Wednesday, 8 December 2004

Trains? Who needs them?

There can be little doubt that one of the great success stories of the rail industry in recent years has been the small station at Alnmouth in Northumberland.

When I began commuting between London and Northumberland in the mid-1980s, there was one daytime through train in each direction, and a night sleeper service. Frequently the only vehicles in the car park belonged to me and Alan Beith.

Now there are four through London trains in each direction every day, plus a large number of useful connecting services serving other parts of the UK. Even after recent extensions to the car park, one can’t be sure of finding a space there much after 7.30 a.m.

And how does the rail industry respond to success like this? Why, exactly as it did in the 1960s, by looking at ways to undermine it.

The Strategic Rail Authority recently came up with the blinding revelation that the 17.30 from London usually runs 80pc empty north of Newcastle, so it might as well stop there. Even though it is the only through train of the day from London to Morpeth, and much the best way of getting back to Alnmouth if one has a day’s business in the capital.

Well, I’ve got news for them. Most of the trains from King’s Cross are less than packed north of Newcastle. And they’re less busy at Newcastle than they were at York or Doncaster, because more people get off there than get on. In fact, taking this argument to its logical conclusion, they could probably maximise train utilisation by just running a shuttle service between London and Peterborough.

That would be ludicrous, but only if one accepted the principle that trains are there to provide a public service, and I don’t believe this features very highly – if at all – in current thinking. Indeed this ‘thinking’ apparently hasn’t advanced one jot since the days of Dr Beeching, when the viability of stations was assessed by the number of tickets they sold rather than by the number of people wanting to go there. A fact which accounts for the large number of bustling British seaside resorts that have no rail connections. And which would, if applied to the Snowdon Mountain Railway, have led inexorably to the closure of the station at the summit.

One of the favoured tricks in the 1950s and 60s was to load the dice in favour of line closures by making large and unnecessary investments. One day perhaps The Journal’s daily nostalgic photo slot might feature the Rothbury branch, beautifully relaid with new, concrete-sleepered track shortly before it was closed and ripped up. New station signs and lights were another speciality.

Which brings me back to Alnmouth for Alnwick, as we must learn to call it after its recent renaming and £1 million makeover. Funnily enough, coming along just at the same time as the first, authenticated reports of service cuts. I’m glad to say I no longer commute to London, so no longer have a personal axe to grind.

But I feel sorry for anyone who was unfortunate enough to buy a house in the Alnmouth area on the strength of its good transport links.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 10 November 2004

What's in a name?

I had an e-mail from a friend last week. Oh, all right, an acquaintance. I accept that I haven’t got any friends. It said she was just rushing off to Budapest, which surprised me as I hadn’t even got round to asking her out before she sent the excuse. But it set me thinking.

Budapest, as every schoolboy used to know, is in fact two cities on opposite banks of the Danube called Buda and, funnily enough, Pest. But they actually sound better run together – particularly, one suspects, if one has some knowledge of English and happens to live in Pest.

One of the many odd developments of recent years on Tyneside has been the emergence of a new city called NewcastleGateshead, which emphatically doesn’t sound better than its two component parts. In fact, I think we can safely say that it will never catch on. The corporate identity gurus will have to come up with something shorter and catchier.

I’ve given it a bit of thought and the main contenders – short of a complete rename after some local hero e.g. Milburnville – seem to be along the lines of Newhead or Castlegate. My own money is on Newcagate (pronounced ‘New-key-gyet’), mainly because it gives syllabic superiority to the larger community to the north of the river.

Is this desirable and can we stop it? Personally, I was proud to be born in the great county of Northumberland, though rather less taken with the Urban District of Longbenton where I grew up. I was mortified when the hated Heath-Walker local government reforms of 1973 consigned me to somewhere called North Tyneside and the entirely bogus county of Tyne and Wear.

I don’t think my parents or I ever ventured south of the Tyne other than to get to somewhere more attractive on the other side of the County Durham borders. True, my mother was once misled by a relentless TV jingle into visiting Shepherds’ department store, failing to appreciate that the line about ‘the biggest and the best store’ omitted the crucial words ‘in Gateshead’. But that was about it.

Perhaps I also inherited a certain prejudice from my father, who undertook his reluctant wartime service in the Durham Light Infantry and didn’t enjoy it one little bit. The fact that people apparently kept shooting at him has long put me off Continental travel, too.

But, fundamentally, shouldn’t rivers stick to their natural role as dividing lines? Do Geordies really want to live in Newcagate rather than the City & County of Newcastle upon Tyne, as it used to be magnificently described on the signs at its boundaries? At least, I suppose, it would be a better fate than that which seemed likely to befall Mancunians in the 1970s, when people began to talk of the conurbation as SELNEC (South East Lancashire, North East Cheshire). Fortunately someone with an ear for language came up with Greater Manchester instead. Now there’s an idea. Greater Newcastle (incorporating Gateshead and Sunderland) rather in the way that The Journal always reminds us on the back page that it incorporates the long-forgotten North Mail.

I do believe it’s got a ring to it.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 13 October 2004

New blockhead on the block

The great Dr Johnson ruled that ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.’ So I am now, officially, a blockhead. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has sought my advice on financial public relations during the last two decades.

Certainly, financial PR requires slightly more intelligence than certain trades and professions, such as being a stockbroker or a traffic warden. But fundamentally it calls for the ability to listen and a dash of common sense.

‘Here’s an idea – why don’t you put the sales increase and the new store openings at the beginning of the release, and the factory closures and your new share option scheme on page 17?’

‘Great Scott!’ says the grateful client. ‘I’d never thought of that!’

Listening is critical because you can’t help people explain themselves to their best advantage until you have listened closely to what they have to say. And, if you are venturing into contested territory, it’s equally important to listen to the opposition, too. Hear their concerns, understand their arguments, and then totally obliterate them through the relentless application of logic, cunning and low abuse.

I’ve recently witnessed two countervailing approaches to listening – one in my professional capacity and the other as a ‘consumer’.

As an adviser to DFS, I watched with keen interest as Lord Kirkham attempted not to hear those institutions who felt he wasn’t offering quite enough to take the company he founded private. As a man who started with nothing and built his business from scratch, he has a proper appreciation of the value of money and naturally takes against City types who say glibly, ‘Come on Graham, it’s only another million.’

But in the end he listened and paid just enough for his offer to succeed.

At the opposite end of the scale, I have been dealing for the last six months with a garage proprietor – let us call him Mr McC. My car was sent to him by my insurance company after a minor accident, and repaired with such consummate brilliance that it started falling to bits as I was doing 70 mph (and not one mph more, officer) down the A1(M), thereby scaring me out of my wits.

Persuaded against my better judgment to return the car so that Mr McC’s merry band could attempt to put things right, I eventually got back a vehicle so badly repaired that I had to sell it for considerably less than its book worth.

Mr McC has evidently based his whole approach to customer service on the philosophy expounded by Admiral Lord Fisher: ‘Never contradict. Never explain. Never apologise. Those are the secrets of a happy life!’ (Though the last seems unlikely as a happy Scotchman is, surely, a contradiction in terms?)

So all my requests for explanations and compensation have been stonewalled, with the result that I now shall not rest until Mr McC’s long-established business is reduced to a smoking ruin and his family are stewing grass for subsistence.

Lord Kirkham, on the other hand, has his heart’s true desire.

Ah well, he listened.

Originally published, in edited form, in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.