Train companies should present themselves more assertively. Where is the Michael O'Leary of railways?by Andrew Martin / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
In November, Eurostar will begin running from a refurbished St Pancras to Europe over the new fast route. This will be a beacon of railway glamour for Britain, if rather a lonely one, since the new link will be our only high-speed line. The French, of course, have several, and when in April a train ran along the latest one at 357mph, newspapers published lists of earlier rail speed records. Most of them had been set by Britain, and Guillaume Pepy, the head of SNCF, twisted the knife: “At a certain point of time,” he said, “you forgot your own railway.”
In response, Network Rail could have pointed to dozens of investment programmes designed to expand rather than simply maintain the network. Most of these are aimed at creating a more comfortable commute, and this is what our railways are to most of their users: a means of getting to the office, a sort of necessary evil. They’d better work, and that’s all there is to it. The public are intolerant of the railways because there is no longer any fund of respect for them. They lack all glamour and romance, and are not promoted with any self-confidence. If aviation and road transport expand as projected, we will all be enveloped in a sort of giant migraine, and we can forget about our emissions targets. The railways could be our saviours but the face they present is guilty, shifty, and forever saying sorry.
Our train staff are—as Bart Simpson once said of himself—expert at phoney apologies. I notice that GNER has refined and deepened its standard grovel as follows: “We are very sorry for the delay and the inconvenience this will obviously cause.” If I picture the start of a typical rail journey, I see a carriage full of passengers blocking their ears against the prolix apologising of the train manager, who speaks tonelessly of “station stops” or “calling points” as if the word “station” were too peremptory for the delicate ears of the “customers.”
I advocate a return to trenchancy. The old lineside notices said, “Beware of Trains,” and left it at that. And why not call a guard a guard? It reminds people of the time when our railways led the world. Announcements should be terse, as on continental railways; you should be able to sleep through…