Virgin Rail Group looks likely to become the first train operator
since privatisation to float on the London Stock Exchange. Although the
company maintains otherwise, selling Virgin Rail to the City is arguably
the hardest communications task faced by any train operator since the
first franchises were awarded in 1996.
In the year since Virgin began operating its two services, West Coast
and Cross Country, it has earned itself one of the worst reputations
among the operators of the 25 existing franchises. Despite a recent
improvement, Virgin’s trains have repeatedly fallen short of their
punctuality targets and the service has drawn heavy criticism from
Not all the blame can be laid at the operator’s door. The high profile
of the Virgin brand means that it is an easy name for the media and the
public to single out when criticising the industry as a whole. It is
also widely accepted that Virgin inherited, in the West Coast Main Line,
one of British Rail’s most run-down services.
Having only run trains for a year, Virgin will have to sell itself on
the changes it intends to make to its services, rather than on past
The company’s flotation is intended to help raise money for acquisitions
and improvements. Virgin has committed itself to investing pounds 750
million alongside pounds 2 billion from track-to-stations operator
Railtrack, in new trains and a high speed link on the West Coast Main
So far Virgin and other operators have found it difficult to mollify
critics with promises of future service improvements.
According to Steve Bramall, a transport expert and deputy managing
director at public affairs company the Waterfront Partnership: ’The
public expected that as soon as Virgin took over it was going to be an
A-1 service. It was never going to be like that.’
At the last count in December, train operators were planning to invest a
total of pounds 1.9 billion in the industry. The figure is certainly
higher now. But Bramall believes it will take up to three years for the
investment to translate into visible improvements. Virgin’s plans for
the West Coast route are expected to take seven years to complete.
The task for the rail industry’s PR people is to manage the public’s
expectations, which have been perhaps higher than the improvements
operators have so far been able to deliver. Operators argue that the
public, in its disappointment, now perceives services to be worse than
they actually are. They claim people have forgotten what life was like
under British Rail, and look back a little too fondly on the time before
’People are very impatient, they want to see improvements faster than we
can provide them, which puts us on the back foot in communications
terms,’ says Railtrack’s corporate affairs director Philip Dewhurst.
’What we’ve got to do is get the perception back up there with the
reality,’ he adds.
But until recently, the train operators have done little to manage
Few of them have had senior communications advisers in-house. It is only
now, after two years of media hostility, that they seem to be waking up
to the need for a serious PR effort.
Connex Rail, which runs trains connecting London with Kent and Sussex,
is looking for its first communications director. This month First
Group, which caused uproar earlier in the year by acquiring two rail
services to ad to its existing Great Eastern Railway, hired Michael
Mitchell as its first corporate affairs director.
Mitchell has hands on experience of dealing with media hostility, having
come from Signet Group, the jewellery retailer formerly known as
Ratners, where he was investor relations adviser. National Express
Group, which runs a number of services, including the Gatwick Express,
hired communications manager, Helen McCorry, just before Christmas.
Dewhurst believes the calibre of PR people now working in the rail
industry has improved. ’They are recruiting people who wouldn’t
necessarily have come to work for British Rail,’ he says.
The transport industry’s gradual consolidation has also helped to
improve communications. Growing companies such as First Group - which
recently changed its name from First Bus to take account of the
diversity of its business interests - are reaching a size where they can
afford to have bigger and better PR departments. And as larger
companies, they now have a stronger voice in the City.
According to David Campbell Bannerman, communications director at the
Association of Train Operating Companies, the operators are not just
improving their image in the railways, but building their identities as
transport companies. Many operate buses and airports as well as trains,
and some have interests outside the UK.
Campbell Bannerman believes it is important for the industry as a whole
that Virgin Rail’s flotation is a success. ’This is the largest
investment programme of any train operating company so far, it is a
flagship for rail investment overall,’ he says.
If Virgin goes ahead with its plans to improve the West Coast Main Line,
which connects Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, it will provide a
visible improvement to the railways. Without this kind of improvement,
the industry’s newly recruited PR people can do little more than paint
over the cracks.