Travelling by Rail is Now Fashionable

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There was an advert on TV the other day, encouraging people to use the “National Railway Network”.  Odd, I thought, especially since passenger and freight services are run by private train operators, and pay a fee to Network Rail to use the tracks and infrastructure.  So, what is the purpose?

Well, blindingly obvious – it is to get people back on trains as their use has been drastically cut over the past 18 months by this awful Coronavirus Pandemic. 

National Rail enquiries have always used the old British Rail logo

Great idea – but given that the advertisement is to underpin Network Rail – which does not operate trains – and uses the imagery of British Rail from the 1970s and 80s, and they also use the double arrow logo, that was so closely associated with British Rail.

Before anyone mentions it, yes I do know that Nationalrail.co.uk is an online national timetabling service, and it has been using the double arrow symbol for years:

Selling travelling by train with nostalgia seems to be the subliminal messaging going on here – well not that subliminal if I can spot it!  This is what their ad campaign has been saying:

The latest marketing video aiming to convince people to get back on the trains also includes the old British Rail logo – it bears a remarkable similarity to the approach taken in the 1980s.

Anyway, I thought – indeed was told in no uncertain terms back when British Rail existed – that it was a failure, and privatising it was going to make everything so much better, and it would be profitable.   Well that was a mistake, an error, and misleading wasn’t it.  Since “privatisation” the public purse has been well and truly reduced by subsidising the loss making operators.

Still, the “Rail Delivery Group” – a bit like the old Railway Clearing House, or British Transport Commission of the 1940s and 1950s – appears to believe selling the idea on a “national” basis is the way forward, by going backwards with its message content.

Are they suggesting there is no other way forward than to relaunch British Rail?  Their slogan: ‘Let‘s get back on track‘, was created for Network Rail, which, as we know, does not run trains.  Or is it just that if the train operating companies were to come up with a marketing programme, it would need to involve 2 continents, 5 countries (excluding the UK), and 10 parent companies and more than 20 different operators!  Then, in turn there are the companies that actually own the rolling stock – the ROSCOs – there are 9 of them, and they are owned in turn by groups of banks and financial institutions in Canada, China, Germany, France and Australia.

The table below is just the passenger train operating companies – I think it’s relatively accurate, but I’ve excluded the Channel Tunnel, and Eurostar – neither of which are involved with this exercise – well, so far!

Parent CompanyTrain Operator
AbellioAbellio ScotRail (SR),  East Midlands Railway (EM),  Greater Anglia (GA) (60%),  Merseyrail (ME) (50%),  West Midlands Trains (WM) (70%)
ArrivaArriva Rail London (LO),  Chiltern Railways (CH),  CrossCountry (XC),  Grand Central (GC)
East Japan Railway CompanyWest Midlands Trains (WM) (15%)
Department for TransportLondon North Eastern Railway (GR),  Northern Trains (NR)
FirstGroupAvanti West Coast (VT) (70%),  Great Western Railway (GW),  Hull Trains (HT),  South Western Railway (SW) (70%),  TransPennine Express (TP)
Go-Ahead GroupGovia Thameslink Railway (GN, SN, TL),  Southeastern (SE) (65%)
KeolisGovia Thameslink Railway (GN, SN, TL),  Southeastern (SE) (35%)
MitsuiGreater Anglia (GA) (40%),  West Midlands Trains (WM) (15%)
MTR CorporationSouth Western Railway (SW) (30%),  TfL Rail (XR)
SercoCaledonian Sleeper (CS),  Merseyrail (ME) (50%)
Transport for Wales (Welsh Government)Transport for Wales Rail (AW)
Trenitaliac2c (CC),  Avanti West Coast (VT) (30%)

In the 1980s, British Rail were promoting a range of operational, financial and technology improvements and innovations, and included some quite sophisticated marketing too – but it seems that the benefits of rail are only seen clearly during a time of crisis.  Now, it seems transport is on a crisis of economic, financial and environmental proportions, and encouraging people to return to the train is highlighting the crises we are seeing today.

Back in the 1980s, it was “crowned” by the infamous “Serpell Report”, amongst whose chief proposals was the reduction of the national route mileage from 10,500 miles to an incredible 1,630 miles.  Thankfully this ludicrous report was consigned to the dustbin, despite the political climate encouraging the tarmac lobby with wild and weird ideas about converting rail routes into new roads, with one supporter claiming that railways had been anachronism since the pneumatic tyre was born.

The train that never was – well not until the arrival of the “Pendolino” in 2001, which adopted the same technology.
In the 1980s British Rail had a strategy, but it was undermined and overlooked by the transport politics of the day.

But, whilst that absurd plan did not go ahead, British Rail was left to “wither on the vine” in the 1980s, and a prophetic paragraph in the 1980 Rail Policy document indicated the options for the railway at the crossroads:

“A crucial decision has to be taken soon about the future of British Rail. BR must prepare to take either the path of progress by re-equipment and modernisation, or that of decline through a gradual but deliberate run-down of the system. We cannot continue as we have done in the past. We are reaching the dividing of the ways.”

It is easy to look back and say it couldn’t have been implemented, since the early 1980s – at the heart of BR’s “Corporate Plan 1981-85”, because of the dramatic effects of the economic recession.   As we discovered it was a deliberate run down of the system, and the 1990s privatisation was a straw clutching exercise, which, at the same time, saw the national economy clinging on to old fashioned notions of growth and development.

BR Engineering was at the forefront of adopting computer aided design technology, before it too fell victim of the retrograde steps that privatisation forced on the railway industry.

BR was being marketed on a number of fronts: new technology in train control and signalling, fibre-optic communications, computerised systems, greater electrification, expansion of freight services such as “Speedlink”.  For passengers there was the new High Speed Trains – InterCity 125 – and the prospect of the tilting Advanced Passenger Train (APT) – the latter ironically arriving 20 years later via Fiat in Italy, and Bombardier in Birmingham.

Plans for the Channel Tunnel were in hand in the Corporate Plan, and cost savings by replacing diesel traction with electrification were clearly identified, both for long distance and commuter services.  Dedicated high-speed lines to airports like Gatwick and Stansted, where air traffic was rapidly growing were factored into the mix, and whilst the options for less densely populated rural areas were less successful, efforts were being made to change.

Parcels and newspapers were carried by train over the longer distacnces 30 years ago, whilst now, 1,000s of small vans and lorries hurtling up and down the motorways carry that traffic in an unsustaianble way. Anothjer casualty of the backward steps that were implemented after privatisation.

Sadly, none of this was achieving much positive media coverage – the focus, whether broadcast or newsprint relied heavily on promoting expansion of HGVs, and private cars for long and short journeys – oh yes, and the apocryphal on-board catering of the curly sandwich and pork pie.  No thought whatsoever appeared to be given to the environmental impact – and yet less than a decade earlier, the oil crisis of 1974 – suggested there could be challenges ahead.

And yet, these ads seem to provide the same feel as the “Let’s Get Back on the Train” ideas:

Classic 1980s advert – still reaching to encourage us all to use the profitable InterCity services over those long distances. BR’s long distance services’ profitability helped to reduce the cost to the national budget of a national rail service.
I know not many people would recognise Jackie Stewart and Hattoe Jacques, but replace these two with Lewis Hamilton and Dawn French, and with today’s road traffic congestion, I think Dawn French would complete the journey hours before Lewis Hamilton got as far as paying the London congestion charge.

The latest marketing idea to get people back onto the train is likely to fail – not because people don’t want to – it’s because the pandemic and climate emergency has changed the focus, and perhaps those hoardes of parcel delivery vans are not so sustainable for future generations.

-oOo-

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