One of the big arguments used to justify the privatisation of public services was always that competition is A Good Thing For Users.
When British Rail ran everything, there wasn’t much in the way of pressure to improve the quality of its stations/trains/sandwiches. Replacing it with a system of rival, privately-owned rail franchises was meant to give everything a kick up the proverbial.
How well this has worked is a matter of some debate (no, it really is), but there was always one pretty hefty theoretical problem – the fact that most of the franchises aren’t in competition at all. If you want to travel from, say, Dover to London, it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference how good Virgin Trains are: it’s Southeastern for you, and you can like it or lump it.
So that’s just great.
In a few places, though, two or more franchises do come into genuine competition – and it’s having some odd effects.
Here’s the map of places served by the Stagecoach-owned South West Trains:
And this one’s FirstGroup’s Great Western Railway:
The two are competing for passengers in a whole series of places in south central England – Southampton, Salisbury, Reading and Bristol to name but four.
This, we suspect, goes some way to explaining this:
As Buzzfeed’s Paul Curry asked:
Are… are south west trains negging another TOC for repainting their rolling stock? What the heck is this advert? pic.twitter.com/xGC9xWiGqX
— Paul Curry (@cr3) December 1, 2015
At first glance this is one of those points that’s factual, but also kind of WTF. I mean, yes, extra parking spaces are probably a good thing. But what do those pantone colours have to do with anything? Who mentioned painting trains? Just, what?
That ad makes a lot more sense once you’ve read this story from the BBC, published last September:
First Great Western unveils rebranded Great Western Railway trains
Rebranded Great Western Railway (GWR) trains have been unveiled by the firm formerly known as First Great Western.
By re-adopting the historical name, the company hopes to “rediscover the pioneering spirit” of the service that first ran on the line.
It is estimated it will take until 2018 to repaint all of the company’s trains.
The same month, incidentally, the Independent published this story, about the franchise’s plans to tackle its reputational problems:
In other words, that South West Trains ad is a weird form of commuter-specific dog whistle. It may sound like nothing to you or me. But if you’re a Salisbury-based commuter who likes to drive to the station, and you’re currently fuming about the fact that First Group seems to be more worried about branding than customers service, then, well, you’re going to have a damn good think about which is the right rail franchise for you.
This says nothing about the relative quality of the two companies’ services, of course. But kudos to South West Trains for its marketing strategy. Top trolling.
If, on the other hand, you live in Dover… well, it’s still South Eastern for you. Bad luck.
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