Posted 7th September 2017 | 4 Comments

CAMPAIGN: It’s time to get real about rail


HERE is a press release to treasure:

“Train operators reacted angrily to accusations of the manipulation of train journey times today. An ATOC spokesman said: ‘This-so-called finding is utterly vacuous. It is a cocktail of innuendo and speculation designed for the entertainment of rail enthusiasts. The facts are the Franchising Director has set contractual standards for journey times in the franchise agreement as part of Passenger Service Requirements, which it monitors closely.’”

Now that’s telling them. Sadly, you won’t find the railway defending itself in those terms now.

This release was issued on 3 December 1998 – almost two decades ago – and how times have changed.

The ‘cocktails of innuendo and speculation’ have not gone away, of course. Here’s the comparatively respectable BBC reporting the imminent August blockade at London Waterloo in January this year: “Hundreds of thousands of passengers have been warned to expect disruption this summer at London Waterloo, the UK’s busiest railway station. Network Rail said some platforms would be closed between 5 and 28 August for extension work. It suggested people try to avoid the station altogether. The £800m redevelopment is part of a project to bring five former Eurostar platforms back into service. Once complete, there will be 30% more platform space at the station.”

If you read past the first three sentences this report is reasonably balanced (even if faintly confused here and there). But see how the D-word gets top billing. Having (presumably) reeled in shock and spoken profanely about the railways, the reader is then comforted by the information that the work is being done to improve capacity. Well, thanks.

It was the headline “London Waterloo platform closures: Summer disruption warning” which everyone would have seen on the menu pages of the BBC website. Many people will tut to themselves, look no further and go out to wash the car. The damage has been done.

Now, I said the BBC is ‘comparatively respectable’, which is a touch patronising, I know. In fact, the BBC is rigorously governed by its Charter, and everyone responsible for putting words and pictures on air (including the internet) must follow the substantial ‘Editorial Guidelines’ which you will find in every BBC office.

Guideline 1.2.1 says: “Trust is the foundation of the BBC: we are independent, impartial and honest.  We are committed to achieving the highest standards of due accuracy and impartiality and strive to avoid knowingly and materially misleading our audiences.”

This is all good. No one (except a mad dictator) could disagree. The problem is that Guideline 1.2.1 did not prevent the D-word coming first in the London Waterloo report.

If the BBC is trying to play a straight bat, that is not always the case with newspapers.

Here is the Daily Mail reporting the increase in regulated rail fares on 15 August: “Commuters face huge hikes in rail fares that will add hundreds of pounds to the cost of season tickets. Millions of travellers are in line for increases of up to 3.6 per cent after inflation nudged up slightly in the latest figures today.”

Huge? 3.6 per cent? If only broadband, electricity, insurance premiums and, er, the cover price of newspapers rose only by RPI each year! Of course, they don’t. But there is far less copy to be squeezed out of that, although it is true that some of these rises are reported too (don’t expect to read anything about newspaper price increases, though).

It is possible to speculate that because many journalists work in London and are rail commuters there is a certain amount of personal venom to be worked through when stories about rail fares are written.

Well, we won’t change any of this. Even last year’s 1.9 per cent increase was given banner headlines and the shock treatment.

But who is speaking up on behalf of the railway? Theoretically, that’s the job of the Rail Delivery Group (of which this newspaper is an associate member). But the RDG itself is a curious combination of train operators and government – that is to say, Network Rail and the DfT.

As the Association of Train Operating Companies has now been combined for public purposes with the RDG, the TOCs no longer have a separate voice.

The RDG was suggested by Sir Roy McNulty in 2011 as a round table for the whole industry, and for many purposes it works quite well. But all its public utterances are mild, even under the most extreme provocation.

Who else? Network Rail is a government body, and although it can speak sharply on occasion about obvious baddies such as trespassers and cable thieves, it can’t take on the wider policy issues (fares, for example, are nothing to do with NR).

There are also substantial areas of misunderstanding which often taint reports in the general media, who have recently tended to suggest that the train operators will gleefully pocket the 3.6 per cent in January and run away, chortling, to declare juicy dividends. This is nonsense or, if you will, utterly vacuous, but it is repeated again and again, and people do believe what they read in the papers.

The journalist and historian Sir Max Hastings, speaking of his time as editor of the Daily Telegraph, observed that people choose to read the newspaper that ‘reinforces their own prejudices’ – and that is an expert opinion.

The rather grim conclusion is that there is no one – no organisation – which is willing to take the gloves off and speak assertively and authoritatively about the industry as a whole, without any wretched public relations ‘spin’ (such as when the DfT suddenly discovered that electrification was ‘disruptive’ recently).

We don’t need spin. We do need to speak loudly and clearly about the benefits of rail without dressing them up. And we do need to take on the critics on their own terms, and at their own level.

Railnews is an objective industry newspaper, and we try to serve our industry without coating it in thick layers of butter and flattery. In other words, if the news is not so good, we say so. It’s better in the long run.

But it is not our place to ‘represent’ the railway industry as the old Railway Forum did. Sadly, it foundered after the departure of the excellent Adrian Lyons, who did a fine job of insisting on the facts being heard without ever raising his voice.

You visit the Railnews website, and quite possibly read our print edition as well. You may work for the industry, or perhaps you used to do so. What should be done? We would very glad to hear your views, and we will publish as many of your letters as we can.

We don’t need to put up with this. Let’s hear from you, whether you think we are right or wrong.

It really is time to start being just a little proud.

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • Melvyn Windebank, Canvey Island, Essex

    In addition newspapers when reporting the annual fare rise put the blame on rail companies and Network Rail and not the Government and DFT who created this formula to increase fares which has nothing to do with costs of rail operations or indeed takes no account of surpluses paid by many TOCs to the DFT !

    While to compound news re rail fare increases the percentage change is announced in August ( when news is often sparse !) while increase doesn't take affect until beginning of January when of course news is sparse !
    [One minor point: almost no TOCs pay real money to the DfT when the value of subsidised track access charges is taken into account. It's easy to pay premiums (easier, anyway) when some of your biggest bills are being largely paid for you!--Editor.]

  • Gareth Marston, Newtown

    The private companies have been too happy to sit back and let the annual increase in passengers and revenue role in with the "good times" seemingly never ending as the industry appeared recession proof. After all most people were venting at something specified by Government anyway. "not us mate" and did it matter?

    Yes it did role on Network Rail in the public sector and electrification cancelled and the good times have gone in the meantime the very existence of private TOC's has become an unchallenged toxic brand in mainstream media and public perception whether people like that or not. Pardon the pun but the train has departed and left the RDG behind, inaccurate reporting of the railway is collateral damage.

  • Adrian Lyons, Devizes

    Thanks for the name check for myself and the old Railway Forum. I was working at a good time to take an independent pan-industry view. Particularly as Richard Bowker and Tom Windsor were tearing chunks out of each other and the HSE was being overly hostile with strong political intent. In such circumstances I could present the industry viewpoint in a positive but dispassionate way.

    By 2006 the wheels were coming off this model as Network Rail (the Forum's major founder) was becoming increasingly intolerant of any viewpoint that did not entirely emanate from Euston. In parallel the TOCs wanted a quiet life. In such a situation making a strong and positive case for rail became increasingly difficult and still is.

    That being said I think the technique of the speedy and positive (and hopefully entertaining) rebuttal seems to go by default these days. Too often a more nimble response than that managed by the bureaucratically ponderous RDG or Network Rail would make an impact that is currently missing.

    Anyway thanks for raising the issue again

    Best wishes
    Adrian Lyons

  • Douglas, Edinburgh

    It's true that there will always be spin around reporting; sensationalism sells

    However it feels like 'disruption' is just an ongoing chore to endure over recent years

    We've had terrible storms, acts of terror as well as overrunning improvement works and routine engineering. On top of that there has been a withering campaign of headline grabbing industrial action by the RMT. Damaging and misleading quotes that hit the news about 'fat cat' this, 'spivs' that and 'foreign state owned' the other

    I would imagine that the majority outside the industry probably don't know (or care) what the real implications of DCO really are and soak up the seemingly endless rhetoric that flies around unless they choose to invest their valuable time looking into the argument from both sides of the fence

    Investment needs to come from somewhere and from what I can tell it is. New rolling stock announcements come around frequently as well as debate about projects like HS2 and the Northern Powerhouse - with their supporters and critics (rightly) given airtime

    But investment also has to come with an incentive for the investor. If our railways were to be truly 'not for profit' then that means the money has to come from the public, either 100% fare funded (with something like 3p in the pound to pay for other stuff without huge hikes in prices) or taxation for all regardless of whether they use the railway or not. My biggest question there is where is the incentive to improve and innovate if there is no ROI?

    Our railways are not perfect however it does seem unfair that the industry gets battered for trying to get better. Demand keeps increasing and innovation, modernisation and increased capacity is the only way forward