Social Brands: Lego and Chiltern Railways

I love Lego. So it’s no surprise that Lego’s Lars Silberbauer was the star of today’s Brand Republic Social Brands event in London.

Lars started on a high: his business card is a Lego character. But his most compelling message was the way the brand has inspired its fans to share their creations and suggest new products.

Lars showed this brilliant video telling the story of Lego. It’s 17 minutes long, yet it’s been viewed by almost four million people. Over half have watched over 15 minutes, showing its appeal. I watched it with my four year old son Owen tonight, and he was enthralled. It shows the timeless truth: great content is compelling. It’s not a corporate video, but a magical story, beautifully told and animated.

I also enjoyed the story of how Lego rode to the rescue when an 11 year old American boy, James Groccia, found the Lego Emerald Night train set he had saved up for had been withdrawn. Lego sent James the precious set. It’s a great example of how delighting a customer can spread goodwill. (The home video showing his delight has been viewed over 1.6 million times.)

The other highlight of the day for me was meeting Nicola Clark, head of marketing and communications at Chiltern Railways. I’ve blogged many times about Chiltern’s excellent use of social media, so it was nice to hear more at first hand. Nicola said that social allowed Chiltern to become the brand it always wanted to be: human, caring about the customer, with real personality. She explained how the company started its social presence after seeing it as a great way to keep customers informed after the snows of 2009.

As Nicola said, passengers often just want an explanation when things go wrong. Tweeting photos of a line blocked by a tree shows us that there’s a good reason why the 0721 is late. By coincidence, Will McInness from Nixon McInnes made the same point, citing client First Capital Connect getting drivers to take photos of flooded tracks.

I took part in a panel discussion with Simon Nicholson from Honda and event chair Andrew Smith, co-author of Share This. I explained how PayPal is growing its social presence and how the company’s president, David Marcus, instinctively understands social as a way of engaging with customers and learning from their feedback. I added that the debate about who ‘owns’ social – PR, marketing or customer service – is meaningless. It should be a partnership with the needs of the audience centre stage. ‘Don’t ask what the customer can do for you. Ask what you can do for the customer.”

I’ll end with a personal story about Chiltern Railways. On Tuesday morning, I told Owen about the famous Pontcysyllte canal aqueduct in North Wales. I added that there was a railway locomotive named after it. I showed him photos from the internet of the aqueduct and the engine. That morning, I saw the engine racing through Gerrards Cross as I waited for my train. When I got to Marylebone, I took a photo (below) to show Owen later. We agreed we’d go on a train pulled by the engine one day…

Pont Cysyllte at Marylebone

Dyfrbont Pontcysyllte at Marylebone

Disclosure: I am Head of PR & Social Media for PayPal UK

Happy 150th birthday, London Underground

Going Underground

Going Underground

The London Underground celebrated its 150th birthday yesterday. On 9 January 1863, a Metropolitan Railway steam train made its way from Paddington to Farringdon to launch the world’s first underground railway.

The tube has played a vital part in London life: commuter network, bomb shelter and icon. It remains a precious symbol of life in the capital, even for those of us who don’t live in London.

It’s hard to imagine sulphurous steam trains operating in the claustrophobic stations and tunnels – amazingly, some Victorians thought the smoke health-giving, like going to a spa. In time, electricity made the Underground smoke-free. (And the first true ‘tube’, the City & South London Railway running from the City to Stockwell, was electric from the start in 1890.)

The Underground’s iconic status owes a lot to its long-lived corporate identity. The roundel is over a century old, and the typeface (although later modified) dates from the dark days of the Great War. Frank Beck created his famous map in 1933 as the Underground began life as a publicly owned institution: the London Passenger Transport Board, better known as London Transport.

The 1930s were in many ways the tube’s golden era with constant expansion, stunning architecture and new trains that served two generations and survived a world war. (I started working in London in 1987 as London Transport brought back 1938 trains to cope with demand.) Under Frank Pick, London Transport led the world as an integrated system of underground trains, buses and trams, as well as a patron of industrial art and design.

That public ownership has long outlived the nationalised British Railways – whose celebrated 1960s corporate identity has given way to an explosion of liveries and typefaces, destroying the very idea of a common network. In today’s Guardian, Andrew Martin rightly describes the tube as the people’s railway. Whether you’re rich or poor, you’ll usually find the tube the fastest, most convenient way to get around the city.

Going underground, going overground: Amersham

Going underground, going overground: Amersham

Despite its name, most of the Underground is actually overground. Amersham (above, with then one year old Owen with a 1962 train – built the year of the first Beatles single) is at the country end of the Met Line. Trains from Amersham only head into the tunnel at Finchley Road, a handful of miles from the 1863 line at Baker Street. That 1962 unit was one of the trains that replaced the last passenger steam services on the Underground after almost a century. Curiously, London Transport was still using steam for engineering trains as late as 1971 with former Great Western pannier tanks.

Finally, as Britain (apparently) faces a cold snap, here’s one of those 1960s Met line trains arriving at Farringdon on 17 December 2010.

Blizzard at Farringdon Underground

Blizzard at Farringdon Underground

Review: Andrew Roden’s Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden's Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden’s Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden is a brave man. The Great Western Railway is the most chronicled railway in Britain, if not the world. So any additional book about it has to be very good to justify its existence. The good news is that Roden has risen to the challenge, although a series of irritating factual errors spoil what would otherwise be an outstanding history.

My Nan gave me Frank Booker’s one volume history of the GWR as a Christmas present in 1979. Booker’s account was a much easier read than McDermott’s legendary account, published by the GWR over 80 years ago. Roden takes a different approach, giving a vivid insight into the lives of ordinary passengers and railwaymen, as well as the social impact of the railway. This alone makes his book a worthy addition to GWR literature.

Roden is particularly strong on the GWR’s troubled years in the 1860s. He explains how the broad gauge had become a millstone at a time when financial crisis brought the company almost to its knees. Yet the GWR bounced back, with the extraordinary achievement of the Severn Tunnel and the 1892 gauge conversion: an engineering and organisational triumph.

It’s a shame that this fine book is riddled by factual errors. Wootton Bassett is misspelled repeatedly (odd, given that town’s current high profile). Roden claims the Severn Tunnel to be eight miles long (it’s actually half that). He describes 20th century GWR chairman Viscount Churchill as Winston’s father – bizarre, as WSC was just 10 years younger, and was in fact the son of 19th century politician Lord Randolph Churchill. ASLEF is the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Fireman, not Enginemen and Footplatemen as Roden suggests. (Where did he get that howler from?) There are others…


A short history of time in Britain

It’s hard to imagine Britain having different time zones. Yet it’s well under 200 years since Britain had the same time across the nation.

The railways created the need for the whole of Britain to be on the same time. When life moved at a horse’s pace, it didn’t matter that Cardiff time was some 15 minutes behind London’s. Time was local – determined by a sundial. But when the steam engine took people hundreds of miles within hours, the idea of a common time became urgent. Railway time or London time was the result.

Brunel’s Great Western Railway provided the impetus, along with the electric telegraph. In November 1840, the GWR adopted Greenwich Mean Time for its timetable, followed by almost all our railways by 1848. It meant that Bristol was no longer 10 minutes behind London. By 1855, almost all towns in Britain had adopted the unified time, although this only had legal force in 1880. Within 50 years of the GWR’s move, most major countries followed suit, although larger countries did so with multiple time zones.

Bristol time. Photo: Rod Ward, via Wikipedia.

Yet to this day, Bristol’s Exchange clock shows two minute hands: one for London time, the other for Bristol time. It’s a timely reminder of the days when time was a moveable concept in these islands.

The wonderful London Transport Museum

Going Underground: London Transport Museum

The railways created modern London: first the mainline and suburban lines, followed by the Underground.

London was the birthplace of the underground railway in 1863 with the Metropolitan Railway from Paddington to Farringdon. Three decades later the city created the first deep level ‘tube’, the City and South London Railway, which is now part of the Northern Line.

The wonderful London Transport Museum in Covent Garden tells this fascinating story. It’s extraordinary how many relics of the earliest days survive, including a City and South London carriage. The museum is very hands-on: today, Owen, four, drove a Jubilee Line train. (Last year he drove a bus and Met Line train.)

Tube trains have very long lives. This autumn saw the end of the Met Line A stock trains, which replaced steam on the Met LIne in 1961. When I first worked in London in 1987, London Transport had just reintroduced 1938 tube trains to cope with surging demand. They’re still in use on Network Rail on the Isle of Wight.

Highly recommended.

Here’s my video of our visit in October 2011.

Eurostar: Britain 1-0 France


Gateway to Britain: St Pancras

I’m writing this on a London bound Eurostar train. I love being able to take a train between Britain and France. It’s a civilised way to travel.

When the channel tunnel was opened in 1994, Britain was shamed by its failure to complete a high speed rail link to the coast. Eurostar trains left a cramped terminal at Waterloo and crawled along commuter lines to the tunnel. How things have changed. Travellers start their journey at the gorgeously opulent St Pancras, one of London’s greatest Victorian buildings. Their train races to the coast along our first (and so far only) new high speed railway.

Paris can’t match this. The Gare du Nord is a nice building, but the Eurostar section is as bad as the old Waterloo International. Today, dozens of travellers took their turn to take one small lift to Eurostar departures. There was a long queue for border control and security, followed by a similar wait for the steps down to the platform. It’s time for the French to spend some money on a proper Eurostar terminal in Paris. Meanwhile, let’s be proud of St Pancras, a worthy gateway to Britain.

George Osborne: Euston we have a problem

The coalition is looking more clumsy by the day. Yesterday chief whip Andrew Mitchell was forced to resign four weeks after swearing at a police officer in Downing Street and allegedly calling him a pleb. The same day, Chancellor George Osborne was spotted travelling first class on a Virgin train to London despite only having a standard class ticket.

ITV reporter Rachel Townsend tweeted about the incident, suggesting Osborne’s aide disputed the need to pay for an upgrade. Virgin claims there was no dispute.

The amazing thing is that Osborne didn’t have the common sense to see how the incident would be perceived. The Mitchell saga has highlighted the government’s reputation as a cabinet of millionaires out of touch with the real world. The sight of a very rich Chancellor refusing to travel standard class reinforces that image. Yes, many of us have resented paying through the nose for a ticket yet not having a seat. But we’re not going to be embarrassed by media coverage of slyly sitting in first and hoping not to have to upgrade. Osborne’s expensive Eton education doesn’t seem to have included lessons in common sense.

The Mitchell saga was bizarre. It excited the politicos, but had little impact in the real world. Mitchell was foolish to pick a row with a police officer, but he’s not the first person to fly off the handle after a bad day. The police haven’t emerged unscathed: leaking the officer’s report to the papers and using it as a political weapon. But the biggest lesson is that an early, sincere apology goes a long way to defuse a row. Had Mitchell offered one, rather than a late, grudging apology, he’d still be chief whip. Instead, he’s reinforced impressions of the Tories as a bunch of toffs.

West Coast: what a way to run a railway

Once upon a time, Britain’s railways were owned by us. British Railways weren’t perfect, but by the late 1980s the service was rather good. New trains were being introduced, and the taxpayer got rather a good deal: BR was one of most efficient, and least subsidised, railway networks in the world. Clever marketing attracted millions more passengers – under the slogan The Age of the Train. (Although the choice of Jimmy Savile may not seem so wise today…) And even the much maligned sandwich was transformed by 1993.

Then political dogma intervened and John Major privatised the lot, even though respected Tory MP and rail expert Robert Adley warned the sell-off would be a poll tax on wheels. Major wanted a return to the ‘big four’ railways but we got First Great Western not the Great Western Railway. The result: a privately owned railway that is hugely more subsidised than when it was state owned, and a bureaucracy that defies belief.

Today, the flaws in that system were shockingly exposed when the Government was humiliated by being forced to scrap the award of the West Coast main line franchise to First Group. Amazingly, the Department of Transport got its sums wrong, which meant incumbent Virgin lost to First Group’s extravagantly optimistic bid, as Robert Peston explained in his blog.

Transport expert Christian Wolmar described rail privatisation in his book On the wrong line as “A malicious attack on an industry the Tories disked, with calamitous results”. (Labour hardly improved things in its 13 years in power.) Today, he commented:

“Civil servants come and go, and are deliberately trained to be generalists, while the railways need specialists. They also need stability rather than ministers who come and go at the whim of the Prime Minister. It is all too obvious that the way that the Department has been treated as a dumping ground for ministers on the way up or down is also part of the problem.”

Some of the private rail companies have done a good job, including our local line, Chiltern Railways. But Chiltern had a flying start because British Rail transformed every aspect of the line 20 years ago: new track, signalling and trains.

Three civil servants have been suspended because of the West Coast scandal. But no politician will lose their job. No politician will resign. They never do.

PS: BR was a pioneer of modern corporate identity. Its 1965 logo remains as relevant, modern and recognisable 47 years on, acting as a beacon in a fragmented, muddled rail network. Strange to think we still had steam hauled intercity express trains when it first appeared.

Tale of a tank engine (and it’s not Thomas)

Borrowed time: BR 80072 in Barry, 1986

Owen and I went on a steam train today. We took the short ride on the Chinnor & Princes Risborough Railway.

The train was pulled by an impressive tank engine, BR 2-6-4T 80072, built the month my sister was born, November 1953. Like most engines on preserved lines, it was rescued from Barry scrapyard in South Wales – steam’s graveyard. I’ve blogged before about this remarkable place, and today wondered if by chance I’d taken a photo of 80072 on my visits to Barry in the 1970s and 1980s. It seemed unlikely – I always made a beeline for express engines such as GWR King Edward II, rather than the less glamorous British Railways standard tank engines. But going through my old photos I found out that I had snapped 80072 on my last visit to Barry, in October 1986. By then, the remaining engines were in a very bad way.

It’s little short of a miracle that this wreck is today pulling trains again. All credit to everyone who made it possible.

80072 had an interesting history even before the great escape from Barry. It hauled commuter trains from Southend and Tilbury to London’s Fenchurch Street. It then had a complete change of scene, moving to Swansea to work the beautiful central Wales line. The month before I was born it moved back to England, to Leamington, working parcels and car transporter trains.

PS: curiously, I didn’t take a photo today. That’s almost as remarkable as the fact I photographed our engine 26 years ago…

Clan Line reaches Swanage – 46 years late

Above: another Southern pacific, Manston, at Swanage, 2010

One of Britain’s most impressive steam engines has reached the seaside – 46 years after setting off for Swanage.

British Railways decided in 1966 that Clan Line was too large and heavy to complete its journey along the Swanage branch. But last week, the engine proved the old state rail network wrong and completed its long-awaited journey without incident.

Clan Line is a ‘pacific’ – the largest express passenger steam engines used in Britain. A pacific was the last locomotive you’d expect to see on a branch line. Clan Line’s 1966 trip was a special, and Britain’s preserved lines use far larger engines than they’d have seen in normal life. (A modest tank engine would have been more than enough to cope with a typical train in normal times.)

The Swanage Railway line is a delight. We visited in 2009 when Owen was approaching his first birthday, and took a return trip from Norden to Swanage the following year behind Manston, a Battle of Britain class pacific. The line revels in its LSWR and Southern Railway heritage. And it’s wonderful to reach the seaside by steam.

One last thought. The Southern was our most modern railway, with its extensive electrified network, yet provided London’s last steam express train service until 1967. The steam engines now visiting Swanage were those that took Londoners to the coast in the era of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Here’s the video I shot in 2010 of Southern pacifies on the Swanage line: