Banking on trouble on the tracks
Trains are usually one of the safest forms of travel, but a few years back, there were two horrific crashes on the same stretch of track, at Paddington and Southall in West London. Both involved fatalities. In both cases there was massive media coverage, and the reputations of train companies and regulators and the rail industry in general were seriously questioned. Shortly afterwards, a major bank decided to invest in rail rolling stock, the engines and carriages that you and I use every day. It was to be a major investment in new territory for the bankers, and they were keen to ensure it was money well spent. Fortunately, they took the lessons of those two crashes to heart, and called on me to prepare a crisis management course to deal with their greatest nightmare: another crash, this time involving one of their newly acquired trains. They were to be accused of being novices and knowing nothing about railways, nor about the need for regular and efficient maintenance, the safe construction of coaches, or reliable systems for escape in the event of disaster. We racheted up the pressure during an intensive one day course, feeding in concerns about cost cutting on safety, untrained staff, poor communications, and lack of care for the passengers. We had a pretty stormy press conference, with questions shouted from all sides (yes just like the real thing!), before producing the kind of interviews that produced the best possible outcome. First, showing sympathy and sorrow for victims and families in a way that was natural and not over-acted. Also, offering a clear explanation of the bank’s role and its reliance on contractors. And, showing a firm resolve to ensure their trains would be the safest on the tracks in future. To my knowledge, the bank’s trains have never crashed. Maybe they were lucky. Maybe our course prompted a lot of thought and action to ensure safety was king. Courses like these do sometimes change attitudes because we can demonstrate graphically the consequences of complacency.