First Capital Connect bosses in the spotlight over Thameslink line

PUBLISHED: 06:38 08 April 2013

Neal Lawson, FCC managing director

Neal Lawson, FCC managing director

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Lawson’s legacy and the future of FCC

JUST over a year ago, Herts Ad editor Matt Adams met with the senior management team at train operating company First Capital Connect for a frank and insightful discussion about the trials, tribulations and triumphs they had encountered over the past 12 months, and what plans they had for the future.

It was therefore prudent that a follow-up meeting should take place to catch up with the team, look at what successes they were proud of over the period, and analyse areas which still needed work.

The timing was particularly apposite as it came not long after managing director Neal Lawson announced his departure for Network Rail, and the company received the welcome news that its franchise had been extended for an additional 12 months, prompting a reflection on his time with FCC, and what plans he would be leaving in place for the future.

The success of the Olympics for First Capital Connect cannot for one moment be overlooked. Rather than overcrowded trains, disrupted services and general chaos at mainline stations, the length of the Games saw perhaps the most reliable and efficient train service on the Thameslink line many passengers have experienced, with the highest ever performance figures at that point in time, and customer satisfaction at an all-time high.

Neal explained: “It was a real success story. The good thing with the Olympics was that we had plenty of time to plan. We decided early on that we needed somewhere to support the front line and coordinate the communication messages we were putting out to customers and our staff.

This [support centre] worked really well, we could target information to specific stations – something that our normal control can’t do because they’re running 78 stations – and we were able to make specific announcements to specific customers at specific stations with journey information that was relevant to them. So it was much more targeted. We strengthened Twitter because we knew there was going to be a big intake of customers signing up for that as time went on.

“That worked really well during the Olympics, complaints were at their lowest ever by a long, long way and we had so many more infrequent customers, and they’re the ones who really do need more information than normal travellers. Commuters are a bit more savvy.

“We will soon be reopening the customer information desk, which is all about monitoring what our information screens are saying, what our website is saying, and making sure the message we put out is cohesive.”

Unfortunately wasn’t the case during the two days in February when a snapped power cable at Radlett led to major disruption on the Thameslink line. Passengers were told services were running when they weren’t, and the repair work overrun substantially.

Customer services director Keith Jipps was keen to explain where things went wrong.

“The incident happened quite early in the afternoon, so we racked up the support centre in time for the evening peak to pump out information. I believe we were quite accurate on what we were saying throughout. It was clear it was going to be messy, but there were alternative routes put in place.

“While some people had to queue for buses at places like Hatfield, we are never going to be able to shift 75,000 people on buses alone without some delays. Most of the feedback we got was people didn’t like what they had to do, but they knew something had gone wrong and at least they had an option to get home.

“I think where we did have a problem was with the feed to the National Rail Enquiries live departure board. We were saying there was nothing from West Hampstead to Luton Airport Parkway, but for some reason the feed from our systems and National Rail went down so you’d suddenly see all these trains showing as leaving on time from Farringdon, and yet they were never going to depart, which was completely at odds with what we were saying.

“I think that’s what caused most of the confusion. We’re working with National Rail Enquiries to find out why that went down.

“The following day our expectation was that it would be back to normal, although we kept buses in place in case it didn’t. We were geared up to run a full service and communicated that to our customers, but the very next day it all fell apart again. Fortunately we had the buses in place and ticket acceptance already.

“We learned very quickly from the Radlett experience about how we can provide even more detail to passengers, because the following week when we had problems in the St Neots area we were very specific about the routes people should take home, and I think we need to go to that level of detail to advise people a bit more.”

The importance of providing relevant, accurate and reliable information to Thameslink passengers is something which has been highlighted time and time again by various parties, including this newspaper, and this message now seems to have hit home with FCC.

Neal said: “The key thing is that information is an enabler. We’re there to get people home. Sometimes it’s not going to be on our service for whatever reason, and that’s what this alternative route stuff is about.

“In the past we would have said that we’ve got something kicking off so go to the pub for an hour and then come back and we’ll tell you how it’s going. But with a service as dense as we run through the Core [the railway network at the heart of London], if you have a problem that only lasts 10 minutes you will get disruption throughout the peak times of the day. In hindsight, it’s not the best way to deal with it, telling people to come back and we’ll give them an update in an hour.

“Our job is to get people home, and that requires information.”

Keith elaborated: “We’ve created an alternative route guide for almost every single station, to explain how to get home with the least amount of fuss, and we need to link that into customer newsletters to promote that even further.

“Intelligent text alerts will prompt people about problems and what they should do, and equally in the mornings and evenings they will get an alert about their train.

“We do believe the problem with the service 70 per cent of the time is out of our control, but it’s how we react to that. We’ve invested loads of money in kit, we’ve just got to make sure now that we’re more consistent with the information flow.

“So to help us we’re putting all our customer-facing teams through a disruption management training programme. We did it about three years ago and it was really successful, and we’ve relaunched it again because of turnover and people slipping back into bad habits.

“The whole disruption management system is not about necessarily knowing when the next train is going to be, but them making sure they can find a way to help customers go where they need to go.”

But even when measures are put in place to provide alternative routes home for FCC passengers, things aren’t always that easy, as conflicts arise over whether tickets will be accepted on other lines.

Keith explained: “East Midlands will accept anyone who is travelling north of Luton Airport Parkway or Luton because they have some capacity to take those customers. What they can’t afford to do is take anyone who is going to Harpenden or St Albans and wants to go to Luton and come back. It’s not through being awkward, it’s about capacity and reserved tickets.

“For Harpenden and St Albans we focus very much on the cross-route approach. We have some capacity to Hatfield and we can then have a fairly robust bus service in place to take people across. And then there’s East Midlands for Luton. It’s all about spreading the load so everyone can get home without all going the same way, but maybe we don’t explain that enough.”

Although the Department of Transport has extended FCC’s operating franchise on the Thameslink line for an additional 12 months, the long-term future of the company’s position remains uncertain.

However, Neal is reluctant to allow this to affect their performance: “I’ve said time and time again it’s business as usual. We want to win the ongoing franchise and to do that you’ve got to keep performing. We’re still implementing new stuff as if we were going to be here forever, so that’s the key message. FCC won’t get distracted.”

When Neal Lawson took over as managing director of First Capital Connect, it came following a period of major disruptions to the service, poor performance and disillusioned staff. He will be leaving confident that he has turned this around to the best of his ability.

“It’s a great story for the business what’s happened over the past three years, and if I’ve played a part in that then that’s great. I came into the role at a time when it wasn’t going particularly well for FCC, we were being asked to throw the keys in and all that sort of stuff, and it was publicised at the time about how the Department [of Transport] was viewing it.

“Now we’re still not perfect, but we’re a hell of a lot better than we were three years ago. We’ve seen some best-ever results in performance and passenger satisfaction, employee engagement is a really good story as it’s gone up 14 per cent in that time. We had to set out to build a foundation, and now with all the customer service training that Keith’s doing, now’s the point where we can start to harness some of the good ideas from staff directly.

“We’re working more collaboratively with Network Rail, which was something we needed to do anyway, because that’s the true area of improvement. We can always improve on disruption management, and I do express a great deal of frustration that we’ve probably done as much if not more than any train operating company in the country to improve the information that goes out during delays, yet we’ve still not seen this reflected in the results.

“If we’ve got a more solid foundation for everyone to go forward on then that’s a pretty good legacy. I would always wish that we could have got even better performance results than we did but when you sit and reflect on it, and look back at what it was like three years ago you realise how tough it was then.

“We don’t like to say things are not as bad as they were, we would like to think they are much better.”

WI-FI

ONE of the many issues of concern raised by FCC travellers is the lack of wi-fi at the below surface stations at St Pancras, which prevents them from receiving travel updates.

Neal is keen to tackle the issue either now, or in his next role: “I will get to the bottom of why we can’t get wi-fi there. I don’t understand it because I got my broadband connected at home in five minutes via the phone line. We can sometimes make things a little bit more complicated than they need to be, but I don’t think this is one of them.”

Keith elaborated: “NR said they did have plans for wi-fi but it’s fallen through for whatever reason, so we’re now working with First Group to see whether we can actually fund a wi-fi solution or get a supplier like O2 to come in and partner us. We’re investigating that now, because it’s the same for our guys, we want them to be using Blackberrys and iPads.

“We are looking to put in information screens that our guys can use to get access to any of the information they could find on a PC, but they can’t do that at St Pancras because there is no wi-fi, so that’s helping us drive a business case because there is a gap in the information flow not just to customers but to our teams as well.”

Neal added: “There are genuine reasons for these things. When you buy a railway kit it has to last for 50 years, so you have electronic pieces of kit that are 20, 30 years old, and isn’t modern in terms of electronics and software and what have you. It’s a big piece of infrastructure and there is an issue for the rail industry to keep up with technology

“Some of the more simple stuff we talk about implementing, like wi-fi, I could almost guarantee you that there’s something like an old-style phone line down at St Pancras which isn’t compatible with wi-fi, and that’s not anyone’s fault, that’s just historical, and there is a cost associated with bringing it up to date. The technology is there, but the implementation may be difficult.”

RELIABILITY

A KEY date for the future development of the Thameslink line will be the start of 2016, when the first new trains begin to come into service.

Until then, many of the problems with reliability may continue, and Neal explained why.

“The existing fleets are running at full capability, but they do need to have downtime for light and heavy maintenance. We’ve actually crept up some of the availability numbers through planning rather than reducing maintenance, so we squeeze as much out of the existing fleet as possible.

“But during the peaks if you have one more train failure than what you planned to then you’re down a train, and a train will then have to be shortformed.

“The challenge with trains is not their longevity because rail assets are generally designed to last 100 years, but the problem with the older trains is they were designed for different duty cycles whereas there are now more and more passengers using them. So they’re working hard for longer in the day than they were ever designed to do, and that poses its own challenges. It works the motors harder, it works the electronics harder and it works the doors harder, it works everything harder.

“Our maintenance guys work really bloody hard on old fleets and actually the numbers are pretty good when you stack them up against similar fleets elsewhere in the country. The reliability has been creeping up, but the snow knocks the motors around, although nowhere near to the extent that it used to, and everyone in the industry has the same problems so we’re all fishing in the same supply chain for reconditioned motors.”

Communications manager Roger Perkins added: “If you’re a commuter you hone your journey down to the point where people stand in a certain place because that will get them closer to the entrance or exit. They’re constantly looking at ways of minimising their journey, which I think is why when the train is delayed for whatever reasons then the stress levels go right up, because people work out how long it will take them door-to-door, and if that starts being affected it can raise those stress levels significantly.”

FIRST CLASS CARRIAGES

ALTHOUGH the number of first class seats was slashed by 50 per cent in the last year or so, there are still arguments about whether this accommodation is necessary on the heavily used Thameslink service.

Integration and partnership manager Larry Heyman explained why they could not scrap it altogether.

“The challenge we’ve got with first class is that we have two distinct markets. The reality is that from Bedford down to London first class is used much more strongly on East Midlands trains, who have the bells and whistles that go with first class travel, however Brighton to London is incredibly strong, and since we declassified part of the first class compartments my name is probably mud as far as Brighton commuters are concerned, because they hold me personally responsible for the fact that sometimes they can’t get find a first class compartment at either end of the train.

“A lot of people who live at that end of the route are prepared to trade up for first class for the benefit of a table and power point and more space to work. So we are between the devil and the deep blue sea on that one, but interestingly enough I think that if the product was better, which it will be on the new trains, I think it could actually encourage people on the northern end of the line to trade up as they will all have first class.”

LONDON BRIDGE

FURTHER disruption is predicted for three years from December 2014, when work begins on rebuilding the London Bridge station and rail infrastructure, forcing services to be diverted to elsewhere on the grid.

London Bridge is currently a major bottleneck on the service, and a limiting factor on trains getting through the system, so essentially work will be taking place to untangle the mess of rail lines which currently exist.

Roger explained: “From December 2014 for just over three years our trains will go a different route, and they possibly won’t even be able to stop at Elephant and Castle because the platforms are too short.

“There will be a great benefit when we’re allowed back in, because at the moment we’ve only got about three rush hour trains that can actually call there because there just isn’t the capacity, London Bridge is just packed with trains all fighting for platform space. Once they’ve completed that we’ll have our own dedicated platform and routes that don’t cross all the other train paths, and we’ll have a normal full service calling at London Bridge through the rush hour. But it does have implications during that work.”

Blackfriars is likely to be the main interchangeable station during this period, and further information will be released closer to the date when work is scheduled to start.”

Neal added: “When we talk about managing expectations one of the unique things about the railways infrastructure is that it has to work while you’re rebuilding it. People come onto the railways every night at 10 and pull parts of it apart to work on it, and then they have to put it all back together by 6. There’s just this extra challenge, and the safety associated with it, and they’ll get it right on the safety every time but sometimes the reliability is affected.

“The more times you pull something apart and put it back together the more chance you have to introduce a defect. That’s one of the challenges we have to manage from a customer satisfaction point of view because there isn’t any reason to think that train performance will improve because of everything going on with the route.”

PERFORMANCE INCENTIVES

BOTH First Capital Connect and Network Rail are incentivised to perform to the best of their capabilities, with financial penalties levied against them should they fail to deliver.

Neal explained: “If we don’t run enough trains we pay compensation to Network Rail, so it goes both ways. At the moment that doesn’t happen very often because Network Rail’s performance hasn’t been where it needs to be, but it has happened.

“It’s a regime set up not to compensate for delays to passengers, but to keep everybody constantly making improvements to the railway. It’s a scheme they’re looking at revamping at an industry-level, about whether it drives the right performance and incentives as an industry.

“For sustained poor performance it does look at a loss of revenue as people get tired of travelling on your trains if they’re not reliable, and once people stop travelling on the trains it takes a long time to encourage them to come back”

Keith added: “When we had the Radlett event for those two days it cost us £450,000 in replacement buses, plus you’ve got to load the Delay Repay scheme for passengers on top of that, and you lose goodwill from infrequent customers, we lost car parking revenue, so there’s a huge knock-on effect hidden behind that.”


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