Brand Building - Time to rebuild public faith in the railways - As Virgin Rail attempts to improve its image in preparation for floating on the Stock Exchange, other rail operators are hiring PR professionals to give them the same treatment

Virgin Rail Group looks likely to become the first train operator since privatisation to float on the London Stock Exchange. Although the company maintains otherwise, selling Virgin Rail to the City is arguably the hardest communications task faced by any train operator since the first franchises were awarded in 1996.

Virgin Rail Group looks likely to become the first train operator

since privatisation to float on the London Stock Exchange. Although the

company maintains otherwise, selling Virgin Rail to the City is arguably

the hardest communications task faced by any train operator since the

first franchises were awarded in 1996.



In the year since Virgin began operating its two services, West Coast

and Cross Country, it has earned itself one of the worst reputations

among the operators of the 25 existing franchises. Despite a recent

improvement, Virgin’s trains have repeatedly fallen short of their

punctuality targets and the service has drawn heavy criticism from

passengers.



Not all the blame can be laid at the operator’s door. The high profile

of the Virgin brand means that it is an easy name for the media and the

public to single out when criticising the industry as a whole. It is

also widely accepted that Virgin inherited, in the West Coast Main Line,

one of British Rail’s most run-down services.



Having only run trains for a year, Virgin will have to sell itself on

the changes it intends to make to its services, rather than on past

performance.



The company’s flotation is intended to help raise money for acquisitions

and improvements. Virgin has committed itself to investing pounds 750

million alongside pounds 2 billion from track-to-stations operator

Railtrack, in new trains and a high speed link on the West Coast Main

Line.



So far Virgin and other operators have found it difficult to mollify

critics with promises of future service improvements.



According to Steve Bramall, a transport expert and deputy managing

director at public affairs company the Waterfront Partnership: ’The

public expected that as soon as Virgin took over it was going to be an

A-1 service. It was never going to be like that.’



At the last count in December, train operators were planning to invest a

total of pounds 1.9 billion in the industry. The figure is certainly

higher now. But Bramall believes it will take up to three years for the

investment to translate into visible improvements. Virgin’s plans for

the West Coast route are expected to take seven years to complete.



The task for the rail industry’s PR people is to manage the public’s

expectations, which have been perhaps higher than the improvements

operators have so far been able to deliver. Operators argue that the

public, in its disappointment, now perceives services to be worse than

they actually are. They claim people have forgotten what life was like

under British Rail, and look back a little too fondly on the time before

privatisation.



’People are very impatient, they want to see improvements faster than we

can provide them, which puts us on the back foot in communications

terms,’ says Railtrack’s corporate affairs director Philip Dewhurst.

’What we’ve got to do is get the perception back up there with the

reality,’ he adds.



But until recently, the train operators have done little to manage

expectations.



Few of them have had senior communications advisers in-house. It is only

now, after two years of media hostility, that they seem to be waking up

to the need for a serious PR effort.



Connex Rail, which runs trains connecting London with Kent and Sussex,

is looking for its first communications director. This month First

Group, which caused uproar earlier in the year by acquiring two rail

services to ad to its existing Great Eastern Railway, hired Michael

Mitchell as its first corporate affairs director.



Mitchell has hands on experience of dealing with media hostility, having

come from Signet Group, the jewellery retailer formerly known as

Ratners, where he was investor relations adviser. National Express

Group, which runs a number of services, including the Gatwick Express,

hired communications manager, Helen McCorry, just before Christmas.



Dewhurst believes the calibre of PR people now working in the rail

industry has improved. ’They are recruiting people who wouldn’t

necessarily have come to work for British Rail,’ he says.



The transport industry’s gradual consolidation has also helped to

improve communications. Growing companies such as First Group - which

recently changed its name from First Bus to take account of the

diversity of its business interests - are reaching a size where they can

afford to have bigger and better PR departments. And as larger

companies, they now have a stronger voice in the City.



According to David Campbell Bannerman, communications director at the

Association of Train Operating Companies, the operators are not just

improving their image in the railways, but building their identities as

transport companies. Many operate buses and airports as well as trains,

and some have interests outside the UK.



Campbell Bannerman believes it is important for the industry as a whole

that Virgin Rail’s flotation is a success. ’This is the largest

investment programme of any train operating company so far, it is a

flagship for rail investment overall,’ he says.



If Virgin goes ahead with its plans to improve the West Coast Main Line,

which connects Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, it will provide a

visible improvement to the railways. Without this kind of improvement,

the industry’s newly recruited PR people can do little more than paint

over the cracks.



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.