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 them, because one of the many virtues of rail travel is that it permits sleep. (Incidentally, whatever happened to armrests that you could rest your arms on?)
There’s a misconceived determination to be modern: in a train WC, a badly functioning hot air dryer is deemed better than a paper towel. I have a horrible suspicion that the company called One might be named after the U2 song of that name, while C2C has more the feel of a 1980s Prince album. Our railway history provides a palette of warm reds, greens and browns, but the standard colour of a carriage interior is a chilly pale blue. The carriages of South West Trains are painted red, orange, blue and yellow, as if someone has tried to cram in everyone’s favourite colour; and the violent yellow and red of Virgin is like a squeezed spot.
There is not enough confidence that railways are railways. Central Trains provides televisions, as though to numb the pain of the journey. Carriage seats are frequently referred to as “airline seats”; long-distance journeys are preceded by wholly unnecessary safety announcements in which language borrowed from airlines is used. (A friend of mine told me that he’d been on a train when it was announced “We have now commenced our approach to Bristol Temple Meads.”)
Those who speak on behalf of the railways could also show a bit more awareness that they are the heirs of a great tradition. Summonses to apologise for a rare railway fatality could be met with the sending of a pro forma email to the effect that 3,000 people die on our roads every year; and a little more talk of “railways” rather than “rail” would be nice. Being directly dependent on government subsidy, railway industry leaders seem constrained by a reasonableness that in no way afflicts the advocates of aviation. Where is the Michael O’Leary of railways? This feisty and foul-mouthed Irishman, the owner of Ryanair, has made a personal fortune of £300m as a direct result of the fact that airline fuel is not taxed, which the government admits is an anomaly. The consequence is that we all in effect subsidise O’Leary; we’ve all helped furnish his Georgian mansion in Ireland, even those of us whose more modest houses now have one of his planes juddering overhead every ten minutes. You’d think this man would tell himself: “I’m getting away with murder here. I’d better keep my head down.” Instead, he places full-page newspaper denunciations of the government whenever the privileges of aviation are impinged upon.
Squaring up rather timorously against him we have John Armitt, the undoubtedly competent chief executive of Network Rail, who is soon to retire. He did not fuss when the Eddington report recommended against a high speed north-south line for Britain. “We accept heavy rail is not always the best solution,” Armitt said, and I imagine him touching his cap to treasury officials as he did so.
This is no time for such magnanimity. The alternative to “heavy rail” is the threefold increase in aviation over the next 30 years envisaged by the aviation white paper of 2003. For that hellish prospect to be counteracted, the rising generation must be galvanised, and we must revive the hobby of rail enthusiasm. (Call it trainspotting if you must.)
In 1899, a group of enthusiasts founded the Railway Club, which boasts that it is the oldest railway society in the world. At the age of 44, I am its youngest member by a clear 20 years. The club’s journal is poignantly formal, opening with phrases such as, “With the autumnal equinox now passed…” It keeps a stiff upper lip, but it can make agonising reading. In 2006, two new members joined the club, but then again one resigned and two died. In view of the decline of the membership and the financial losses of recent years, a new rule has been proposed to allow for the winding up of the club should that become necessary, or possibly its amalgamation with the Stephenson Locomotive Society and the Railway Correspondence and Travel Society, which are almost equally venerable. A chap from the RCTS told me, “We’re all old men. I’m 59 and I’m one of the youngest. Let’s face it, rail enthusiasm as a hobby… it’s dead.”
The platform tickets which enabled this most innocent of pursuits are rarely available now. Today’s enthusiasts are likely to be arrested for taking photographs, because no railway policeman dares risk having to say: “But I never guessed they were al Qaeda. They had tartan flasks, Penguin biscuits and everything…”
There are some promising signs: strong advocacy of “heavy rail” from the RMT union, and from the “Growing the Railways” campaign of Transport 2000; an honourable mention also for Richard Branson who, as the owner of an airline, knows how unfairly they have been favoured. Virgin Trains’ “Go Greener” campaign has something of the necessary vision and chutzpah. But it’s not enough. When, in the late 1970s, Jimmy Saville told us all that “this is the age of the train,” he was ahead of his time. Today, the slogan is true, and it’s time the industry started believing it.