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A place to meet new people, connect us to loved ones far and wide, a space to kick back and relax as we wind through the British countryside passing queues of frustrated motorists, lining up bumper to bumper.

So rich in opportunity from a brand perspective, teaming with potential.

So why is it so hard to find positive stories and advocates for the British rail system (who’re not dressed in anoraks, gripped by the prospect of spotting the 20:02 from Birmingham New Street)?

It’s safe to say we have a complicated relationship with trains here in the UK. And this extends to infrequent train users as well as those climbing aboard every day of the working week.

The hangover of #northernfail

The media narrative is inherently negative. January price hikes. Unpredictable weather bringing disruption – too hot, too cold, too wet. Even, the wrong kind of rain. The list appears endless and the headlines often laughable.

Social media channels are flooded with a deluge of negative passenger experiences – delays, overcrowding and sky-high prices. And it’s not just the train companies getting hit. You don’t have to look too far to find negative experiences created by other passengers. Take the story of blind passenger Jonathan Attenborough, forced to stand on a recent journey from Edinburgh to Perth because others failed to offer up their seats. Sadly, it seems, there are too many examples of this type of behaviour, forcing people like Jonathan to ‘lose faith in humanity’.

Even if you have limited, or no first-hand experiences, you’ll know from word of mouth, social media, or the latest breaking news, that train travel feels far from relaxed and often not a viable alternative.

The industry is scarred with the impact of ‘Northern Fail’ and South West Trains, all too fearful of being labelled one of the next most hated UK train companies.

As a category we’re being continually challenged, with league tables and passenger surveys being called into question.

The argument for building brand trust

Trust in the category, it would seem, is broken. So, what do train companies need to do to change this? Capacity appears unfit for the growing number of passengers. So perhaps this sea of negativity isn’t actually impacting the bottom line?

The ongoing dialogue around the merits of re-nationalisation continues. You need only look at the recent highlights from the Williams Rail Review and supporting research, to understand the importance of putting customers at the heart of British Rail. Naturally, infrastructure, new fleets and operational change sits at the heart of this ambition. But brand can, and should, also play a significant part.

Recently cited by BritainThinks is first direct – how can the likes of First Group and Arriva learn from brands like first direct, renowned for going above and beyond for customers. Doing the right thing. It’s not just marketing artifice – it runs through every aspect of customer service including how their staff answer the phones, how their technology is developed, and importantly how their brand behaves and develops.

As an industry we should be looking to brands, like first direct, who truly put customers first. Understanding that realistically things do go wrong but it’s how you deal with those circumstances (those wet leaves!) to engage people in an authentic way that counts. Knowing when to say sorry. Demonstrating what you’re doing to change. Acting with humility. Being transparent. Being human.

The future of British Rail

Thanks to the recent glowing endorsement of Greta Thunberg for choosing ‘trains over planes’ alongside the growing trend of flight shaming, it’s actually also a really exciting time for train travel. The environmental narrative is a rich opportunity as more of us seek better ways to get around. Added to that, our relationships with cars and car ownership is changing. We want more flexibility, more convenient alternatives.

As consumers, we’re unsure what HS2 and nationalisation will bring but burned by past experience.

Consumers are looking to the sector to provide meaningful alternatives. It’s not the time for short-term tactics, throwaway campaigns involving work experience children running Twitter accounts, or hollow promises.

It’s time to take this renewed enthusiasm, understand the learnings and impact of evolving legislation and shape a future in rail we can all be proud of. Let’s do the right thing and rebuild trust.

Sally Rushton, director of engagement at Jaywing