Two railway stories hit the headlines last week. First came the
travails of South West Trains, the train operating company (TOC) owned
by Stagecoach, which to commuter fury cancelled a slew of services
because it lacked sufficiently qualified drivers after giving 70 of them
South West tried to make good the damage later in the week by offering
free standard rail travel for all on February 20 - at the not
inconsiderable cost to itself of over pounds 1 million - and handing out
a letter of apology to passengers. But the issue of rail privatisation
had flared up once again as a matter for party political debate.
The week’s second story fanned the flames even higher. It emerged that
Eversholt Leasing, one of the three privatised companies leasing rolling
stock to the TOCs,was to be sold for about pounds 900 million, almost
double the amount paid for it in 1995. As a result its managing director
Andrew Dukes stood to make pounds 20 million out of the pounds 110,000
he invested a year and a half earlier. Other directors also stood to
make huge profits.
The concurrence of the two stories was unfortunate for those in favour
of the privatised rail network, and all but drowned out news of
Railtrack’s pounds 15.9 billion investment in tracks and stations over
the next 10 years.
The issues they raised - service chaos and fat cat profiteering are
those most often used by those critical of rail privatisation, and as
such were particularly unwelcome.
Yet they, or stories of their ilk, were hardly unexpected. By breaking
up a monolith like the old British Rail and putting in its place an
array of private companies, the Government brought competition to the
But at the same time it increased exponentially the number of targets
for the media and, so far as consumers were concerned, complicated the
Now, for example, there are 25 TOCs. All with an eye on profitability
and all with their own brand identities and services to promote. In
these circumstances there is the danger of public confusion.
’When the public complains they’re often told it’s someone else who’s to
blame,’ says the Guardian’s transport editor Keith Harper. ’This is
something the industry has to look at. There has to be a more central
focus on communications. They don’t overlap, there are separate
Might the impact of last week’s stories have been minimised had there
been a single, over-arching organisation to take the communications
brief by the scruff of the neck and present these negatives in the
broader context of national privatisation? Perhaps.
Some, however, disagree. Great Western corporate affairs manager Knowles
Mitchell says he is not conscious of a ’gap’. In his opinion the
Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC), the body set up to
self-regulate and represent the TOCs, fits the bill as a unifying
’The Association is willing to take on whatever role our members wish us
to take on,’ says ATOC external affairs manager Paul Lawson. ’If that
means being more pro-active, then I’d welcome it.’
ATOC is at present searching for a public affairs agency. This renewed
attention to communications seems prudent because with a membership
including companies as strongly individualistic as Stagecoach and Virgin
it has had teething troubles forming collective views and agreeing on
the areas - beyond those laid down by statute - in which to operate.
ATOC’s pussy-footing has led to the emergence of another potential
unifying voice. The Railway Forum was set up as a trade association for
the whole railway industry last year and at the start of this month
appointed its first director general, David Morphet.
’There’s a general feeling among the members of the railway industry,
which is in a sense a fragmented industry now, that there is a need for
an overall voice for talking to the Government and the EC,’ says the
Forum’s secretary Colin Bracewell.
So now there are two unifying voices - which of course makes no sense at
all. And if one includes the Rail Information Unit, set up last year at
the Department of Transport ’to explain to interested parties the policy
behind privatisation and what it was intended to achieve’, that makes
No wonder some politicians, members of the public and media argue it was
far easier to understand what was going on in the old days.
Yet while there is undeniably an element of confusion it would be a
gross distortion to imply that co-operation between the newly privatised
entities happens once in a blue moon. The South West affair, for
example, saw the TOC working hand-in-hand with Railtrack, which arranged
media filming facilities at its Waterloo station.
’What one should not do is put in a blame structure - ’oh, that’s
Railtrack or that’s the TOC.’ We should support one another,’ says
Railtrack head of media relations Roger Shire. ’The understanding and
working relationships we have are a lot better now. But we’re in a new
The improvement must continue. If the industry is unable to offer
coherent national arguments every company in it will be tarnished
whenever a controversy breaks.