Rail 385: The summit of pointlessness predictability and poor timing

The Government’s latest rail summit received scant coverage in the non-specialist media – and that was no surprise. What was the point of summoning a summit, asks CHRISTIAN WOLMAR, when the industry is in such a state of flux with a series of key announcements expected imminently?

Summits are a devalued currency. During my childhood, the only summits were between the Russian and US leaders, Khrushchev and Eisenhower (and, later, Kennedy), and they were big, epoch-making, events. Nowadays, they are two a penny. There are summits for cancer, for buses, even for body image. And we have just had the second rail summit because, well, it was promised to have another at the first one in February last year.

Indeed, the timing was just plain silly. The rail industry – and indeed transport generally – is in such a state of flux at the moment awaiting a series of Government announcements and other decisions that it was a ridiculous time to call together all the bigwigs in the rail industry to expose them to each other’s predictable speeches.

We are awaiting the publication of the Comprehensive Spending Review and the ten-year investment plan for transport, both expected in July. The two documents are absolutely vital as they will determine what the Government is prepared to contribute towards improving services on the railways with extra subsidy. Sir Alastair Morton stuck his neck out at the summit by saying that more money would be available, but obviously could not elaborate on how much. You can expect his resignation if the promised extra cash does not materialise, though that is extremely unlikely, as even Treasury officials have been saying, through gritted teeth, that they are surprised at how well transport is going to do in the settlement.

The investment plan will tell us whether the Government is serious about expanding the rail network. The figure of £80bn over ten years was touted when the intention to draw up the plan was first announced, but now there is talk of £140bn and ‘the transport bonanza’ is bound to be even bigger by the time the document comes out. The key question is how much will be earmarked for the railways.

Already, the spin doctors have been letting slip that the roads programme is to be revived with possibly up to £20bn being spent over the ten years, but that still leaves a lot for the railways. These figures have to be taken with a pinch of salt, however, because, as with Railtrack’s £52.5bn network statement, they include money from all kinds of sources – central government, local authorities, other government bodies, the private sector and so on.

There are also a series of other crucial announcements expected over the next few months which made the summit even more inappropriately timed. The Rail Regulator’s conclusions on Railtrack’s access charge regime will also be published in July, though the final decision will now not be made until September. The first renegotiated franchises will also be issued around that time and we are also waiting on the Strategic Rail Authority’s (SRA) redrawing of the franchise map, which has caused all kinds of difficulties and is unlikely to be as radical as had once been expected. The SRA’s strategy plan has also been stalled but should be out in the autumn.

So, not surprisingly, back at the summit there was nothing much to say. John Prescott has clearly learnt that rail industry bashing is not the best way to get improved performances and his tone was very conciliatory. Chris Garnett of GNER tried to persuade us that most of last year’s targets had been met but since most were pretty nebulous and unspecific, that was not too difficult. The best speech was made by John Curley of Railtrack who could point to a series of improvements on a variety of performance indicators such as reductions in the number of broken rails, points failures and other delays. Railtrack has apparently identified 2,000 golden assets whose performance is vital to improving reliability and punctuality. One renovated set of points has even been painted gold in order to get the message across.

Mr Curley cited an excellent example of how things were getting better. Last year, a broken rail on the South West Trains (SWT) network had caused 24,000 minutes of train delays – 400 hours. This year, because of improved liaison between Railtrack and SWT, and better contingency planning, a very similar incident had resulted in just 2,600 minutes’ delay, just over a tenth. That brought home the message that the company’s performance was improving in a much better way that those endless statements about how Railtrack is spending billions of pounds more than last year, which mean nothing to Joe Public.

One rail insider told me that the whole point of holding the conference was to show the Treasury, in advance of the spending review, that the rail industry was getting its act together. But to all the senior figures in the industry who had to sit through a day of pedestrian speeches, it looked as if the Government simply had no idea of what it was doing. And, not surprisingly, there was scant coverage of this nonevent in the media. Let’s hope the Treasury was watching, but not too closely.

Rail spin doctors need emergency treatment

The failure of the summit to make waves is part of the wider problem of the bad relations between the media and the rail industry. Some of this problem is longstanding and was highlighted by the example of the disparity in coverage of road and rail accidents cited in this column a couple of issues ago (RAIL 383). But some of it is down to a very fundamental failure at the heart of the rail industry’s media strategy.

Let me take a couple of recent examples. A month ago, I wrote an article for the Independent on Sunday about the Ladbroke Grove inquiry and the following week in the letters column I was rebuked by George Muir, the head of the Association of Train Operating Companies, for allegedly making a couple of errors.

I will not bore you with the details but the two issues concerned Automatic Train Protection and the ability of the signaller in the accident to communicate quickly with both drivers. In both cases, I was right and Mr Muir was wrong, and the IoS kindly published my letter correcting him. As I pointed out, there is something seriously amiss if the official organisation representing train operators knows less about the safety systems on the railway than a mere hack who occasionally still hesitates over ‘Up’ and ‘Down’.

The second occurred at a press briefing organised by ATOC on the eve of last month’s summit. Richard Middleton, the Commercial Director of Railtrack, had been invited along to give a progress report, but then made the mistake of giving some asides about how the trains were so overcrowded that he sometimes found it difficult to get on them and how he sometimes drove to work instead. These remarks promptly found themselves in the national press the next day. Now Mr Middleton, who is an excellent railwayman and a very nice chap, has, unfortunately, got past form on media gaffes: it was he who suggested the public were getting ‘hysterical’ over rail safety in the aftermath of Ladbroke Grove. Clearly he should keep away from the press until he has been suitably trained.

While the first mishap could have been avoided by simply checking facts and, perhaps, thinking about whether it is a good idea to attack in print one of the few national journalists sympathetic to rail, the second reveals a more fundamental flaw in the industry’s approach. The problem was that we were all called in for a briefing when there wasn’t a story, particularly for the nationals who, as it was a quiet news day, were desperate for a bit of copy.

So while obviously Mr Middleton should have not entertained us with his tales about traffic congestion and revealed that he sometimes drove to work from Kingston to Euston, the fundamental problem was that ATOC did not have a story for the hungry hacks. (There is, too, the question of whether Mr Middleton should not forego his company car and use the train all the time as a good PR coup but that is another matter. I always thought that passengers might have got a better deal out of the first franchising round had Roger Salmon, the first Franchising Director, not had a chauffeurdriven car to take him from his home in Dulwich, a couple of hundred yards from a railway station, to Westminster every day.)

ATOC is desperate to be proactive and to try to get some good publicity for the railways, but holding press briefings when there is nothing to say is not the way to go about it. Instead, it has to set about building long-term relationships with the media by having good spokesmen always available, briefing journalists when there is some real news, publicising bits of good news and so on. I know it is not easy and, as I have said before, the railways tend to be an Aunt Sally, but there really are more intelligent and imaginative ways of going about PR.

Railtrack has certainly being coming across better lately. Look at the coverage of its profits figures at the end of May. Through a clever £61m write-off – as a result of extra investment, though in reality it was a bit of creative accounting – Railtrack claimed its profits were down 16%. Indeed, for months Railtrack has been busy spinning that 1999/2000 was a bad year and that profits were likely to be severely down. In fact, ignoring the write-off, profits were down just 2% and, indeed, after tax, they were actually up by 2%, a figure that nobody used.

Railtrack’s image has improved because it has stopped looking querulous, it has worked out how to put the best line across by, for example, putting the ball back in the Government’s court over the Network Management Statement, and its Chief Executive, Gerald Corbett has honed his media skills and been prepared to do the rounds of the studios on a regular basis.

While the train operators have executives who are good on TV, such as Chris Green, the industry as a whole desperately needs someone like Mr Corbett who is prepared take his sword out of his scabbard and do battle with John Humphreys on the Today Programme – getting the right balance between being forthright but not arrogant, and between holding your own and being defensive.

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