Profile: Back on track - Peter Owen, Head of marketing, South West Trains

When South West Trains (SWT) head of marketing Peter Owen tells people his job title, he usually gets one of two responses: 'That's brave' or an unprompted tale of a travel nightmare.

Working in management in the rail industry often involves sticking your head above the parapet to have things thrown at it. Soon after this photograph was taken, Owen was accosted by a passenger who wanted to know how he was supposed to get to Alton, as his train had just been cancelled.

Owen claims he always looks into the detail of stories he hears, but confesses it would be nice if occasionally his job wasn't such a goldfish bowl.

'If Heinz makes a bad batch of beans, it can throw them into a skip,' he says. 'We don't have that luxury. From time to time I think it would be so much easier if we could hide our mistakes'.

There is no chance of that. As Owen observes, SWT's area is home to several national newspaper editors and to Richard Bowker, chairman of rail regulator the Strategic Rail Authority.

Stagecoach-owned SWT has suffered grim bouts of publicity. Its darkest hour was in 1997 when, in making 70 drivers redundant, it had to cancel 2000 trains, eliciting a £1.8m fine from the government. But with half its rolling stock currently being replaced by the shiny new Destino trains and the other half being refurbished, Owen has some good news to tell and is keen to cut through what he sees as excessive cynicism from people who aren't SWT regulars.

Press ads give details of the facilities on the new trains (including the return of guards, extra legroom and space for bikes), and TV and cinema executions centre on a female guard waking a passenger to remind him to get off.

The broadcast work in particular reflects Owen's desire to reconnect travellers with some of the 'emotional' values of train travel. 'There are always criticisms,' he admits. 'But most people admit to enjoying letting someone else take care of their journey.'

Owen used this insight when he was head of advertising for InterCity.

He commissioned the seminal 'Relax' ads credited with putting some of the romance back into train travel.

Of course, standing up in a crowded train in rush hour is hardly relaxing, and Owen is realistic about the element of 'distress purchase' that is commuting, pointing out that some passengers probably resent having to pay for travelling to work.

Although SWT feeds people into London from Surrey, Berkshire, Dorset and Wiltshire, commuting accounts for only 60% of journeys. Much of Owen's work concerns maximising the number of journeys taken during the day.

To this end, he spends a lot of time tying up joint promotions with such attractions as Chessington World of Adventures, Windsor Castle and Stonehenge.

But the most crucial job for Owen's department is producing timetables: a team of six works on this full-time.

A calm, measured character, 55-year-old Owen clearly knows how he wants things done. He left InterCity as privatisation took place because he 'didn't see the sense in the direction it was taking'. He later left his top marketer role with a watch- and clock-making company after a serious disagreement with the owner about marketing strategy. 'He didn't know much about marketing anyway,' observes Owen. 'The company stopped trading soon after I left.'

Owen does come across as a little arrogant. Nevertheless, his account director at ad agency Burkitt DDB, Katrina Brady, says Owen will change his mind 'so long as you have a good argument'. For example, media agency PHD was able to persuade him that including cinema in the mix would prove effective, even though it wouldn't have been done in his old InterCity days.

Owen admits railway marketing has changed since his pre-privatisation stint, but he is glad to be back. Brady, who has worked with him for six years, adds that his passion for, and knowledge of, the railways are keen.

'He's like a train spotter without the anorak,' she says.


1979-1994: Various roles, rising to head of InterCity advertising,

British Rail

1995-1996: Advertising manager, Manweb

1996-1998: Freelance consultant

1998-2001: Marketing manager, Age Concern Enterprises

2002-present: Head of marketing, South West Trains


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