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,’
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
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.