Virgin Terrain

Marketing has never been the watchword of train operators but that will soon have to change. The Hatfield rail crash has opened the train companies’ eyes to the importance of passenger perceptions, and the recent cut-price tickets initiative o

In Norwich they gave out free boxes of chocolates, while in Wales they launched Operation Phoenix. Meanwhile, Midland Mainline introduced “The Big Tenner” promotion, which permits two or more people to travel by train to London for just £10 each.

Rail operating companies are embarking on their biggest marketing onslaught since privatisation to try persuade the 1 million passengers back onto the trains, who voted with their feet and chose alternative forms of transport following the Hatfield rail crash on October 17.

Some 900 speed restrictions have been put in place since Hatfield, as engineers checked hundreds of miles of rail for hairline cracks. But the train operators have been content to let Railtrack shoulder the blame, keeping their heads down as hundreds of thousands of passengers deserted the railways.

Railtrack says all speed restrictions will be lifted by Easter, and 85 per cent of them by the end of January. But while a Railtrack spokeswoman claims passengers perceive the crisis as “a whole industry problem” a spokesman for the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) says: “It’s an industry-wide problem but Railtrack is responsible for infrastructure. There’s no question Railtrack has put its hand up and said ‘This is our fault’.”

Railtrack may have soaked up travellers’ opprobrium, but now it is up to the train operators to woo them back onto the trains.

One advertising source says: “Once they’ve got the services back to normal, there’s every reason to think advertising and marketing will be implemented to bring passengers back. Some passengers will have found alternatives, so they will need winning back.”

It is wishful thinking to suppose there will be any co-ordinated national marketing campaign. ATOC rules it out. “Not as things stand at the moment,” says a spokesman. “[The train operators] have got different passenger profiles and will come back at different times – they want to do campaigns separately.”

Anglia Trains handed out boxes of chocolates to travellers before Christmas as an apology for the delays, and included an offer of a weekend in London with hotel for £59. The train operator also ran a regional television campaign before Christmas “to keep customers informed”. Other train operators have launched their own promotions to persuade back passengers lost to road and air.

But it was down to the master of spin, Sir Richard Branson, to garner the most headlines with the announcement last week that Virgin Trains is offering passengers half-price tickets throughout February.

Branson went from zero to hero in 24 hours. On Wednesday he declared that he would not contest the decision of the National Lottery Commission to appoint Camelot to run the next Lottery licence, and also ruled himself out of bidding for the Lottery again, putting an end to his lifelong dream of running a not-for-profit game.

But the next day, he was back on the front pages with his £10m pledge to slash Virgin Trains fares in a bid to attract passengers back to the network, win the public’s affections and forestall any similar announcements by rival train operators.

He called it “The world’s biggest train offer”, and it was eerily reminiscent of a campaign launched ten years ago by his bête noire, British Airways.

BA’s 1991 “The World’s Biggest Offer” promotion was part of a £50m campaign to persuade the world to take to the air again after the Gulf war and fears of terrorism prompted a massive fall in passengers. Almost every one of BA’s 50,000 seats on April 23 1991 was given away free in an attempt to kick-start the depressed aviation industry.

In the same way, Virgin Rail hopes to persuade passengers back to its West Coast Mainline service, which has been badly affected by Railtrack disruption.

Alternative routes

Even train operators which claim to have been relatively unaffected by the disruption have suffered as their passengers took to the roads, air or simply decided not to travel.

There may be recriminations over whose fault it is, but the 28 train operating companies are united in blaming the national media for giving the impression that rail travel has collapsed.

ScotRail believes negative public perception, after reports in the media, has been the biggest cause of its woes. A spokesman for ScotRail says: “People have been given the impression that the whole of the UK’s travel, from Land’s End to Firth has been in complete chaos.”

Since the Hatfield crash, ScotRail services between Edinburgh and Glasgow and its overnight sleepers to London have been affected.

Train operators’ promotions are targeting the occasional travellers who use the networks at weekends and holidays. “We have lost out on leisure travellers, they are the people we need to bring back,” says a Central Trains spokesman. He says the media has given these people a misleading impression of the state of the trains, and as they only travel now and then, are unaware that many journeys are unaffected.

Many train operators say they have only suffered minor setbacks – they include Cardiff Railway, Wales & West, Central Trains and Chiltern Railways. Even so, discretionary passengers have been put off from using rail, and now they have to be persuaded to come back.

One rail insider says train operators are paying the price for Virgin’s high profile. Virgin Trains and GNER were the two worst affected companies, and their major disruptions along with the fact that Virgin received a lot of coverage – usually negative – because of its Branson connections, coloured the public’s perceptions of other networks. This was not helped by the media assuming that the experience on these two lines were being repeated across the country.

Rival train companies have even rounded on Branson over the half-price ticket promotion. Central Trains’ spokesman says: “Nobody’s read the small print, so he appears to be the hero. The offer is quota-controlled, so once Virgin has sold out of a fixed number of half-price tickets, there is no more availability.”

Virgin says all fares are covered by the half-price offer, including the quota-controlled Virgin Value. The Central Trains spokesman has since backtracked on his original comment, and accepts that most of the fares are not quota controlled.

Chiltern Railways managing director Adrian Shooter says: “Chiltern Railways consistently provides value to its passengers throughout the year. Virgin Trains, on the other hand, is only offering these price cuts during the promotional period.”

Branson appears to have wrong-footed the competition, who are understood to be furious that he has broken ranks and got his offer in first, and with it gained some glowing publicity. Marketers call it “first mover advantage”. Branson has demonstrated how, even in the engineering-driven rail sector, a little marketing nous can come in extremely handy.

Little enough seems to have been shown elsewhere. For all that they berate the media, there’s no doubt that train operators’ failure to communicate with their customers has exacerbated their problems. If travellers have a false impression about the railways, whose fault is it?

Marketing may appear to be low on the list of what is needed to run a train company, but it’s that very lack of communication with passengers that has led hundreds of thousands of them to stay away from train travel – and for what seems to be no good reason.

Strong marketing initiatives

Hugh Burkitt, whose agency Court Burkitt handles South West Trains advertising and has done some project work for GNER, believes the rail companies must create strong marketing campaigns to lure passengers back.

He describes Railtrack’s recent research, carried out by MORI, which claims customers’ confidence in trains could take as long as four years to be restored, as “absolute nonsense” and adds: “There isn’t a piece of market research in the world that can make that kind of prediction. It’s a complete over-reaction and is a result of a collective panic being whipped up by Railtrack, which has lost its head.”

Burkitt believes train operators have been too obsessed with punctuality. “This is not all that matters to consumers. A regular service that is clean, tidy and good value is often what counts more.”

Burkitt also says Railtrack’s recent self-berating advertising apologising for the delays was “questionable”. The ad, by New Media Industries, greets passengers as they arrive at their stations. “Sorry is not enough,” it reads, and reassures travellers that “one good thing to come out of the current problems will be a safer, better rail system for all”. It has provoked mixed reactions, some praising it for striking a balance between self-criticism and reassurance that things will get better, and for attempting to dispel the view of Railtrack as arrogant. But it has annoyed some commuters, who may conclude “Sorry is not enough, but £400m in profits are”.


GNER normally carries about 35,000 passengers every weekday. When the disruptions were at their worst, this number was reduced by 40 per cent. And although from the beginning of this week GNER has been running at 85 per cent capacity, the number of passengers is still down 20 per cent.

A GNER spokesman says: “We will definitely be doing some promotions. They won’t start until March, when we can guarantee everything is back to normal, but we are working with our ad agency [Charles Walls] to produce a campaign and will be offering special price promotions.”

Even though South West Trains, which carries about 300,000 passengers a day, was not too hard hit by the disruption (it only had about six speed restrictions) it has lost a small, undisclosed, proportion of its passengers. A spokeswoman for the company refuses to give precise figures and will only say the numbers are near five per cent, and mostly from off-peak passengers.

A spokesman from Connex, which normally carries about 500,000 passengers a day, says: “We’ve lost about £1m a week since Hatfield”.

Lost passengers

Midland Mainline, which carries about 20,000 people a day, says it has been badly affected but cannot say how many passengers it has lost. A spokeswoman claims the company has not lost a significant number of passengers, and says its “Big Tenner” campaign, set to launch on February 1, was planned before Hatfield as February is traditionally a quiet period for the railways.

First Great Western, which suffered 104 different speed restriction says it has ten per cent less passengers than it did before Hatfield. The first two weeks after the crash were the worst, it says, with passenger numbers down 40 per cent. Although the Great Western’s line from Paddington to Bristol and Wales is almost back to speed, its west of England route is still suffering. “We will be doing some marketing and offering a two-for-one price promotion, but to do it too soon would be madness,” says the company’s spokeswoman. Great Western is one of the few companies unable to give a date for when its routes will return to normal, and has had to stick by Railtrack’s guarantee of all work being completed by Easter.

Virgin Trains has at least communicated its return to normality effectively. Ironically, those companies that suffered the least ill-effects seem to have been the worst at communicating with their customers. But train companies, which have never shown much marketing skill in the way they treat their passengers, are beginning to realise that running a railway is not just about getting trains to arrive on time. It is also about letting travellers know they are running on time.


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