I have long been of the view that the media's reporting of railway matters is, at best, sub-par. The errors are wide-ranging, from basic factual inaccuracies, ill-informed opinion pieces and the humorous collection of image fails (where the image used to illustrate the news story has no bearing whatsoever on the actual story, other than the fact it is of a train). But, a “news” story by various Scottish newspapers took this to a different level over this weekend. This is a response to the original story. (Please find the links to the various media outlets who reported this story at the bottom of the post.)
Firstly, some background. A special press service operated on the 10th of October which was ScotRail's chance to unveil their new HSTs before their public launch on the 15th of October (which I covered here: https://felixunstructured.weebly.com/the-opinions-section/the-new-scotrail-hsts). On the return journey from Aberdeen, the train experienced a 45 minute delay in the Ladybank area because of an air leak from the horn valve. The train eventually arrived at Edinburgh 30 minutes late.
The Article in Question
The headline is innocent enough. The train did break down. And it was caused by a problem with the horn. Yes, the train broke down 11 days before the article was published and, yes, the cause of the breakdown was in the public domain a couple of days after that. However, the speed of reporting isn't the biggest problem in this case.
The biggest problem is the opening few sentences which was a variation on “It’s being reported that the first of ScotRail’s refurbished InterCity 125 trains broke down because the driver honked the train’s horn too much. The service was heading from Aberdeen to Edinburgh when the driver reportedly pressed the air horn for too long, which created an air leak.”
This is factually incorrect. The driver did not honk the horn too much. Whilst the breakdown was caused by an air leak from the horn system, it was nothing to do with the driver's overuse of the horn. It may be surprising to know, but trains have horns for a reason. Driver's have to use their horns at various points, which are (amongst other things) on the approach to level crossings, whenever there is a whistle board, when doing non-standard moves and whenever the driver feels that it is necessary. At no point did ScotRail state that the driver overused their horn. They even sent an internal e-mail basically saying that the fault was nothing to do with the driver and no such information was released to the press.
So, as ScotRail didn't say that, who (or what) is the source? As none are cited, it becomes hard to follow. It is also difficult to find who originally published the article. The earliest record is from The Flipboard, although it directs anybody to The Scotsman. The Press and Journal cites The Sunday Post as the original source.
Furthermore, the majority of these articles carry a quote from a driver who said “The truth is the driver blew the horn for a level crossing as he is supposed to do. The horn valve jammed open which led to a loss of air.” This makes the entire premise of the article redundant and openly admitted by the same organisations. Of course, as an informed quotation from someone with experience in the industry, it is relegated down to the bottom so as not to get in the way of any of wild speculation.
The media organisations who did not include the quote from were The Sunday Post and The Press and Journal. This makes their articles of worse quality.
The articles then conclude with various snotty quotes from politicians such as “Many passengers think ScotRail is full of hot air, now it looks like their trains don’t have enough of it.” Pathetic. Both the, what I will describe as a Politician's Joke, and the fact that people felt it deserved the space, some more so than an actual driver who knows what they're talking about.
There is no newsworthy content in any of these articles whatsoever. Once one removes the factual inaccuracies, one is left with “train breaks down due to mechanical fault”. That isn't news. That's just a thing that happens sometimes. And, even if one thinks it should be news, such an article should be reported within a couple of days of the actual incident, not 11 days later after some, to put it mildly, embellishment of the facts.
The thing to remember is that people believe this sort of stuff. Maybe because it falls into their prejudices that all railway workers are overpaid and lazy or maybe because they're a frustrated commuter, but most readers will believe this. I will ignore the first position, as that is a poor generalisation which bears little resemblance with actual people who work on the railways. The second position is legitimate. Rail commuters all over the UK have been suffering for years. It is the job of media to make sure that those in power try to improve the services. But, this kind of article is detrimental as it reduces the legitimacy of the media on railway issues, allowing a division to rise that cannot be breached. If the debate on railways has reduced to petty “oh, your train broke down” articles and pathetic, snotty Politician's Jokes then that does not help anyone. The train operating company or other party can simply say “well, they have published misleading articles in the past, so we're going to ignore them”.
To any journalist or editor who decided that this was a reasonable story to report, your judgement was flawed in this case. And, in general, the reporting of the railways in our media has a long way to go before it is considered to be decent.
List of Media Outlets who Reported this as News:
The Scotsman: https://www.scotsman.com/news/transport/train-into-edinburgh-breaks-down-after-problems-with-horn-1-4817846
The Press and Journal: https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/aberdeen/1590787/new-scotrail-train-breaks-down-because-driver-tooted-horn-too-much/
The Sunday Post: https://www.sundaypost.com/fp/tootally-ridiculous-horn-honking-train-driver-gets-blame-for-vip-breakdown/
The World News: https://theworldnews.net/gb-news/train-into-edinburgh-breaks-down-after-driver-honks-horn-too-much
The Metro (Print Edition): Page 25.