Monday, December 3, 2007

The End of the Railway Line

Today I'm taking my final dose of GNER. There are just six days until National Express takes over the East Coast franchise.

I've grown accustomed to the faces of GNER, that is, to the cheery smiles of Eunice, Lianne, Daniel and all the other crew who have looked after me this past year. I'm sincerely grateful for their tolerance, good humour and impeccable service.

I guess you have to keep a sense of humour if you spend all day in a swaying metal tube trying not to spill coffee over bored businessmen, families with screaming children, drunks and assorted misfits like me.

I've loved hearing the crew stories: about bowls of steaming hot soup accidentally tipped into pompous laps; the dangers of silver-serving miniature sweetcorn to ladies with cleavages; the occasional shriek from the disabled toilet after someone forgets to press the "Lock" button. I like the story about the train driver who, bored by the endless straight track, is trying to perfect the theme from Laurel and Hardy on the train horns. I particularly love travelling back on the 8pm because there's a real party atmosphere in the restaurant car by the time it reaches York where all the dull people get off.

If anyone deserves a grant from One North East, it is these Newcastle-based train crews. They really are the true ambassadors of the North, for they are the first experience which most visitors have of the region. In fact, thinking about it, One North East could do a lot worse with its millions than to plough a few bob into the on-board train experience. Because the image we present to the people who come to visit us is key to the commercial success of the region as a whole.

Now despite what you might hear, people in the South no lnger think we're all about cloth caps and pigeons. When I announced to my friends in London that I was relocating back up here they all said the same thing: "Great place to party".

If I were a businessman with young children I'd be wary of moving my family to a city whose principal claim to fame is being Party Capital of Europe. A city that from teatime on Friday transforms itself into Club 18-30. Where you have to run a gauntlet of drunken yobbery just walking from the station to the car park. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a party pooper. I'd rather live in a vibrant city than in boring Orpington or Watford.

If we really want to attract investment to the region, we need to present another face. The North East needs a PR makeover. Evidently, thanks to the Passionate People, Passionate Places campaign, bed and breakfasts have enjoyed a bumper year. The North East is the place to come for the weekend. Now there's a bigger task: to persuade people to stay for life.

To get the level of investment that our local economy needs, we need to demonstrate to opinion formers that the North East can be lived in. and for that to happen, image is everything. Starting with the train service.

Not that the region has to change: far from it. We have wonderful scenery, great local food, an enterprise culture, comparatively cheap housing, some very fine schools, development grants, the Sage - there's a lot to boast about. No, we just need to work out how to tell people about it.

Meanwhile, a warning to National Express. When you take over our railway next week and start repainting all the carriages, please don't mess up the spirit of our special ambassadors, the train crews. Daniel tells me they are getting new ties and shiny name badges, but for the time being they have to cut to cut the GNER labels off their shirts and trousers. Let's not cut out the fun as well.

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