OPINION: Railway needs a unified voice for 2008

Already they have the look of the iconic news pictures of the New Year. Just as the images of Northern Rock queues set a lasting tone for 2007, pictures of engineers working on deserted railway lines will be synonymous with the problems of 2008.

Monk: contradictory signals from Network Rail
Monk: contradictory signals from Network Rail

Like most things to do with our benighted rail services, these pictures will be challenging for comms officers. A combination of taxation, burgeoning oil prices, congestion charges and delayed roadworks is pushing people off the roads and onto public transport broadly in the name of the environment.

And yet the perception is that the railways are already unable to cope with existing passenger loads, let alone a future increase. Few believe they can offer a warm and environmentally friendly alternative to driving their cars.

Against this backcloth, the engineers at work pictures will no doubt, and justifiably so, be published again and again by the media as emblems of failure.

What the railway network desperately needs is a unified voice to persuade passengers that Britain's rail transport system is heading in the right direction. Instead the travelling, or stranded, passengers receive contradictory platform announcements from what used to be simply known as British Rail.

Network Rail competes with individual train operating companies over blame while the Rail Regulator makes threatening noises about fines and loss of franchises. Each component of the rail network goes to the media with its own narrative. No-one takes responsibility and all consumers hear is a public argument rather than proper accountability for a basic failure to run trains on time.

The Virgin train I was travelling on before Christmas stopped for almost two hours outside Coventry. For an hour there was no word from an announcer who had been chirping away until then. When he did finally break radio silence it was to blame Network Rail. 'They always lie to us,' he moaned over the intercom - as if Virgin and not the passengers were the aggrieved party.

Half an hour later an angry rather than apologetic steward came round and asked passengers to write their names and addresses on paper serviettes so that the company would have a record of who might be available for compensation - which turned out to be a derisory offer of 25 per cent of the single fare.

The minimum the travelling public needs is a clear announcement on what is happening on the line, not a raucous squabble between PROs intent on passing the parcel of blame.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and was formerly a senior newspaper executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun.

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