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Westward Ho! – Andy Milne talks to Vernon Barker, managing director of FirstGroup’s Rail Division

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FirstGroup’s Rail Division is run from Macmillan House on Paddington Station but also has a quiet set of offices across the road on Eastbourne Terrace.

Between the two sits a huge building site, one of the construction shafts of the Crossrail project. Passers by can watch the excavation and towering machines poised above the hum of city traffic.

The station itself hums with the burgeoning growth of west country services, Heathrow Express and the promise of the electrification of the west. Services continue as normal despite the growing uncertainly over how the rail industry and its railway franchises are run.

Confidence and energy

Despite the controversy surrounding the halting of the west coast franchise, re-letting the number of good news stories telegraphing out of FirstGroup’s train companies testifies to the confidence and energy of an industry rising above the constraints of the past.

Recently at the ACoRP awards Mark Hopwood, managing director, First Great Western, was on stage presenting prizes. FirstGroup, corporately, is a long term supporter of the RailStaff Awards and sponsors the Lifetime Achievement Award.

ScotRail, First Capital Connect, Hull Trains, First TransPennine Express and First Great Western, means the group accounts for almost a quarter of all passenger rail revenue in Britain. Vernon Barker heads an organisation right at the heart of Britain’s surging rail industry.

For a man working seven days a week Vernon Barker looks fit and relaxed as he slips into his office across the road from Paddington station past knots of bemused tourists marvelling at London’s compendious road works. ‘I run, sometimes,’ he says, ‘and I want to get back into running marathons again.’

Barker had a back operation two years ago and like all runners suffers a variety of wear and tear on joints. His voice still carries a west country accent reflecting his upbringing in Romsey, Hampshire. His father was a cop with the British Transport Police down on Southampton docks.

However Barker had not considered a similar career as he levered himself out of his council estate and progressed via local comprehensive to Stirling University and a degree in accountancy. Vernon Barker is a quiet person, a chartered accountant, the antithesis of the media hullabaloo that continues to dominate the now suspended franchise system.

The TUPE agreement

Although it looks as if the West Coast franchise will have to go through the whole rebidding process again it is still worth answering staff reservations on the patch. Speaking of First’s initial bid Barker says quite clearly, ‘There will be no redundancies,’ and urges RailStaff to explain the TUPE agreement.

OK: The Transfer of Undertakings and Protection of Employment Regulations were introduced in 1981 as part of the Thatcher administration’s privatisation measures. Later TUPE was universally applied to British Rail and its successor companies as the railway was broken up and sold off.

Staff – many had worked in rail for generations – were given security of employment. Thus TUPE safeguarded BR staff transferring to Virgin Trains and will safeguard those staff, plus new staff, should they eventually transfer to First Group.

Barker won’t be drawn on the legal case between Virgin and the DfT. However, First was initially confident it would eventually take over the franchise. ‘I think it was unfortunate the incumbent and representative unions chose to suggest there will be redundancies and degradation in services. Couldn’t be further from the truth. Our bid is based on a growth story.’

Change is often uncomfortable

Barker acknowledges that change is often uncomfortable. He has form in this area as his father might have put it. Barker trained as an accountant in Manchester and worked for Arthur Andersen, a global accountancy firm out of Chicago.

The job took him abroad to Toronto and Bermuda – he retains an interest in scuba diving. Back in England he was living in Macclesfield and working on short term financial projects when the first job in railways came up.

‘I was working as an interim finance manager and I enjoyed moving from place to place facing difficult challenges,’ says Barker who was self–employed at the time. ‘Some places I worked in were either facing rapid growth or fatal decline and-or recovery situations.’

Rail was different. ‘There was always something new to be doing and the next thing was bidding for franchises.’ At first cleaning the mud off the mysteries of railway finances was a temporary project.

‘I came into railways for a temporary three month assignment to help with First North Western. I was going to hand hold for three months while they looked for a full time finance director. This was in 1999. I enjoyed the three months and when asked if I wanted to throw my hat in the ring, I said yes.’

This is a classic tale repeated all over Britain’s railway industry at every level. People join for a week or two – stay a month or longer and then they’re caught up in thrall to one of the most exciting, expanding industries in Europe.

Barker admits the prospect of massive growth in rail ridership was not immediately apparent in 1999. ‘I didn’t know enough at the time when I was coming into railways to see the potential for the future but certainly after my experience at FNW that changed.’


He became managing director and later headed up TransPennine Express. Barker speaks at length about TPE and enjoyed his time there. It was a new operation and the north identified with the new train company. In a way First TransPennine Express underscores the success of the wider rail industry. Get the investment in rolling stock, operations and timetabling right and the customers will arrive and stay.

‘If you look at the capital projects that are on the go as you walk out the door,’ Vernon jerks a thumb over his shoulder at the Eastbourne Crossrail yard outside, ‘You see that the economy is investing, with cross party support, at least at a strategic level, in railways. I would use the word exciting. I think the investment in rail and what that means for us makes it exciting.’

Vernon Barker took over the post of managing director of the rail division last year following the departure of Mary Grant. How does he see the rail division? ‘It has to provide leadership as to how we look to see things being done in First. But I see it more as an inverse pyramid where we should be providing support to the tocs and support for the front line.’

FirstGroup is now a global enterprise but is still headquartered in Aberdeen. ScotRail’s Caledonian Sleeper service may be as near as First gets to running on the west coast but its franchises are prospering. Despite the recession First’s UK Rail division’s revenue is expected to increase by 8.1%.

Management buyout

The origins of FirstGroup lie in the original management buy out put together by Moir Lockhead at Grampian Transport in 1989. The bid was largely staged to avoid being taken over by anyone else.

Lockhead and his Aberdonians took a company of 500 staff with 200 buses onto become a multi-national publicly listed company running trains as well as buses on two continents. Several of the directors still retain PSV – Passenger Service Vehicle licenses and can drive coaches.

It might not matter now, but speaking before the DfT announced its suspension and review of the franchising re-letting process Barker was at pains to emphasise that the FirstGroup’s take over of West Coast represents an opportunity for staff rather than a threat.

‘Feel free to ask questions of myself and colleagues or other FirstGroup employees,’ he said. ‘The facts around the bid are that we will be putting on extra services. We want to attract repeat business from customers and new customers. There’s a high level of customer service styled into the bid.’

Much of west coast business is discretionary – these are not commuters stuck with the service but people who elect to use it. ‘So we need highly motivated focused front line staff that are going to be the face of the future railway that encourages customers back.’

Give customers what they want

Barker is quite clear about retaining all permanent staff and ticket offices. ‘Our plans do not include any ticket offices closures. But what we will do is reflect on customers’ habits which have already changed over the last 15 years.’ This means more staff on platforms and concourses.

‘The best way to make this railway successful and prosperous is for everyone to move with the customer expectation and experience and give customers what they want.’ He talks of staff looking after passengers, helping them use ticket vending machines, answering questions and giving directions.

‘Helping customers find their way around stations means they must have a good first time experience.’ He cites Birmingham New Street and Crewe as examples of stations that can be bewildering for occasional travellers. ‘Their first experience doesn’t have to be someone behind a glass window.’

Contact with railway staff and passengers is important. Barker misses riding the footplate. Throughout his career on the railway he has made it a habit to walk through trains and talk to passengers.

Nowadays it doesn’t happen often enough. However he was recently on a Hull Trains service, made an announcement over the PA, and met people on the train. Vernon Barker may be a number cruncher but his quietness makes him a good listener and he is sympathetic to the concerns of passengers and staff alike.

Nowadays he lives in Wapping, London whilst retaining a house in Macclesfield. As well as running, Barker enjoys family holidays with his three daughters – camping with his brother’s family in the Lake District or scuba diving over seas.

Outdoor activities figure heavily in his recreation and he has just joined a triathlon training club. People are important and he supports the RailStaff Awards. ‘I think there is a real value in recognising achievement in the industry and the RailStaff Awards do a really good job of actually personalising the individuals in the industry. The RailStaff Awards take it to a higher level and I value these awards as they showcase good behaviours right across the industry.’

Whatever the future of franchising holds, under Vernon Barker’s steady and understated leadership FirstGroup’s rail division will continue to mirror the success of the wide rail industry. Like many in the rail industry long distance runner Barker is in this for the long haul.


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