Railtrack's future remains cloudy, but the operating companies are
to launch a PR drive aimed at helping the network recover from recent
setbacks, says Adam Hill.
The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC), the trade body for
the UK's 26 operators, is to launch a PR campaign to win back what it
calls 'lapsed' customers who deserted the railways after last year's
It is sorely needed: passenger revenue losses totalled £354m by
last May, with intercity operators accounting for £238m of that.
Christian Wolmar, transport consultant and author of the authoritative
account of railway privatisation, Broken Rails, says things have
improved, 'but there is a real PR problem for rail that must be
ATOC says this PR work is part of an ongoing effort to reassure
customers - 'the industry has taken a battering; we need to get
passengers back,' says one member - even though it has faced claims from
some sectors of the media that it is designed to capitalise on the fears
of a travelling public concerned about air travel following the terror
attacks in the US.
ATOC insists the new work, for which seven agencies are understood to be
pitching, is not aimed at snatching passengers from domestic airline
routes. 'It will depend on what comes up in the tenders,' a spokesman
Indeed, it is only three of the TOCs - Virgin Trains, GNER, First Great
Western - that are conspicuously threatened by domestic air traffic:
airlines are competitive on price and speed over distances that take
trains more than three hours to cover, London to Glasgow for example.
The association denies there is a temptation to exploit air's
GNER head of corporate affairs Alan Hyde says the campaign is 'a
question of communicating the advantages of rail, which don't get the
treatment they deserve'.
Even if there is no plan to exploit air's troubles, there are pitfalls
to any rail marketing campaign following 11 September according to Jim
Boyd, an adviser to London operator Go Ahead: 'Positioning advertorials,
say, is hard without appearing to gloat. Much more effective is likely
to be well-placed comment by hawkish PR teams'.
As Virgin Trains media relations manager Jim Rowe accepts: 'Roles have
been reversed since 11 September. Some airlines made direct reference to
rail's problems last year.' He says ATOC's plans would do well to
concentrate on rail's claimed advantages over both road and air - the
absence of check-in or sudden areas of congestion.
British Airways and bmi British Midland, both of which run substantial
domestic passenger services deny making capital out of rail's problems
and say they are simply emphasising the security of their services in
any PR activity.
And ATOC is a conservative body, which requires wide membership
consensus for action. 'It is riven by indecision and bureaucracy when it
comes to this sort of thing. The campaign won't be negative because I
don't think they've got the guts to do that. It will be "We're going to
talk about the benefits," one airline PRO predicts: 'There may be a big
launch with someone like (Virgin founder Richard) Branson there. But I
am not quaking in my shoes - they could have had fun knocking Go,
Ryanair and easyJet,' he adds.
An ATOC spokesman confirms this: 'It will gain passenger confidence
after the "Time to Return" ads earlier this year. We will reassure
people it's a good time to come back,' a spokeswoman says.
Hyde says a consumer PR campaign must interest a wide audience,
including regional development agencies and local authorities, which
need to see rail's role in facilitating business.
PR is especially crucial because no matter how many ad campaigns are
wheeled out to win passengers back, it is editorial that has done so
much to wound rail's image. The media have played a key role in public
Rowe says: 'The press has tended to see rail as a topical story out of
sync with the amount of people who regularly get train.'
Hyde sees a need for subtlety: 'You need a more targeted media relations
plan. The railways make easy knocking copy and there is a process of
education to be done. The negativity doesn't stem from the honest,
jobbing transport reporter but from columnists, editors and leader
'A campaign has to tackle that inner sanctum and has to accept some of
the failures of the past. It is an attritional process, over time, not
"jam tomorrow" stories, but signs of incremental progress,' he adds.
The timing of the ATOC campaign also needs careful handling. With
Railtrack in administration and a new chairman for the Strategic Rail
Authority, there are other weighty rail matters on the news agenda.
There must also, despite improvements, be a question mark over rail's
ability to deliver on promises.
And ultimately, economics will play a role. Seven months ago, with
highly-publicised delays on the rail network after Hatfield, airlines
might have been expected to hold the high ground over domestic airlines.
It is therefore worth remembering that in March 2001 easyJet gave up its
Luton to Liverpool service after 18 months of trying. A cautionary tale.