Opinion: Rail companies fail to make PR connection

Up until last week I thought I knew every nuance of the misery that is 'commuting'. In fact, after four years of paying the price for combining working in London with rural living, like many, I had simply resigned myself to the unapologetic unreliability and, in some cases, downright squalor of rail travel in the UK. However, missing a train because it left early the other day - definitely a first in my experience - prompted further thought on the subject.

Just by way of background, I am not a masochist. I was first seduced into leaving London for my rural idyll by a service that ran directly from my nearby station to within a stone's throw of PRWeek's offices, but which was removed from the timetables only months after I moved.

Which is how I found myself watching the premature departure of my train last week, having sprinted across platforms at Watford Junction in an attempt to make a connection. Except, as I was told by a member of the platform staff (Silverlink), one train was run by Virgin, the other by South Central - and 'we don't connect'.

That privatisation has created a labyrinthine structure in which it has become all too easy for the companies now responsible for stations, rolling stock and maintenance to pass the buck was not this chap's fault. Nor can the blame for his complete lack of understanding of the concept of customer service be laid at his door. It is now endemic to the rail system.

The exchange reminded me of a conversation I had over dinner last year with the head of corporate communications for a leading rail service provider, who informed me in strident tones that my experience of the service was not nearly as bad as I thought. He then reeled off some impressive statistics, none of which succeeded in convincing me that the loos on the trains weren't out of order every other day.

This almost self-deluding optimism is up there with Network Rail's brainwave about altering timetables to allow for trains to be late, and the Rail Safety and Standards Board's bizarre pronouncement last month that it was to eradicate the word 'overcrowding' from its vocabulary, in favour of the less incendiary 'crowding'. All these examples display a lack of respect for the intelligence of customers, and fail to register the need to ensure that PR pronouncements are linked in some way with the hard reality of customers' brand experience.

Investment is being made, but telling customers that black is white won't lessen the pain. Real improvement will take time, but closer management links between PR and customer service would, in the meantime, go a long way towards bringing experience in line with expectations. Connections do need to be made, and not just on the track.

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