With its customary razzamatazz, the Virgin/Stagecoach operation took over East Coast on 1 March. An Intercity 225 in full Virgin East Coast livery arrived at King’s Cross station the following morning, trailing promises of extra staff, better training and more services.
The undoubted enthusiasm of Virgin, which has long hankered after the franchise, failed to dampen public reservations about the transfer of the successful train operation to the private sector. Directly Operated Railways (DOR) under the inspired leadership of Karen Boswell and Michael Holden built a credible operation scoring high in punctuality and satisfaction terms.
That said, Virgin and Stagecoach have wrought a sea change in how the railway is run and received in the South West and on the West Coast Main Line. Passengers in the weeks after the transfer will have been reassured that staff professionalism, commitment and kindness continues as before. The East Coast Main Line should be the number one flagship service and certainly staff running the service – both in control and on board – present it that way.
Questions over the railway stewardship go right to the heart of the pre-election political conundrum facing Britain this spring. Is it right to separate running trains from running infrastructure?
Do publicly owned railways perform better than their private sector counterparts? What works best – free market capitalism or a state-run public sector? Is there anything in between, a so-called third way?
As the new management team gets to work, headed by the immensely able David Horne, the outgoing team leaves behind a fully functional, motivated and efficient body of men and women. This was achieved by state-owned DOR – only the Department for Transport (DfT) could come up with a title quite so uninspiring.
Karen Boswell set about building a brand staff could relate to. After National Express Group handed back the keys, Boswell, on arrival at York, found a dispirited body of staff worried about stability and their long-term prospects. DOR stabilised the business which was expected to transfer back to the private sector after two years. Then the term was extended allowing significant investment in its people and assets.
Under DOR’s guidance, the East Coast team was able to rekindle a company spirit amongst its people. It is the staff, DOR acknowledges, that became the bed-rock of East Coast’s success over the last few years. That success was itself recognised by the industry. Over the last five years, East Coast was the recipient of no fewer than 65 industry awards. East Coast staff are regular nominees at the RailStaff Awards.
Make it sing
Speaking in the North East two days later, Sir Richard Branson echoed this sentiment. ‘Compare it to the West Coast. When we took that over, it was run down and fairly dilapidated and sad, and staff were demoralised,’ says Branson. ‘But we invested in rolling stock, transformed it, and have doubled the number of people using it. We hope we can do the same with the East Coast by replacing the old rolling stock to give workers something they can be proud of, and passengers something they can enjoy using. We will try to make it sing like the West Coast.’
Inter City Railways is 90 per cent Stagecoach and 10 per cent Virgin and has an eight-year deal with a committed payback of £3.3 billion to operate the franchise and a commitment to invest £140 million into services.
Happily new rolling stock in the shape of Hitachi Super Express trains will start work on the line from 2018. Operationally the railway should perform even better. The new Rail Operations Centre at York brings together Network Rail staff and train company staff to run the main line.
Close alliancing – regardless of cap badge – has been pioneered on the Stagecoach operation in the South West and has been judged a great success. With the active connivance of Network Rail and the DfT, railway people are being encouraged to combine around a common identity. It’s nothing new.
Long term partnerships
Says Patrick McCall, senior partner, Virgin Group, ‘Our long-term partnership with Stagecoach has seen a revolution in customer service standards, great product innovation, reduced journey times and improved timetables on the West Coast Main Line. We will deliver similar success on the East Coast and will work with the existing teams there to build on their achievements.’ Partnership is the watchword.
The future beckons bright for East Coast and for the railway mosaic – government orchestrated and private sector delivered. In a recent report the Rail Delivery Group emphasised that based on future passenger demand, an increase in the size of the national fleet of between 52 per cent and 99 per cent will be required over the next 30 years. The proportion of vehicles using electric traction will rise from 69 per cent today to 95 per cent in 30 years’ time.
Rather than being prescriptive, the report pushes the principle that rolling stock procurement should be market- based and franchise-led. By putting train operators and fleet owners at the centre of planning and delivering rolling stock, better value for money can be achieved. The report points out that this is already the case for the new rolling stock to be procured for the North of England.
Richard Brown, chairman of the Rolling Stock Strategy Steering Group, is blunt in his appraisal. ‘Demand for rail travel is set to continue to grow. Meeting this demand with the most suitable and cost efficient rolling stock is vital to maximising the railway’s benefits for passengers as well as the economy, local communities and environment.
This updated rolling stock strategy sets out future potential demand and identifies challenges and opportunities. The rail industry is committed to working with government to ensure a whole-life, whole-system approach on rolling stock is adopted. This will maximise both value for money and benefits for rail customers.’
Capital at risk
The rail industry proves that the state sector – if it can overcome civil service caution – and the private sector – if it is prepared to put capital at risk – can combine to produce an economic success story that serves the wider needs of the country.
As spring cut in, Michael Holden, erstwhile chairman of East Coast, slipped out of London to catch a flight to Nepal. Once at Kathmandu, he joined a group of Railway Children supporters. Michael is hiking across the high country of Nepal, climbing up to the Everest Base Camp with David Franks of Irish Rail, Dyan Crowther of Govia Thameslink and a team of other equally committed railway people. Few will worry about who they work for as they traverse the ice fields and airless terraces of the
Himalayas. Their guts and determination demonstrate what purposeful individuals can achieve when they come together with a common goal. Hard though it is to describe the boulder strewn yak-tracks of Everest as a stairway to heaven, their example nevertheless demonstrates that, for the railway at least, the song remains the same.
Report by Andy Milne