Industrial Relations: The public privations of rail privatisation - Unless the rail industry comes up with a single voice, when problems occur within one area, privatised companies across the nation risk being tarred with the same brush

Two railway stories hit the headlines last week. First came the travails of South West Trains, the train operating company (TOC) owned by Stagecoach, which to commuter fury cancelled a slew of services because it lacked sufficiently qualified drivers after giving 70 of them voluntary redundancy.

Two railway stories hit the headlines last week. First came the

travails of South West Trains, the train operating company (TOC) owned

by Stagecoach, which to commuter fury cancelled a slew of services

because it lacked sufficiently qualified drivers after giving 70 of them

voluntary redundancy.



South West tried to make good the damage later in the week by offering

free standard rail travel for all on February 20 - at the not

inconsiderable cost to itself of over pounds 1 million - and handing out

a letter of apology to passengers. But the issue of rail privatisation

had flared up once again as a matter for party political debate.



The week’s second story fanned the flames even higher. It emerged that

Eversholt Leasing, one of the three privatised companies leasing rolling

stock to the TOCs,was to be sold for about pounds 900 million, almost

double the amount paid for it in 1995. As a result its managing director

Andrew Dukes stood to make pounds 20 million out of the pounds 110,000

he invested a year and a half earlier. Other directors also stood to

make huge profits.



The concurrence of the two stories was unfortunate for those in favour

of the privatised rail network, and all but drowned out news of

Railtrack’s pounds 15.9 billion investment in tracks and stations over

the next 10 years.



The issues they raised - service chaos and fat cat profiteering are

those most often used by those critical of rail privatisation, and as

such were particularly unwelcome.



Yet they, or stories of their ilk, were hardly unexpected. By breaking

up a monolith like the old British Rail and putting in its place an

array of private companies, the Government brought competition to the

railway.



But at the same time it increased exponentially the number of targets

for the media and, so far as consumers were concerned, complicated the

picture significantly.



Now, for example, there are 25 TOCs. All with an eye on profitability

and all with their own brand identities and services to promote. In

these circumstances there is the danger of public confusion.



’When the public complains they’re often told it’s someone else who’s to

blame,’ says the Guardian’s transport editor Keith Harper. ’This is

something the industry has to look at. There has to be a more central

focus on communications. They don’t overlap, there are separate

entities.



Might the impact of last week’s stories have been minimised had there

been a single, over-arching organisation to take the communications

brief by the scruff of the neck and present these negatives in the

broader context of national privatisation? Perhaps.



Some, however, disagree. Great Western corporate affairs manager Knowles

Mitchell says he is not conscious of a ’gap’. In his opinion the

Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC), the body set up to

self-regulate and represent the TOCs, fits the bill as a unifying

voice.



’The Association is willing to take on whatever role our members wish us

to take on,’ says ATOC external affairs manager Paul Lawson. ’If that

means being more pro-active, then I’d welcome it.’



ATOC is at present searching for a public affairs agency. This renewed

attention to communications seems prudent because with a membership

including companies as strongly individualistic as Stagecoach and Virgin

it has had teething troubles forming collective views and agreeing on

the areas - beyond those laid down by statute - in which to operate.



ATOC’s pussy-footing has led to the emergence of another potential

unifying voice. The Railway Forum was set up as a trade association for

the whole railway industry last year and at the start of this month

appointed its first director general, David Morphet.



’There’s a general feeling among the members of the railway industry,

which is in a sense a fragmented industry now, that there is a need for

an overall voice for talking to the Government and the EC,’ says the

Forum’s secretary Colin Bracewell.



So now there are two unifying voices - which of course makes no sense at

all. And if one includes the Rail Information Unit, set up last year at

the Department of Transport ’to explain to interested parties the policy

behind privatisation and what it was intended to achieve’, that makes

three.



No wonder some politicians, members of the public and media argue it was

far easier to understand what was going on in the old days.



Yet while there is undeniably an element of confusion it would be a

gross distortion to imply that co-operation between the newly privatised

entities happens once in a blue moon. The South West affair, for

example, saw the TOC working hand-in-hand with Railtrack, which arranged

media filming facilities at its Waterloo station.



’What one should not do is put in a blame structure - ’oh, that’s

Railtrack or that’s the TOC.’ We should support one another,’ says

Railtrack head of media relations Roger Shire. ’The understanding and

working relationships we have are a lot better now. But we’re in a new

era.’



The improvement must continue. If the industry is unable to offer

coherent national arguments every company in it will be tarnished

whenever a controversy breaks.



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