Andy Milne talks to Colin Flack, chief executive of the Rail Alliance.
From a standing start four years ago the Rail Alliance now has upwards of 200 members stretching from Scotland to Denmark.
Based on the old military railway base at Long Marston in Warwickshire the Rail Alliance runs networking meetings, exhibitions and seminars all aimed at encouraging companies, new and existing, onto railways to contribute to an industry as desperate for new talent as it is for extra capacity.
At the head of the Rail Alliance is a fresh faced ex-army officer, Colin Flack, a one-time cricketer for Kent and genial host of the RailStaff Awards.
We like to cut straight to the chase at RailStaff so I start by asking him how he got the job.
With disarming charm Flack says, ‘I saw the advert in RailStaff. So did my wife, Ruth. Several friends saw it and said, that’s got you written all over it why don’t you apply, so I did and got the job.’
The Rail Alliance was initially set up by the West Midlands section of the Manufacturing Advisory Service. MAS funded the venture which is now self financing.
Far from being run from a gleaming chrome and concrete tower block in downtown Coventry or central Birmingham the Rail Alliance, perhaps reflecting the fiscal prudence of an industry where every pound has to count, operates from the control tower of an old airfield.
RAF Long Marston was hurriedly put up in 1940. Decommissioned in the 1950s it became a Ministry of Defence rail logistics base. Flack has one of the most arresting views from an office window in England. Green meadows edge old runways and railway sidings.
Tree studded farmland laces a pastoral countryside bisected by dye straight Roman roads and willow swept rivers.
The Bard suffered a drinking contest
Long Marston lies at the very heart of England. Shakespeare’s hometown, Stratford upon Avon, is just up the road.
The Bard is reputed to have suffered a drinking contest nearby and fallen asleep under a tree in the village. Roman legions tramping north up the Fosse Way scavenged within bow shot.
The first battle of the English Civil War was fought at Edgehill in 1642 convincing Cromwell of the need to form the New Model Army – the later basis of Britain’s self confident rise to military might. Charles II later hid in Long Marston, disguised as a serving wench, on the run after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester.
The Rail Alliance might sit in the heart of England but it has an international sweep.
Railways excite the interest of many companies already aware of the huge expansion underway.
‘What was clear from day one was that setting up something that was purely West Midlands centric wasn’t going to work. We spread very quickly by networking outwards,’ says Flack.
‘Members range from Scotland to the West Country and Wales and we have international members in Belgium and Denmark.’
The appeal lies in solving the old marketing equation of matching suppliers to customers. We all have skills to sell to people. The trick is to reach them. Putting people in touch with each other is the simple answer.
The Rail Alliance is fast building a network of businesses keen to improve trade in the rail industry; these range from corporations already established in another field to small entrepreneurs with highly specialised skills to offer.
The Rail Alliance brings them together and more than that helps people communicate effectively.
As Colin Flack puts it, ‘The focus of what we do is to help businesses network together. It’s the simple act of networking and at the core of what we do are our networking meetings.’
The Rail Alliance holds ten of these a year. Members have found them invaluable for sourcing new business as well as new suppliers and skills.
One memorable feature is the ‘Show Tell And Ask’ initiative. Everyone who wants to can have STAA billing. ‘Everyone stands up and in a couple of minutes says who they are, what they do, what their company does and what they’re looking for.’
The great advantage is that the STAA treatment is played out in a receptive neutral atmosphere. Everyone is on the side of the speaker.
Get people to meet and talk
‘The main purpose is get people to meet and talk,’ says Colin.
‘We like noisy members, the more noisy the better.’
Similarly the Rail Alliance has a deal with RailStaff where month by month a selected member has a chance to highlight who they are and what they do on the Rail Alliance page.
‘It’s one of those papers that gets seen by an awful lot of people.’ The meetings themselves are informal and popular among members.
‘There are plenty of chances to circulate and talk. We have a massive network of people. It is very unusual for us not be one step away from having an answer.’
The rail industry can be as bewildering for an outside company as it is for new member of staff. Time and effort spent researching and identifying who to talk to can soak up valuable resources.
The Rail Alliance can help newcomers. ‘If they are looking for information or signposting then they can contact us. We aim to be that extra member of the business development team,’ says Colin.
The whole idea is music to the ears of established industry professionals as well. Networking through the Rail Alliance helps existing businesses expand and take advantage of new opportunities. Colin Flack is well positioned to conduct this Smooth Classics symphony of networking. His experience of railways is unusual.
‘I first got involved with the railways after the First Gulf War. I went up and did an officers railways course. The military are brilliant at making instant experts. You name it; there’s a course for it. I spent a lot of time with BR.’
He responds well to the trick question: What did you think of British Rail. ‘As most people now realise BR was a world class organisation. I’d just come back from a war and I was watching guys who were under as much pressure for a couple of hours every morning and evening as I had been in a combat position.’
He describes one railway manager, George Andrews, telling him, ‘What you’ve got to understand is we’ve become the best at doing more with less. We can do with one track what the Germans do with four. Why? because we have to. We haven’t got any choice.’ BR’s peak time desperation of yesteryear finds sympathetic recognition in the modern military mind.
Going to Sandhurst
Flack joined the army in 1978 leaving his grammar school and winning a place at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, arguably the finest officer training college in the world.
Flack is from a working class background. ‘In my intake of about 200, I think, there were only four of us not from public schools. I was from Chatham. They were speaking a language I didn’t even understand.’
However he warmed to the place and speaks with deep affection of his time there.
‘Sandhurst is the most amazing place, it’s the envy of the world. The best of the NCOs are there to train you. It is quite brutal. You’re being prepared to lead soldiers and ultimately you’re expecting people to trust you with their lives. You’ve got to get that right and the training and the attitude reflects that.’
All military memoirs can become legends of horrific forced marches, runs through rain and mud at dawn, very little sleep and endless drill and weapon training.
However officer training has the added dimension of preparing young men and women to lead, to compute information, to understand enough to make decisions which could effect the lives and welfare of thousands and in Flack’s case, later on, millions. The responsibility assumed by such people is beyond the comprehension of the average civilian.
‘The growing you do is massive. That sense of being there to serve, to lead, is imperative. Cadets are taught all the major stories about Nelson and Wellington. The whole environment is designed to get you to put others before yourself.’
Are there parallels between successive governments’ failure to invest in our industry and the distinct lack of funding for new weapons and equipment in the military? Flack is quite kind to the MoD.
‘We always will learn the lessons of the last war and apply them to the next. My career started in the Cold War and Northern Ireland. Who would have thought in the time I served we’d have seen the Falklands War, Kosovo, Bosnia, two Gulf Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan. You couldn’t have forecast all that.’ Equipment will always fall short of what is required.
However, he says, ‘The fundamentals of what soldiers do on the ground hasn’t changed for thousands of years. The basic building block of boots on the ground, guarding, protecting, keeping people safe. Leadership doesn’t change.’
Is leadership as a skill overlooked nowadays? ‘Oh completely. There’s a real danger that people think leaders are the guys at the top. Big and charismatic, they’re dishing out the stuff that everyone buys into and people follow them. But if you look at the military you see a labyrinth of leaders.
‘We’ve lots of managers and technocrats who follow the manual, follow the rules. In the military there’s this whole process called Mission Command. That’s where you get everyone aligning onto an objective. You get people used to the idea that we are all responsible.’
Flack coaches personal leadership. The idea is you are responsible for yourself and your actions. It’s a concept almost buried under a generation of state intervention.
‘Leadership is a doing thing; you have to get on and do it… It’s a process of confidence and trust . Intuitively smaller businesses and entrepreneurs do it as a matter of course.’
Colin Flack was commissioned into the Royal Corps of Transport and his first posting was Catterick then Ireland and Cyprus. In between he found time to play cricket for Kent and Rugby for the army. He trained as a mountaineer.
A few years later he was seconded to the Brigade of Ghurkhas and put to work on internal security in Hong Kong.
Later he was sent to Germany guarding nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Regiment – or Instant Sunshine as irreverent squaddies dubbed the unit – was responsible for deploying battle field nuclear missiles in the event of war with Russia. Just how at risk were we?
‘There were a number of times when things came very, very close. Because of the nature of our job we were operational all the time. We had to be able to out load nuclear weapons into the field and disperse them at the slightest hint of anything going wrong.
‘Out loading was potentially an act of aggression so you did lots of training exercises to disguise this. We were active all the time so you develop a much sharper feel for what was going on. Sometimes there were misunderstandings.’
It is difficult 23 years after the Berlin Wall came down to communicate the sense of danger then. Nuclear annihilation was only ever minutes away. ‘What struck me was how little the public knew and how good that was. If we can sleep safely in our beds and not worry about hordes coming over the hill – well that’s a good thing.’
Vision to mission
Colin Flack left the army after 27 years, having achieved the rank of colonel. Together with his wife, Ruth, he runs Motorail Logistics which organises stabling and maintenance for rolling stock at Long Marston.
Working with Robert Hopkin, Colin Flack runs a personal and team coaching and development business, Vision to Mission. V2M has worked with the Fire Service College at Moreton in the Marsh and the Ministry of Defence.
His job as Chief Executive of the Rail Alliance takes up most of his time. However he will be hosting this year’s RailStaff Awards and has found time to coach third sector organisations, in particular the Railway Children charity.
He speaks highly of the team at the Railway Children and is one hundred per cent behind the charity. So much so that last year he thought up and undertook the Ultimate 3 Challenge which involved cycling from Land’s End to John O Groats, climbing Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis and then kayaking Lake Bala, Windermere and Loch Ness. He trained hard by cycling.
‘I needed to get my legs in order. I was always going to struggle on the hills but no way was I going to fail. With kayaking the hairiest bit was on Loch Ness with waves building to a three foot of swell – quite bouncy.’ The trip was a chance to reconnect.
‘Gently paddling the length of Windermere you see dippers going in and out of the water. With a kayak you’re relatively quiet.’ Despite the appalling weather he is determined to organise another Ultimate Challenge and open it up to more people perhaps using relay teams.
Proud to be British
‘I’m fiercely, massively, proud to be British. Cycling the length of Britain I felt so in touch, really alive and connected with my country. We had some awful weather but you just battle on. One day it was really unpleasant in Wales, rain coming in sideways and it was bitterly cold. I couldn’t feel my hands or my feet. That was a low point, but it was done and we cracked it.’
With his wife of ten years, Ruth, he lives at Long Marston on site at the old commandant’s house. The couple have a house in Kent which they are restoring. Flack, if he relaxes at all, does so by cycling and reading. The job at the Rail Alliance takes him away quite a bit.
‘This autumn we’re encouraging new members to get out to Berlin to InnoTrans and take a good look round,’ he says enthusing over the exhibitions the Rail Alliance attends and its own show, MacroRail, at Long Marston.
Rail Alliance members pitch up to display what they do on a real railway with plenty of space.
Next year’s MacroRail should be even bigger and better. For the time being InnoTrans remains Europe’s largest rail exhibition, a maze of opportunities the Rail Alliance will guide members through.
Visitors may wander off site through nearby Charlottenberg perhaps finding their way across Berlin to the now-preserved Checkpoint Charlie. Signs of the Cold War are few in modern, bustling Berlin. The Wall, like the nukes, has been stood down.
One suspects Flack will be far too busy working the exhibition for such whimsical trips down memory lane. Pioneering good communications remains the concomitant of peace.
RailStaff may not always advertise every good job on offer in the rail industry but its readership numbers the boldest and the best in the industry. Undoubtedly it attracts the most competent people to respond to its job ads.
Many thanks to Robert Hopkin and Rhona Clarke for their help with this.