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Heathrow Express flying high

Heathrow Express comes into its 20th year off the back of a strong 2017. Record passenger numbers and increasing customer satisfaction would suggest that the airport’s foray into railway operations has been a successful one.

For staff at Heathrow Express (HEx) – many of whom would say they’ve grown up within the company – now is a particularly exciting time.

“One of the biggest challenges is just the amount of challenges,” said Stephen Head, head of fleet engineering.

Stephen has a formidable to-do list which includes planning two major fleet overhauls, overseeing a depot move and planning future fleet requirements. All this comes on top of the day-to-day responsibility of ensuring fleet availability and reliability.

“Any of those is a big challenge in isolation, and we’ve got it coming together at one time,” said Stephen, who joined HEx in January 2017.

Bring on 2018

HEx has a fleet of 19 trains: 14 Class 332s and five Heathrow Connect Class 360/2 units. In May 2018, TfL Rail will replace Heathrow Connect services before it becomes the Elizabeth line at the end of the year and Stephen is currently working out what the future will hold for the fleet, while looking at the potential for a brand new fleet in the mid-2020s. “Lots going on but it’s an incredibly exciting time,” said Stephen, whose interest in the railway stems back to the time he spent visiting the Romney Hythe & Dymchurch Railway (RH&DR) as a child.

Stephen was approaching his 30th birthday when he arrived at HEx to lead the operator’s core engineering team. HEx has given him the opportunity and backing to grow into the role, said Stephen, who is being supported by the company to pursue an MBA at the London Business School. He is also able to tap into the engineering expertise within the wider Heathrow group and the airport’s engineering director as a mentor.

Photo: Shutterstock.com

Other areas of the business are also busy preparing for the changes arriving in the new year, including a massive overhaul of the ticketing infrastructure. In preparation for the Elizabeth line, new ticket barriers are being installed, new ticket vending machines are going in and staff are being issued with new handheld terminals – all of which requires a substantial training programme to prepare frontline staff. “It’s not going to be easy, but we’ve done it before, we can do it again,” said Lynsay Collins, head of customer service.

Lynsay has worked at Heathrow her entire adult life, starting on the check in desk at the age of 19. She later joined Heathrow Express as a customer services station manager before becoming a duty manager. “I realised in that role that it was actually the people management that I was really interested in,” said Lynsay, who then worked her way up to head of customer service – a position she’s held for two and a half years.

HEx performed well in the most recent National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS), improving on its previous customer satisfaction score. “My belief is that customer service and how we deliver customer service stems from the person delivering it,” said Lynsay, who moved from South Africa to Nottingham with her parents when she was 18. “If they have the knowledge and understanding of how to answer the customer’s question they’re not going to feel uncomfortable to give the customer an answer.”

Lynsay heads up a senior team of three line managers that oversee 24 station managers across four stations. “The thing that I’m most proud of is the station managers going station specific,” said Lynsay, referring to a change in practice which previously involved moving managers around HEx stations. “We’re just over a year in, and I think if you had to ask any of the station managers was it the right thing to do they’d all say yes.”

She added: “That has ultimately had a direct impact on the station teams and consequently the customer.”

Diversity and community

A recruitment campaign in the new year will bring new talent into Lynsay’s team and she’s keen to use her story to illustrate the opportunities for progression offered to employees.

Kirsty Sando, the newly appointed head of drivers, is another member of the HEx team who has grown up with the company. A qualified primary school teacher, Kirsty joined HEx 10 years ago, working on the front line checking tickets as a customer host. Three years after joining the company, she became a train driver, holding several other management positions before being named as the new head of drivers last year.

Kirsty said she’s seen her calendar suddenly fill up with meetings. As head of drivers, Kirsty is responsible for recruiting new drivers, managing training and implementing any new safety initiatives. Alongside operating their timetabled services, Kirsty and her drivers are supporting the training of Elizabeth line drivers on the Heathrow Connect route.

Kirsty’s career progression illustrates an improving picture across the industry which is showing increasing numbers of female drivers joining the profession.

“I feel in a way I’m very lucky being at Heathrow Express,” said Kirsty, referring to the opportunities she’s been afforded that have allowed her to climb to a senior role relatively early in her career. “I’m hoping other companies follow our lead. If other companies could support females as much as we do, we’ll start seeing it more across the industry.”

One way HEx is supporting the diversity agenda is through its community outreach work. When communications and CSR officer Nathan Harrison joined the business in 2015, he helped to re-establish a partnership with Harris Academy St John’s Wood, which has resulted in students visiting Heathrow and experiencing what it’s like to be interviewed for a job. As well as providing employment advice to students, HEx staff have visited the school to discuss career opportunities within the business.

This connection with the communities HEx serves has been engrained within the company. For some staff members, 10 per cent of their performance card is measured on community contributions.

Through the company’s CSR schemes, Nathan also works with Paddington Partnership, which connects HEx with local charities. Through this initiative, HEx staff have supported various good causes. Only recently, staff members helped take a group of elderly people on a day trip in London.

“It’s really eye-opening and quite a humbling experience I think,” said Nathan, who was planning for a career in journalism before discovering a passion for internal communications.

“Although I like to think of myself as engaged in my local community privately it never occurred to me that there might be a role that allowed me to do that professionally.”

“One minute I can be doing a website update… and the next I’m organising a group of people to go down to a food bank.”

Bumper year

HEx is hoping to build on what was a bumper 2017. Ticket revenue was up 8.5 per cent on the previous year, as increasing numbers of passengers boarded HEx trains to and from central London.

One of the people who has helped contribute to this rise is Karan Suri, senior pricing and commercial manager, who has developed the future pricing structure for the business.

Karan, who joined HEx just over a year ago, said: “I’ve done quite a few tests on pricing and some of them have worked quite well and so this year is actually our best numbers in terms of passenger numbers. I think that’s not only driven by pricing but pricing is a key part of it.“

Prior to joining HEx, Karan had been a yield manager at another train operator. He says his current role allows him to support other parts of the business and contribute to conversations about things like marketing in a way he hadn’t been able to in the past.

“The depth of experience you get working in HEx isn’t necessarily what you’d get in other TOCs,” said Karan. “The breadth of experience you get is very different. You get a lot of different experience in a small team which actually helps you long term… When you work in a small team, and you’re more closely involved, it gives you a more holistic view of the business.”

The majority of customers who use HEx buy their tickets at the terminal, but the operator also works closely with airlines and travel companies to integrate its booking software into their website booking platforms.

“We are out there working with key strategic partners, identifying new ones, working with existing ones,” said Richard Young, sales and distribution manager, who is currently preparing for the launch of the company’s new digital platform in February. “We’re really trying to use technology as much as we possibly can and we’re trying to integrate the Heathrow Express booking solution into our partners’ sales booking systems.”

Richard joined HEx 16 months ago, bringing with him a wealth of experience from the travel sector. “It was an interesting opportunity,” said Richard. “It’s a small team but it was leading a team and being given the opportunity to do that.” Asked about the strengths of the business, Richard said he’s been impressed by the technology at his disposal and the overall ethos of the company. “We’ve got a will to do things well. We really want to put the customer first.”

A lot has changed since HEx carried its first passengers 20 years ago. Passenger numbers at Heathrow Airport have risen by around 20 per cent, mirroring the increasing number of passengers catching the train. A whole generation of rail staff have also come through the business in that time and many more will begin their journey in 2018.

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