Letter from the studios

I have received a lot of comments through the website on the recent Cumbria train accident and, in particular, on my performance on TV and radio in the many interviews I did in the immediate aftermath and over the next three days. There have been both bouquets and brickbats. Several people within the industry have been pleased that I constantly stressed the railways’ good safety record and several others commented that I gave a fair and balanced view.

A couple of others, however, pointed out technical mistakes and thought that I had speculated too much. Indeed, I did make some mistakes getting bolts and nuts mixed up, and calling the leading car of the Pendolino a locomotive when it contains no engine! If anyone can think of a good name for it, do tell me.

Indeed, I am a bit embarrassed that the TV people insist on putting me down as a ‘rail expert’ but they like that because they feel it gives authority. I can claim some expertise on the politics and finances of the railway, but I am certainly not an expert when it comes to technical matters. However, I see my role as explaining technical details that I have gleaned from my contacts and expressing it in lay terms. I am a journalist, and that is what I can do best. I try never to venture into areas which I don’t understand but in live interviews that can be difficult.

Others suggested that the TV interviews are self-serving and that I should leave it to the real experts. Of course there are selfish reasons for doing the TV interviews: I enjoy them, particularly the live ones where there is a bit of adrenaline flowing (though I have done so many that generally I am quite relaxed now and don’t think about the fact this is being watched in millions of homes); I get paid, though frankly not massively; and they help raise my profile in then getting books sold and articles commissioned, which are my main sources of income.

However, there are other, more altruistic, reasons for doing them. In the immediate aftermath of an accident it is difficult for representatives of the industry to go on air without looking as if they are hiding something. They cannot speculate and therefore they look defensive and tight-lipped. I have the luxury of being able to speculate and it does not matter too much if I get it wrong. I always couch things in terms of ‘it may be’ or ‘it is possible that’ rather than expressing certainty. I do go down blind alleys, such as suggesting there may have been a landslide in the Cumbrian accident when the train was, in fact, travelling on an embankment, but I do, too, get it right, such as being the first journalist to say that the 7/7 attacks were clearly the work of terrorists and not some fanciful multiple electrical failure on the Underground.

This time, too, I had the benefit of a source who told me that the points had loose nuts and bolts that had caused the accident, which helped focus the coverage on the points, and, in turn, reducing negative speculation about the state of the Pendolino trains. The source proved all too correct, and indeed, rather conservative in the assessment of the bad condition of the points.

There is too, the question of availability. There are not many commentators like me who are not attached to existing media outlets and therefore have time to be able to trek to the studios. The other journalists have their day jobs to consider. As for the experts, there are not many who are able to do the hack’s job – presenting technical and complex information in a digestible form live on air.

While I remain entirely independent and objective (I hope), I do try to present the railways in a favourable light, reflecting their wider benefits. However, I do not shy away from criticism, such as over the condition of the points in the accident. The railways on the whole get a worse press than they deserve and while I do not put on any PR spin, I do try to redress that balance by focussing, for example, on the wider environmental and social benefits of rail. Above all, I am always happy to get feedback, bouquets or brickbats.

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