Travellers get in a rage over Railtrack

Christian Wolmar reports on the public relations disasters of British Rail's successor
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The Independent Online
RAILTRACK has succeeded where generations of British Rail managers failed: it has made BR popular. No longer do rail passengers moan about the inadequacies of BR. Instead, they rail about Railtrack.

Derogatory stories about it have dominated the news all summer. Some were true and serious, others partly true, and many trivial. But the overall effect would be enough to give even the most optimistic PR person sleepless nights. As one employee put it: "Railtrack has become the Group 4 of the railway network."

Last week the stories reached a crescendo. First it emerged that Railtrack had made so many errors in printing the national railway timetable that it was considering pulping the 80,000 copies and starting again. The errors even managed to trip up a government minister, Tom Sackville, who missed his train by five minutes and had to be driven to Cheltenham instead. Then it was revealed that a collision between two trains in east London, in almost identical circumstances to the Clapham rail disaster, had been caused by Railtrack's failure to check signalling work before handing the track back to the train operators. As Roger Ford, technical editor of Modern Railways, put it: "Most of the safety-scare stories have been exaggerated, but this was a very serious incident which could have caused a disaster."

What is Railtrack? The body was created 18 months ago to take over the rail infrastructure - track, stations and signals - from BR in preparation for privatisation. Half of its 11,400 employees are signal workers, the rest look after maintenance and new developments. It hassomewhat spartan headquarters near Russell Square Tube station in central London. It was set up half-a-mile away from BR's Euston HQ as if to avoid infection from the old railway culture. For his few hundred staff at HQ, Bob Horton, the chairman, chose many people from outside the rail industry - from law and commerce, for example.

This is typical of Railtrack's insistence on doing things its own way - and it led directly to the timetable fiasco. BR had a computer program which had produced the timetable quite adequately over the years. Railtrack, suspicious of the "old ways", commissioned new software. After several months it had to be ditched and a second program devised. This was still not up to the task, hence the chaos.

Railtrack offered explanations but never said "sorry". Nor was there any hint of an apology in its reaction to the revelations about the east London crash, even though a major disaster had been averted only through the skill of train drivers who do not work for Railtrack. It would say only that its inquiries had "clearly identified a failure to observe procedures".

But nobody in the rail industry was surprised: Railtrack's public relations have been a disaster from the start. Its first chief press officer, Lesley Smith, a former minor official of the Labour Party with little PR experience, instituted a policy of minimalist PR by which Railtrack only responded to events, and became secretive and defensive when asked questions. Ms Smith departed in July and, after a two-month gap, the jobwent to Philip Dewhurst, a man with wide experience in both commercial and public sectors.

Mr Dewhurst has an uphill task. Railtrack is separated from the passengers by the train operating companies, who run the 25 lines being prepared for privatisation. So the temptation for drivers and guards, whom the public meet daily and who are mostly hostile to privatisation, is to blame Railtrack for anything that goes wrong. It gets the stick for delays and cancellations even when these are not really its fault. And, as the one big national rail organisation left, it has become the target for the public's dislike of rail privatisation.

To make things worse, Railtrack has refused to take over BR's role of batting for the industry, such as arguing with the Government for more investment. As one BR insider put it: "When Railtrack was created, we expected it to take a lead role in the industry such as trying to get rail a level playing field with road, publishing its 10-year plan, and so on. But it has done none of this because it has just been the puppet of government."

Indeed, it is seen in the rail industry as the money engine of privatisation. The more it can charge for access to the network - and it is driving some hard bargains - the higher the price the Government can get for Railtrack when it is privatised. True, Mr Horton lobbied the Treasury to reduce its valuation of the organisation, so that charges could be lower, but he did it all away from the public gaze.

That is not the only problem with Mr Horton, who was sacked by BP before going to Railtrack. BR and Railtrack staff variously call him "abrasive", "unctuous" and "difficult".

Among railway managers, Railtrack has built a bad reputation. While the Health and Safety Executive reports that there has been "no evidence of a decline in overall safety standards", the consensus remains that the organisation is incompetent. For example, in May this year, Network SouthCentral found the wheels on its trains wearing out much quicker than expected. Dozens of coaches had to be taken out of service and passengers were forced to cram into half the normal number. Graham Eccles, the managing director, said it took a long time to find the cause: "We suspected something was wrong with the track and eventually discovered that the rails at curves had not been lubricated."

Brian Mellitt, Railtrack's director of engineering, says: "Of course there have been mistakes, but so there were in the old railway. People tend to view the past through rose-tinted spectacles." He argues that much of the press coverage has been misleading: "Some of the stories centred on the idea that contractors were coming onto the railway when previously all work was done in-house and that this caused safety problems. But most of the contractors are the people who worked on the railway before."

Mr Mellitt, who joined Railtrack six months ago from London Underground, suggests that much of the criticism arises out of fear of change: "People are worried about both privatisation and rationalisation. Many people's jobs are changing and they are naturally conservative." Internal opponents of privatisation have fed many of the anti-Railtrack stories to the press by leaking documents.

None of this bodes well for rail privatisation. The sale of Railtrack, originally scheduled for March but likely to be later, is an important part of the Government's plans to raise money to pay for tax cuts. As every denigrating story appears, a few million pounds are knocked off Railtrack's value, but this will not deter the Government from ploughing on with the sale.

And then it will get worse for Railtrack. Shorn of its status as a publicly- owned organisation, its PR problems will mount, just as they have with the privatised utilities. Mr Horton has put a block on big salary rises for his executives, but that won't be enough: Railtrack will be blamed for every aspect of privatisation that goes wrong. Railtrack is here to stay and to hate.