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Railway companies and their marketing – the horrors of the modern age exposed

January 7, 2013
Image of rail poster

Brand disconnect – railway company marketers stoop to ever lower levels of depravity in dressing up the threatening nature of travel by train.

The complacency of the UK’s rail companies knows no bounds, especially at this time of year when above-inflation price increases yield yet poorer service, delays and aggressive behaviour for commuters. But some of the marketing undertaken by these companies has now stooped to new depths of depravity and their approach is a lesson to us all about what not to do when it comes to marketing products and services.

The corrosive nature of the business model itself

Let us at first be clear. There is no real competition in privatisation, merely a redirection of fares into the margins and dividends of companies. It is arguable indeed whether these companies should be entitled to any profits because (a) the companies are subsidised by the state and (b) there is no uplift in service beyond what would have been provided by the state.

As any rail commuter knows, the “service” provided by the privatised rail companies is simply a re-badged British Rail operating under the conceit of trains painted in different logos every five years or so. The staff remains the same, the contempt for passengers remains the same, the aggressive behaviour of ticket collectors remains the same, and the complaints system remains the same.

This Ozymandias refuses to die and his sneer of cold command and contempt knows well how to keep blood flowing in his veins.

The deception of rail presentation

In an attempt to hoodwink the public, the rail companies offer re-upholstered carriages, repainted stations, new signs, different uniforms. But let’s look at what matters to the customer – the actual train service. Here nothing has changed and, in fact, things have become worse.

The reasons are simple. The system of running trains – particularly in the commuter system – has not changed since Victorian times and because few platforms are able to take more than eight carriages, over-crowding has increased. But there is a wilful complacency within the system that turns its eyes away from the core issue – too few trains, too small trains, not enough station capacity.

Because of the way the system is run, the system is not able to address demand with supply. A focus on short-term profit for short-term franchises means that companies are compelled to focus on costs rather than service provision to drive profits. More people are crammed into the same trains and are given re-painted station railings in compensation.

Image of notice board at a rail station

The staffless station experience – if you’re deaf and can’t hear the announcement then you can ring up (and still not hear it…)

One would imagine that a successful business – let’s say Apple – would be laughed out of town if they attempted to moderate their success by producing a fixed number of products and asking people to share them and (wait for it) for both sharers to pay the same price for half as they would for one…

Over-crowding implies that there are not enough trains and that the trains are not big enough. In the last 20 years, because of a lack of service focus and because of the nonsense of a franchised rail system, nothing has changed and nothing will change.

Profits, it is argued, are advanced not by doing the logical thing and focusing on the customer (after all, newer, bigger trains would only be an added cost to serve the same number of people) but by reducing costs within the system. Creating what the accountants call “efficiency” and what the customer calls “a total nightmare”.

In their most odiously-complacent moments, government and the rail companies argue through their PR that over-crowding is a result of the “success” of privatision and the privatised companies. It is argued by others, however, that this success could have been achieved by running British Rail as it had been run in the past and simply doing nothing.

Even Mrs Thatcher, we are told, felt that rail privatisation was a step too far. For all her faults, she had an instinct for the public need; she would have known that a privatised system of a national public service was merely a mirage. As indeed it is. In the early days we even had the pleasure of the UK government paying subsidies to one privatised rail company owned by the French state-owned rail network. British taxpayers paying into the French state. Singular indeed for an idea drummed up by an anti-European political party.

Inappropriate use of brand marketing

So what has caused me to write in this way today? Well, apart from the cynical increase in prices (“to improve performance”), my eye was drawn to the spectacular poster at the top of the page. Here, smiling, smart staff are helpfully assisting people who have not paid for their tickets.

Let’s look at the grammar of the poster. The “offender” (shown in a hoodie) is assisted politely on the empty (not overcrowded) platform. In the foreground, a curiously pleasant woman is shown helpfully bearing her id. Then there is the headline, “Why risk it? We’ll catch you!” which seems strikingly at odds with the pleasant interchange with the hoodie-wearing passenger. And then there is a most curious claim that “our prosecution team track and investigate unusual travel patterns and fraud”; deviant menace indeed.

In my experience, exchanges on the subject of tickets have always been threatening and barely been pleasant; never have I seen a smiling revenue officer (formerly known as a guard). I have seen people in tears. I have seen genuine fare dodgers. But I have also seen people on trains unable to buy a ticket because of overcrowding at their start station and being told by the pleasant fine-doling revenue collection officer that they will have to get off at the next stop. I have seen crowds of ticketless commuters at the end station being met by gangs of revenue officers threatening fines.

And I have seen a family on a day out to London fretting because the tickets they had pre-booked online was not available at the station because the staff (cost cutting) are on reduced hours and the solitary machine (with a large queue) was unable to recognise the order.

The answer to the rail system is not evidently-untrue marketing. Marketing should only be undertaken when it portrays self-evident truths. On the rail system the evident truth – to all except those who run it – is that the system doesn’t work. It’s focus on profits not customers should be the death of it. But as we know, it’s a state system in all but name and the rail companies simply couldn’t care less.

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