and a much better rail product offers all the opportunities for Network Rail and BPC&F to be bold about the future.' 

The transport PRO's view: Mike Katz, senior client manager at The Waterfront Partnership (and a former head of comms at rail union TSSA)

‘From the dark days of Railtrack (think the tragedy of Hatfield), Network Rail has transformed its communications strategy. Now it can boast of delivering a railway that carries more than a billion passengers a year, with a substantial investment programme, finally delivering upgrades such as the West Coast Main Line.

‘By being disciplined and organised in its communications, Network Rail is no longer a story in itself. There will always be critics, but there is a genuine feeling that NR has got its act together. 

‘Now it has a new challenge. Raising billions from the City as cheaply as possible will involve a process more suited to a plc. Meanwhile, there will be queries about its status as a ‘not-for-dividend' company. It faces not just risk to its reputation, like other corporations, but regulatory and political risks, too.'

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