First Capital Connect boss: exclusive in-depth interview in full

HERTS Advertiser reporter Aimee Brannen talks exclusively to First Capital Connect boss Neal Lawson.

HERTS Advertiser reporter Aimee Brannen talks exclusively to First Capital Connect boss Neal Lawson.

HA: What is your background?

NL: "I joined FCC nine months ago. I came in as new trains and engineering director so I was brought in to support the department with the procurement of new Thameslink trains and lead on engineering of and fleet maintenance of existing stock. I've been in railways in New Zealand and the UK and have been in the UK for seven years in various roles."

HA: There have been major shortcomings in the service in recent months, what do you plan to do to put things right?

NL: "The main thing we have to achieve is obviously to deliver a good performance consistently. We have delivered good levels of performance in the past, but we've had a terrible three months and we apologise for that, it's not acceptable and we've spoken at length about what we can do there.

"The last three weeks we've run the timetable, we've lost one circuit due to a driver not being available as somebody called in ill on the way into work, at very short notice.

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"We've still got some issues with the fleet and snow damage and we're concentrating on getting the fleet back where it needs to be by mid February. The other area we are looking very hard at is the customer communication, as that's where a lot of people have given us feedback.

But in terms of driving performance, we've had good performance for the past three weeks. We need to plan, review, plan and review to learn and to get out here and get feedback from people, and to just be robust."

HA: Are you deliberately skewing the performance figures by missing stations out on routes to get a train to its destination on time?

NL: "It doesn't skew the figures because if we miss a station we get penalised on two different counts for that. We skip stations in terms of service recovery. That's not to say that we haven't caused disruption on the line somewhere with our fleet or there might be an infrastructure issue, it could even be another train operating company.

"But once an incident happens that takes a long time to recover from, we have to recover the service and get trains back to the termini to be able to run the timetable to time later on. And so control will choose to skip stations, not FCC necessarily, to get that train back to the terminus to run the next service on time and sometimes we cancel services, but that's not about fiddling any system, it's about recovering a service to hopefully impact on the minimum number of people.

"Now we do know there are people getting on trains to get to a destination and if we start to skip stations and they get carried past, that's obviously not good. So, what we need to do there is make sure that we've got the information to tell people before they get on the train and that's the real focus for us. There are industry wide groups which we are part of which are focussing on making sure that we get the right passenger information. "We are part of that and we will be taking learning from it."

HA: A lack of communication is one issue that has really annoyed passengers, what else are you going to do to improve it?

NL: "In the short term, we've done two things. We've strengthened the website and made that robust to make sure that the information is on a more real time. We've also got some of our staff out on the platforms now and we've got a HQ customer information group sitting in the head office rather than in the control, and they are coordinating the message out to people on the major stations on inbound services in the morning and outbound in the afternoon to make sure that we are giving information on the platforms with proper public announcements."

HA: Passengers are complaining that there are still four carriage trains which means they can't always squeeze on services, why is this still happening?

NL: "Well, it's important to stress that there are some services that run as four cars and they are in the timetable, and we don't measure them as short forms against the timetable. Where we are running four car services now instead of the eight cars is because of fleet issues. We had 36 traction motors that were damaged in the snow and it affected 19 different units, we've got it down to two units and four motors now that still need to be investigated and by February 10 we will have cleared that situation and that will allow us to run the eight car plus the four car services timetabled."

HA: Were the new trains affected by the bad weather?

NL: "There was some impact with ice and snow but they were different issues. The major problem with the older fleet is that it was the traction motors. We had a modification programme going with the traction motors and at the moment they suck the air from underneath and shift air to the top. The programme was postponed with the new trains coming in as they run 310 days late.

"We postponed the modification programme and now we were 80 per cent of the way through, so the traction motors that have failed on the old fleet, 60 to 70 per cent of those were the ones where motors hadn't been through the refurb programme.

"There were snow problems on the new fleet which we had to deal with, but of a different nature. Most if not all fleets across the country were affected. We've got photographs on the website that show these things were almost moving ice bergs in some places and the photos were taken after a day of thawing out in the depot. You can't see the break actuator, you can't see the shoe-beam - the trains can't run like that. So these were very severe conditions that impacted everybody and the older trains with the technology they've got on them leaves them more susceptible to the conditions than the newer ones."

HA: But why can other countries like Russia and Mongolia cope with these conditions and you can't?

NL: "It's an interesting question. There are things that can be done but they obviously have a cost attached to them. It's the same as asking question: in Finland, for instance, how do they keep the runways clear and how do they fly in and out in sub-arctic conditions? But they've got the infrastructure that deals with that and they have to as it happens a lot of the time. But there is no doubt that the newer trains deal with it better than the older trains."

HA: Why wasn't the other FCC line affected by the weather to such an extent?

NL: "The Great Northern route uses different trains and infrastructure. On the Thameslink route the late arrival by nearly a year of the 23 new Bombardier trains put huge stress on our existing fleet, affecting its reliability. Our 20-year-old trains were worked much harder with a higher proportion of stopping services and a higher intensity of services. This requirement to get trains out in service reduced the time available to undertake preventative repairs. Our �7.2m traction motor modification programme, designed to overcome a major reliability issue in cold weather, had to be placed on hold and caused a number of fleet issues this winter."

HA: Many of your customers have contacted us to say that the over-crowding on the train is so severe that it causes health and safety issues, is that something you are concerned about?

NL: "The trains are designed for crush loads that are even more severe than what we put on the train, so it is well able to cope with the crowding. We are not happy having people packed into trains but we have plans in place should there be anything that happens on the trains and we would make sure that we follow those out. The trains are designed around those circumstances."

HA: The Department for Transport confirmed to the Herts Advertiser today (Friday, February 5) that the Thameslink Programme will be delayed by a further year, how will this affect your work to improve services?

NL: "The issue about the lateness of the delivery of the programme is an issue for the Department. We are very much in favour of the programme, obviously. We are very excited about that and I was brought in originally to deal with that programme. We are working very hard with the Department in partnership with Network Rail and we will continue to support that and will bring that forward to the timetable the Government decides on."

HA: One of our readers has asked us to ask you why can't you declassify first class to free up more room on trains?

"We did of course do that during the emergency timetable. We declassified first class to second class but there are clientele that want a first class service and we are contracted to deliver that. So while services are fine we will continue to do that. "

HA: Our readers have said that the new compensation system is unnecessarily complicated - why can't customers just present their season ticket at the ticket booth and get the discount off the next one there and then?

NL: "We have tried to make the process as simple as possible and have had customers and rail user groups in to meet us to road test the scheme and give their feedback. We've tried to get the balance right between giving people a choice with discounts or free tickets, keeping it fair (so that they go to the people who were affected) and getting the scheme up and running as quickly as possible. "

HA: What culture change will you implement to ensure that passengers are put before profits?

NL: "That's something we've always tried to do. I think the events of the last three months have worn down staff as well as customers. I think that some of the enthusiasm I know is there is already evident in the last few weeks as the service has begun to improve. All I can say is judge us on our actions."

HA: When can commuters expect a full service to be introduced by FCC along the lines of those they paid for?

NL: "We're pretty much there now. The normal full timetable returned on January 18 and repairs to our trains following the snow damage will be complete this week which should see the number of trains running as four carriages instead of eight reduce (although even with a full fleet there are some 4 car trains in the published timetable) .

"A few weeks ago we finally took delivery of the last of the 23 377/5 trains from Bombardier. Although, as is frequently the case with new rolling stock, they are experiencing some running-in problems but their reliability is improving all the time. In order to reduce delays when problems happen, Bombardier fitters are travelling on peak time services through central London to fix problems quickly."

All quotes copyright Herts Advertiser.