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RailStaff October2018: Under the radar

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Earlier this month, a full timetable of passenger services operated through Derby for the first time in two and a half months. The mammoth £200 million upgrade around Derby station had been completed, as project managers like to say, ‘on time, on budget’.

The project was described as the biggest remodelling of the station layout since Victorian times and even as one of the biggest engineering projects ever undertaken by Network Rail. It has been one of the great engineering feats of recent railway history and the headlines practically write themselves.

In reality, the wider media response was predictably muted. The BBC wrote 202 words online, leading with a Google image of Derby station’s city side entrance. ITV managed 123 words with a selection of photos and videos. The local press was more encouraging, with a more substantial report on its website, although it didn’t stray too far from the Network Rail press release.

There was also some acknowledgment in a local TV news report for the earnest engineering staff, who managed to only fully close the station once to traffic over the course of the 79 days.

Why is it that successful projects, especially those with no obvious new structure or monument, seem inherently less newsworthy? Is it simply because good stories don’t make great news? Because news is about the unexpected not the routine? Maybe because in a world of perishable online journalism it just takes too long for reporters to get to grips with the technical nature of railways.

The latter certainly seems true. In an attempt to cut through the jargon, press releases are sent out with simple analogies and phrasing. Somewhere in this process the real magic of the work being undertaken can be lost.

But there will be other projects to get journalists enthused about. Crossrail, when it does eventually open next year, will attract international coverage. Those involved don’t need reminding of how important it will be to get that day right.

In the meantime, positive railway stories will continue to fly under the radar. Some will make the edit but reports about cancellations, nationalisation and industrial action will quickly shift the narrative back.

However, colleagues shouldn’t feel disheartened. The popularity of TV shows like Paddington Station 24/7 demonstrate the public’s interest in those that work behind the scenes. Frustration in failures of the system don’t seem to diminish the appreciation they have for those who are left to manage the fallout.

It shows that it is possible to reshape the natural skepticism that some passengers have about the railway. The staff they meet are often the people to do it.

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Read more: RailStaff October 2018