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Railwatch 069 - October 1996

The strange ways of business

I am not in the habit of quoting the former Prime Minister but she did have a point when she used the phrase "a man with whom I can do business."

We in RDS have to "do business" with people. We may not share all, or indeed any, of their views or approve of the framework in which they operate, but our job is to try to talk to, and work with them, in the interests of rail users and rail development.

The Rail Regulator is a man with whom we had strong disagreements, some 18 months ago, over the "core station" proposal.

Fortunately that issue was resolved, at least until May 1997, to our complete satisfaction. More recently we have found the Regulator and his colleagues very helpful and are working with them to publish a directory of rail users' groups. Our officers have regular meetings with them and they are participating in this year's National Conference of Rail Users.

It has been much more difficult to do business with the Office of the Rail Franchising Director, with Franchise Director Roger Salmon initially very reluctant to talk to anyone other than potential operators or consortia of local authorities.

However, in recent months we have achieved more meaningful meetings and correspondence with some of his officials who now appear willing to consider direct input from people like us into Passenger Service Requirements.

The Manningtree Rail Users' Association also won an encouraging victory when it persuaded Mr Salmon to improve the minimum service levels for this important Essex station. At our annual general meeting this year we passed constructive resolutions on road/rail interchange, ticketing flexibility and facilities for the disabled. I sent these to all Train Operating Companies. The response was varied.

Some, like North West Regional Railways and the Cardiff Railway Company sent constructive responses, and we hope to meet them to explore issues further.

Others, like South West Trains, did not reply. One company simply referred us to the Association of Train Operating Companies. Hopefully we can "do business" with them, just as in the past we have persuaded railway managers to make improvements and put some of our own resources into publicising these.

The fragmentation of the railway industry makes it very easy to pass the buck. That is not conducive to good business. We want to know with whom the buck stops, whether for customer complaints or network expansion.

On the latter score, the formation of a Rail Forum in July, bringing together Railtrack, operators and the Railway Industry Association, may help. Mary Acland-Hood represented RDS at the launch meeting and we may well be able to do business with them. We also want to do business of a different sort with the many environmental bodies.

In the past that has not always been easy but the "Green Transport" weeks of recent years (based on an idea originally suggested by RDS) show what can be done when we emphasise the common ground between us. Is there any common ground between RDS and Stagecoach? I have a letter from their Executive Director, Brian Cox, stating that buses and trains "should work together to offer a real alternative to the private car."

Surely all of us in RDS would agree with that. However, in April, Stagecoach had an advertising feature in a series of weekly papers across the English Midlands describing rail as "outdated 19th century technology" and opposing our campaign for an east/west rail link.

The advertising feature was too clever to mention the Railway Development Society by name, but attacked "so-called environmentalists . . . never investing their own money."

If that claim is meant to refer to us, it is untrue. On 3 July I wrote again to Mr Cox asking whether his company paid for this advertising feature; whether they exercised any editorial control over the content and if so, to whom the comments referred; and, if not, who was responsible for what was printed. It took Mr Cox three months before he could bring himself to reply. This is what he said:

"I am not really anxious to prolong this correspondence, but I can confirm that as in normal advertising feature practice, the local Stagecoach subsidiary paid for the advertisement content but had no control over the editorial content, which as I have already explained to you, caused us considerable embarrassment.

"You would have to contact the newspaper itself to establish further details of the editorial content and the responsibility for producing it."

The letter came with a little logo at the bottom: Buses mean business.

Do you get the message?

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