Home: December - January 2011 › Cover Story › Direct approach
04/01/2011 | Channel:
In discussion with Nicky Pearce, Elaine Holt explains how Directly Operated Railways is beginning to succeed where others have failed on the East Coast main line franchise
The rail route from London to Leeds and on to Edinburgh is one of the most important and high profile in the UK, yet it is not without its tumultuous history. Having initially been managed by GNER from 1996 until 2006 when it became apparent that revenue was lower than expected and the Department for Transport (DfT) intervened to terminate the franchise, National Express Group stepped up to the plate in August 2007 with the promise to pay over £1.4 billion in just over seven years. This pledge too, failed to reach its full term with National Express Group falling foul to the effects of the recession and on the 1st July 2009 the Secretary of State for Transport announced that East Coast would be handed back to public ownership. It was here that Directly Operated Railways (DOR) came to the fore.
Set up in anticipation of the franchise’s move to the public sector, DOR was mobilised by an expert team of 35 people who with nine days notice successfully transferred the National Express East Coast line on the 13th November 2009. This totally seamless and unproblematic transition was just the start of many successes for this new entity that has worked hard to ensure that customers, staff and stakeholders alike are only positively affected by the numerous changes taking place now and in the future. This pioneering body is operating under the sole aim of rectifying past problems and creating an East Coast main line that will be ready to return to the private sector in 2012.
Headed up by experience and ambition in the form of Elaine Holt, chairman and chief executive of DOR and chairman of East Coast, it seems the franchise is on the road to recovery. Commenting on her background in the industry, Elaine explains: “My experience goes back quite a long way in the transport market and I have worked for various types of business including First Capital Connect, British Airways and First Group for ten years in buses and trains. Having always worked in the private sector, this opportunity was something different and it is quite an unusual position to be so close to the DfT while still managing an operation. I think the main potential for East Coast lies in the fact that it has been through a number of changes, different directions and financial problems, and we are starting to unpick some of the detrimental impacts on the business, reinvesting and re-skilling staff to put the railway back on its feet.”
With performance beginning to pick up, the lowest sickness record in years and a dramatic reduction in safety incidents, it is clear that green shoots of improvement are starting to appear across East Coast. The immediate boost in staff morale when DOR took over the business has been evident throughout the entire franchise and the company has worked very closely with employees to highlight the elements of safety processes and procedures that are unacceptable for conscious operations in order to improve from within. Performance is also a notable issue that DOR is tackling very seriously though this is not without its challenges considering that 60 per cent of delays on the East Coast line are caused by infrastructure and Network Rail, 20 per cent by other operators and the remaining 20 per cent by East Coast. For its part, however, DOR is making substantial fleet developments including how it is managed, run and resourced, while a close relationship with Network Rail will also help to overcome deficiencies. East Coast has already witnessed a reduction in minutes owed on the route and for the current period is below its delay minute target - an accolade that has contributed greatly to the three per cent rise in passenger numbers.
Station investment is another area of substantial interest for DOR with the aim of improving rail environments for customers and subsequently overall journey experience, as Elaine highlights: “The greatest change will be at Peterborough station where we will be spending over £2 million on the station itself and installing gate lines into it. This is one our busiest stations yet it appears quite a blot on the landscape and our hope is to transform it aesthetically, while Network Rail also has a long-term scheme for its improvement. Our design plans have been very well received by the local MP and surrounding community, instilling confidence that our investment will make a big difference to the area.”
Edinburgh Waverley is also in place to receive a new travel station, while small changes will be made at Newcastle and various other stations along the route. But perhaps the most notable and ambitious initiative of all will be the major timetable and ticketing overhaul scheduled for launch in May 2011 and appropriately named ‘Eureka!’ Representing the biggest timetable change on the East Coast main line for
20 years, customers will benefit from 20 more services every weekday and more than three million additional seats a year, accompanied by faster journey times and a more regular pattern of services, as well as a new destination in Lincoln.
Major fleet arrangements are currently underway to prepare for the more demanding work schedules and onboard catering facilities are being revamped to encourage more people to travel by train. As part of its continued commitment to value for money, for example, DOR will be introducing a complimentary meal with every first class ticket purchased – an asset that has already proven to be very popular with passengers alongside this year’s reduction in fares.
“With new products, services, catering and faster journeys, Eureka is very much a relaunch of East Coast and the coming months will be extremely busy as we prepare to go online on the 22nd May,” Elaine notes. “Our multi-functional and cross-discipline teams are examining every aspect of the business to make sure that we are geared up and ready for this modernisation. It is especially important that the new timetable is robust and will deliver constantly high performance credentials across the route, but we are secretly confident that our year of planning will pay off.”
The hard work doesn’t stop here, however, as DOR is set to continue in its complete overhaul of the East Coast main line over the coming years. While in the unique position of having an end date some time in 2012, Elaine and her management team are determined to return East Coast to the private sector in the best possible shape for future success: “We’ve been here a year already, but there are still substantial and significant changes to make, and I am very optimistic about where East Coast will be in another years time. Having had financial problems in the past, the franchise is now self-funding and we have over-delivered on our payments to DfT, which is a considerable achievement and one that people need to appreciate the significance of.”
Elaine pragmatically concludes: “We are looking forward to the transition in 2012 and making this a very smooth process for staff and the business in its entirety, but we have another few years of hard work and commitment ahead of us to finish the turnaround of East Coast.”