Building up a fair track record - Running a closely scrutinised rail franchise necessitates top communications skills. GNER chief Christopher Garnett outlines his timetable for the future to Stephanie France

Getting the right message on track is a major part of running a successful train operating company, says chief executive of Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) Christopher Garnett.

Getting the right message on track is a major part of running a

successful train operating company, says chief executive of Great North

Eastern Railway (GNER) Christopher Garnett.

Not only is the PR function used to promote the rail service and manage

media relations should service disruptions occur but, according to

Garnett, effective communication is the key to persuading staff,

passengers and politicians that GNER’s seven-year franchise should be

extended beyond its 2003 expiry date.

In many ways GNER has been a victim of its own success. Passenger

numbers have increased by 17.5 per cent in just two years, meaning that

on one out of every 13 trains, customers are forced to stand for all or

part of their journey. Unlike Virgin’s West Coast Main Line, it was

given a head start. When GNER took over the East Coast Main Line in

1996, it was not hampered with ageing rolling stock, having inherited

one of British Rail’s newest fleets of trains.

Garnett says that the overcrowding problem leads back to the question of

franchise extension. He claims that if it was granted, GNER would invest

pounds 120 million in eight new tilting trains, enabling 22 additional

services to run every day - taking the total number offered by GNER to

154. Passengers could also expect three new parkway stations -

airport-style rail terminals, built outside city centres. Some, such as

anti-privatisation group Save Our Trains, argue that this is nothing

short of blackmail.

’When we bid for the railway, we said we would achieve a growth in

passengers numbers of 18.5 per cent within seven years, which at the

time seemed ambitious. The business has actually grown that amount in

just over two years. If we ordered the new trains today, we’d only have

two year’s use of them before the franchise expired,’ says Garnett.

At seven years, GNER’s franchise is certainly one of the shortest

granted to the new band of train operating companies. The bid to extend

it has now become the subject of an intensive lobbying campaign. The

Government has asked the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising (OPRAF) to

work with GNER over the question of capacity on the route. Garnett is

hopeful that a recommendation will emerge this autumn, allowing GNER to

extend its franchise.

’When we started this campaign a year ago, everyone said, ’you’re

wasting your time’. I wrote to all the MPs on the route, went to endless

meetings, met local authorities and slowly the culture began to change,’

says Garnett, who is being offered strategic advice by Westminster


’After a lot of questions in the House, the Government finally admitted

that John Prescott had the power to extend franchises, subject to four

conditions. These are that there is clear investment, clear commitment

to improving conditions for passengers, clear performance targets and

clear benefits to the tax payer. All of which we have in our proposals,’

he says.

But for now overcrowding at peak times remains GNER’s biggest


GNER’s boom in passengers may in part stem from the philosophy passed

down from its parent company Sea Containers, owners of the Orient

Express trains and hotels. Here the emphasis is on luxury and customer

service - setting what GNER is hoping to achieve in sharp relief against

the service which British Rail offered.

GNER boasts spotless trains, inviting menus, endless cups of tea and

coffee for first class passengers, train miles deals and alarmingly

cheerful train staff. If this sounds like the average in-flight

experience, then it’s no accident.

’We compete more than any other railway company with the airlines,’ says

Garnett, who claims his trains attract similar ABC1 passengers. But

unlike aeroplanes, trains are judged by a different set of rules.

Garnett admits he is rankled by this perversity. ’People’s reactions to

plane delays is to blindly accept them, whereas they do not accept

delays to their train service. There is also the whole school of thought

that says because the railways are privatised, they are somehow


Well, everyone flies on privately owned aeroplanes and ferries. Why

should the railways be any different? Some people think train operators

put profits before safety, which is absolute rubbish, because if we are

unsafe, we lose our business.’

Garnett is qualified to speak - his background is privatised


He was commercial director at Eurotunnel for four years, before that he

worked for Sealink, then owned by Sea Containers. He says he has

realised that change can only come around through evolution and that

staff must be empowered if they are to perform at their best.

’You have to create a culture whereby people are willing to


You can’t possibly write the rules for every situation. It’s about

empowering our people in a framework that has our values in it,’ he


And when things do go wrong, there is not only the immediate problem of

how to remedy the situation, but a whole crisis management strategy to

communicate. In June 1998, GNER withdrew its fleet of InterCity 225 high

speed trains following a derailment on the line. The derailment, which

was caused by a cracked carriage wheel, drew international attention

since wheel failure was responsible for a German train disaster earlier

in June, in which 100 people died.

Although the GNER derailment did not result in any fatalities, it did

mean thousands of passengers endured severe delays while the fleet

underwent safety checks. GNER was praised in the press for its swift

response to the derailment and its concern for safety, but Garnett

admits communications with the press and public were not as effective as

they might have been.

’We got a press release out, but even then it took time for the message

to filter out. Once we started to get the trains back in at 80mph, there

was the general view that the problem was solved and so people were

turning up at our stations, saying, ’the press says it is all


In hindsight, Garnett says GNER fell down by over-promising. ’We were

having to re-write the timetable every day, because we assumed we could

get the trains back into service more quickly than we did. It is much

better to be cautious, so that people are pleasantly surprised when they

discover their train is running at 125mph and not at 85mph.’

Back at communications headquarters in York, another problem also


’The sheer volume of press queries was phenomenal, the system did not

cope as well as it could have,’ admits Garnett. ’There were an amazing

number of calls from the Continent, on the back of the German


Looking back, Garnett says GNER’s three press officers had their work

cut out coping with the sheer amount of press interest. GNER is now

investing in more telephones, portable fax machines, more stand-by staff

and should a similar incident occur, will make more use of the crisis

support service offered by its PR consultancy Countrywide Porter

Novelli. More effective communication will be at the forefront of any

future incident, promises Garnett.

SPLITTING THE TRACKS: Carving up British Rail

The dissolution of British Rail may have led to a better service for

some passengers, but it has also meant communications for the network as

a whole is fractured.

In 1996, the former InterCity main line service was carved up between

five franchisees-GNER, Virgin’s West Coast, Great Western Railways,

Virgin’s Cross Country and Midland Main Line. The challenge was to

ensure that they and the 20 regional franchisees could speak with one

voice on common issues. The task now falls to the Association of Train

Operating Companies (ATOC). The industry body’s responsibilities include

the rail settlement plan (apportioning parts of pan-network journeys to

operators), running the national rail enquiry telephone number and

retailing train products through travel agents. It also speaks for the

train operating companies on issues raised by Government watchdog, the

Office of Passenger Rail Franchising (OPRAF). OPRAF publishes regular

performance figures and updates the public on how well the train

operating companies are sticking to their franchise pledges.

But much of the communications work falls to the individual operators,

according to GNER’s corporate affairs manager Alan Hyde. ’We tailor

communication to our needs. One of our key challenges is to address the

lingering legacy, in terms of image, left over from the days of British

Rail.’ Another task, says Hyde, is to persuade passengers to use GNER

rather than other forms of transport, such as coaches, cars, aeroplanes

and, of course, competing railways.

GNER chief executive Christopher Garnett admits some friction has

existed in the past between Virgin West Coast and GNER, particularly

over Virgin’s right to serve the city of Edinburgh. However, Garnett is

keen to see Virgin West Coast achieve a more positive profile. ’Bad news

stories about Virgin or any other train operator does not help the

industry as a whole.

The media is not interested in good news train stories, but they love

bad news stories.’

The outlook for train operators which satisfy the Government’s tough

performance standards is good. Indeed the industry is heading for a


The Government, which holds quality public transport in high esteem and

wants more freight to be carried by rail, released a White Paper in

July, outlining its plans for an integrated transport policy. The

blueprint paves the way for the creation of a Strategic Rail Authority

(SRA), which will gradually absorb OPRAF. The SRA will take on OPRAF’s

watchdog role and will assist in the long term planning in rail and

freight industries.

The challenge now for the 25 train operating companies is to tighten up

their service, particularly in the area of punctuality, and to finally

get the media on their side.

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