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Clive Andrews

The Train Manifesto: Why railways matter to us at NM

As part of the nature of working in a consultancy like NixonMcInnes we get to learn a whole lot about the industries and businesses we help. It makes sense really. If you’re helping an organisation to communicate, shake things up and make changes, you need to learn how things are in their world. It’s part of the fun.

For example: banking, broadcasting, publishing, charity and government – we’ve got involved with all these areas and learned more than a thing or two about each sector in the process.

But over the last year, a new area of work has evolved at NixonMcInnes – one that’s occasionally misunderstood, even among our own colleagues, and I feel it’s my job to get this out in the open. So here goes…

We’ve got seriously into railways.

There. I’ve said it.

And I think it’s one of the most interesting things we do.

Heading North

We work with a group of train operating companies (‘TOCs’ if you really want to get into the lingo) to help them deal with all kinds of things: small stuff like fine-tuning the way they communicate via Twitter in times of disruption, and really big stuff, like redesigning the structure within an ideal train company.

I think this is important. I do. But why? What is it about our railway work that I reckon makes it worth shouting about?

This is real

The relationships between train companies and their passengers are significant. If you’re a daily rail commuter, it’s likely you spend 10 hours a week in the stewardship of your local train company, and several thousand pounds on your annual season ticket. Some people see more of their train company each weekday than they do of their own children. So if a TOC makes it easier for passengers to get where they need to go (and to understand what happens when things go wrong) it can make a tangible difference to people’s lives.

This is about people and about machines

Rail is a business where engineering, information and technology rub right up against people’s daily lives, their emotions and their relationships. It’s not enough to run a train network then simply tell people when it’s broken. There’s a need to understand the way people think when they commute, when they travel, and a need to empathise with how the details and perceptions of what’s going on matter very much to a lot of people. There’s a need to cut through a traditional wall of industry jargon to keep interaction human and meaningful.

This matters

Transport providers aren’t selling shoes, make-up or fizzy drinks. They’re selling the ability to get around – to work, to play, to explore, to be independent without having to rely on cars. And personally, I think our society needs this. If train companies mess up their relationships, their services, their commitments and their communications, I think there’s more at stake than simply their financial results. If the rail industry finds ways to work better, smarter and fairer, I think we all gain, in economic and environmental terms as well as as consumers.

This is complicated

In the UK, the rail industry is a deeply complex jungle. It’s an odd blend of capitalism and nationalised regulation. Train companies have complicated relationships with government, with each other, and with regulatory bodies. It’s heavy stuff. It’s mysterious, it’s political and it’s prone to controversy, especially with regard to the current franchising system. This makes it all the more significant as an area of work. Are the current structures and processes flawed? Yes, they possibly are. So having a role, even a small role, in understanding them and watching them evolve is compelling.

This is interesting

Putting office transpotter quips aside, there is something fascinating about Britain’s railways. Just think of the massive task they perform – transporting 2.75 million people every weekday, on 20,000 services. That’s quite something. It’s a big deal. I suppose if you have no interest whatsoever in either engineering, architecture, economics, communication, design, psychology, politics or history, then I concede, railways must seem pretty dull. But for us, it’s become a whole new world in which we can make a difference and solve some problems.

Now pass me my notebook. That’s a Class 91 I’ve not spotted before…



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One Comment

  1. Dave H

    Remember too that leaving a vacuum will often mean your customers step in and run the alternative twitter/information account.

    Just had an interesting trip using one TOC for through service – noticed ‘tired’ decor due to intensive use (lights out, toilets and doors scuffed and dented), and paucity of catering choice. Once you’ve experienced a trolley only service you sort out victualling before you travel, and from low cost shop just outside the station (I have a little list!).

    On the current hiatus pleas hope that DfT listen to so many who have worked in the rail industry for years and dump franchising, with most TOC’s in revenue support mode, and almost every ‘premium payment’ franchise failing directly or by the early termination option.

    Now you’ve done the rail industry maybe start on the buses too? However your local operator is perhaps one of the few who are ahead of the game. After all they have the domain – – nuff said.

    Posted 16th October 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink