OPINION: Network Rail, the eternal black sheep

About 20 years ago journalists and analysts were asked how familiar they were with a range of different businesses on the usual zero-to-five score, and were then asked using a similar ranking whether their impressions were favourable or unfavourable.

Anthony Hilton: City commentator on London’s <em>Evening Standard</em>
Anthony Hilton: City commentator on London’s Evening Standard

Such exercises still go on – indeed I take part in them myself a couple of times a year.

What brought this to mind, however, was a small item tucked away in a recent Financial Times. It said that Britain’s railways look set for record passenger use this year after new official figures showed year-on-year growth of 8.3 per cent. So, the railways are on target to exceed 4.7 billion passengers this year and beat the record set in 1946 during the post-war demobilisation.

Most mature businesses would give their eye teeth for a growth of 8.3 per cent and record levels of business, so what has happened is a considerable success – the more so given that the network handling all these passengers is massively smaller following the Beeching-inspired branch line closures of the 1960s when the record was set.

But the railways get precious little credit for this with the public, which is where the familiarity/favourability studies come in. It was a near universal feature of these that the more people were familiar with a business, the more favourably disposed they were to it.

Thus Rolls-Royce, which has a widely recognised brand name, would regularly score better than GKN, which did not. Marks & Spencer as a retailer would do better than Booker, a food wholesaler.

Hence the origins of the Booker Prize for literature – it was planned quite straightforwardly as a way of getting better name recognition. The one consistent exception was British Rail, as it was then known. Everybody professed to be very familiar with it, but this did the company no good at all. No-one looked upon it favourably.

It intrigues me whether this can ever be changed. Network Rail and the operating companies are breaking records so should they try to get credit for this in PR terms too – or would that simply be tempting fate? I suspect the latter. Our desire to complain about the railways probably defies logic, fact or any known PR antidote.

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