CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER/PHILIP BENHAM - Urging the UK's travellers to get back on the tracks. Philip Benham's aim is to rebuild our confidence in rail travel

For those who have spent so much of the past few months crammed

into overcrowded, eternally delayed train services, the sight of posters

encouraging them to reassert their confidence in the railways might be

the final straw.



After two tragic accidents, a host of other derailings - and the

devastating realisation of how run-down the UK rail network has become,

public confidence has reached crisis point. Yet, in the face of such

wholesale disillusionment, the Association of Train Operating Companies

has appointed McCann-Erickson to persuade the public to trust Britain's

railways once again.



Philip Benham, the ATOC's director of commercial services, is the man

responsible for McCann's appointment. And Benham knows his subject - he

joined the train industry at the tender age of 18 and has worked with

various operators ever since.



The ATOC was established in July 1995 to manage the general interests of

the nation's various rail operators. It was not expected to lead this

type of crisis management and, as a result, it may prove a challenge to

unite the separate member companies behind the McCann campaign. Each

operator has a different customer base and each individual's experience

of disruption was different. Finding a mood and tone for the advertising

that fits all areas of the network will be a challenge.



Benham is upfront about the challenge of regaining public

confidence.



'It's not going to be easy,' he says. 'The industry's taken a huge

knock.'



However, the agreement of the operators to the appointment of an agency

is a positive step - and evidence of the ATOC's resolve to repair the

damage. 'You won't see this happening very often,' Benham says,

honestly.



'It's the first time we've done anything this overt.'



The four-week McCann campaign is scheduled to break in mid-June, focused

on informing the general public that the timetables have returned to

normal. It might sound like a robust, simple message, but the sheer

number of companies involved has already created a lot of different

visions as to what the campaign should be. The ATOC will need to make

sure its homogeneous approach leaves room for variation.



Certain operators within the ATOC have marketing strategies of their

own, with Virgin Trains already running a campaign aimed at encouraging

passengers back. Benham believes, however, that it is important to have

an ATOC campaign in addition to those of local operators: 'Each company

has its own specific marketing plans to target their markets. None of

this work will undermine those - we hope it'll signpost people towards

those opportunities.'



Benham says forthcoming work will recognise the network is still

recovering from the difficulties of last year. 'We want to be realistic.

We don't want to over-promise. It's clearly not an easy message. We have

to demonstrate how things have continued to improve, and the benefits of

the service such as comforts and service frequency.'



He says McCann won the pitch because its approach will enable the ATOC

to adjust the way it communicates according to the circumstances on a

particular line. And although different lines talk to different users,

Benham hopes the campaign will get round this problem by using posters

to target according to circumstances in specific areas. It is also hoped

new promotions and cheaper fares will lure customers back.



The ATOC will find the leisure and business travellers the hardest to

persuade - business travellers need to be certain of the frequency and

reliability of trains, while leisure travellers need to be reassured of

safety. The return of commuters offers little comfort as they have been

forced back on trains out of necessity, not choice.



The ATOC will be hoping that question marks over Railtrack's delivery of

a serviceable rail network will be mostly dispelled by the time the

campaign breaks. 'It is frustrating that we're dependent on Railtrack to

deliver,' Benham says bluntly. 'But at the same time, it's important

that the industry works together.'



It would be easy to indulge in criticism, but Benham's primary concern

seems to be consumer confidence. 'Yes we need to build consensus among

the train companies, but it's all for the better objective of the

customers,' he says.



It's easy to wax on about what should be done, but at least the ATOC is

trying, albeit belatedly, to fix the problem. 'We can't be precise about

the pace of recovery,' Benham says, showing that the ATOC's hands

continue to be tied by Railtrack. At the same time, the release of this

campaign does send the message that the railways are, at last, listening

to their customers. So long as the advertising runs along the right

lines.



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