Grant Shapps has stripped Arriva of the Northern franchise, blaming the management. But I think that responsibility for its problems lies elsewhere – writes Alex Warner

 
Chris Burchell

 
Grant Shapps got what he wanted, so too did Andy Burnham, the trade unions and the media – because Arriva being stripped of the Northern franchise and suffering ignominy made good headlines. Those in the industry probably also enjoyed it – there’s nothing like tittle-tattling about the demise of someone or other.

Spare a thought, then for Chris Burchell and David Brown, CEOs at Arriva’s Rail Division and Northern respectively. I’ve only really known Burchell in the past two years, but he is someone I’ve admired from a distance for much longer. Chris has long been the blue-eyed boy of rail, scouted by former Go-Ahead boss Keith Ludeman – an ace spotter and developer of bright young talent; Alex Hynes and Charles Horton were also snaffled and fast-tracked by Ludo to the top.

At 32, Burchell was the UK’s youngest ever TOC MD when he took charge of Southern – a network that has perennially struggled for years both before and since his departure. He presided over its most successful period before getting the top job in Arriva Rail. He then secured the Northern and London Overground franchises as well as uplifts in NRPS and performance across all of Arriva’s companies. In 2017 he became chairman of the Rail Delivery Group.

However, it was not the decent KPIs, franchise wins, big jobs or accolades from his direct reports that defined Burchell’s career. In an industry that is often cliquey and riven with professional jealousy and back-biting, he was a grounded person who cared only for the good of the railway, its customers and people. He always acted with the utmost integrity, decency and upheld, at all times, the virtue of collaboration, calm-headedness and responsiveness, when dealing with stakeholders, at every level.

David Brown is another fine man of decent principles, someone who before being tainted by the challenges in Northern, was probably the most revered manager of stakeholders in the North of England and most knowledgeable of anyone as to the issues affecting the communities served in the region by rail. A polished, measured, calm communicator and deep thinker who always did the best for customers and his people – he was a much-respected leader amongst his team and always very focused on their personal development. Brown never sought the headlines for personal exposure – but I suspect he was worn down by the imperfect, impossible structure that he inherited. When he was appointed Northern CEO, it was seen as a massive coup.

It’s worth reflecting on the fact that when industry professionals chide Northern or make throwaway comments about how useless we might believe them to be, actually, there is a case of “there but for the grace of God”. It’s also worth reflecting on the pedigrees of the likes of Burchell and Brown – because if they couldn’t solve Northern’s problems, then could anyone else? Think about that before slagging off the Arriva Rail North leadership on social media or sniping from the sidelines in pubs or at rail industry forums and consider instead the complexity of what Arriva had to grapple with.

This is far more about politics than it is about railways. The alignment of stars that got us to the point at which Arriva lost the franchise is really incredible

This is far more about politics than it is about railways. The alignment of stars that got us to the point at which Arriva lost the franchise is really incredible – everything from Labour policy, the elections – general, mayoral, RMT general secretary – and union positioning behind Labour policy to a strong new government in debt to the North and seeing a ‘quick win’. The personalities in both Arriva and Northern are bright, workaholics rooted in the community. People like people and strategy director Richard Allan and the commercial brain that is wily old fox Mark Powles and the most solid, hardcore operator in the form of Alan Chaplin, no one would have worked harder.

As Burchell very publicly admitted, their plan became undeliverable and he needed to work in partnership to deliver a new one.It doesn’t seem obvious whether or not anyone was willing to do that. Imagine him trying to explain to Arriva’s German owners what was going on in the dysfunctional environment that is UK rail. I suspect Burchell’s was the loneliest of jobs, however supportive his paymasters might have been.

Arriva Rail North’s demise was the “perfect storm”, the delayed electrification schemes paralysing driver and stock availability, coupled with the “role of the guard” strikes that Arriva were, like their counterparts, fighting for the good of the future industry, and a network that experienced a legacy of chronic underinvestment. Yes, they made mistakes, but name me an owning group that has got an unblemished record and would have done any better within these most challenging of circumstances?

That Arriva’s other franchises, Chiltern, Cross Country, Grand Central and London Overground (Arriva Rail London) have had a better track record than most others’ in the industry tells a more accurate tale of its stewardship of railway business. As it is within its bus division, Arriva shows some innovation but more importantly process-orientated, strong corporate governance, with a big emphasis on integrity and impeccable ethics. Hang round HQ reception and the coffee table reading matter is the most comprehensive guide to their business standards – messages that come through loud and clear in meetings with them. Some may say Arriva can be boring, but they are never accused of being a ruthless, misleading, manipulative money-grabbing group and their people are renowned – unlike others – for not having political or personal agendas.

Shapps told The Yorkshire Post last week that the issue was ‘management’ and not having enough drivers and trains. Well Arriva Rail North (contrary to popular belief) always had more drivers than the establishment required – but delivering 12,000 training days on top of running the day-to-day service – often in disruption – mean they were always going to be stretched. They agreed a bespoke training deal with ASLEF to help but it’s too easy with hindsight to say ‘not enough drivers’. The reality is that the issues ran deeper.

Fleets are controlled by the Department for Transport, of course, and cannot be unilaterally increased by operators. Arriva proposed a number of ideas to increase the fleet when electrification damaged the fleet plan. It will also be interesting to see whether the new Northern operator, the DfT’s Operator of Last Resort, are forced to take on Driver Controlled Operation – or will they be let off this government policy to avoid embarrassment?

I will never condone poor customer service and I accept that I’ve never had a perfect journey on Northern. However, what rests uncomfortably with me is that it is always the train operating company that is the social pariah when things go wrong. As the public face of the industry to customers and commentators, including those working elsewhere in the sector, it’s fair game to take pot shots. But the government, Network Rail, policy-makers, suppliers, trade unions and previous operators, right back to BR, are all part of the problem.

It is a collective responsibility, and everyone connected with past and present should look at themselves, rather than at Burchell, Brown and the current team.

It is a collective responsibility, and everyone connected with past and present should look at themselves, rather than at Burchell, Brown and the current team.

We should be more respectful of industry colleagues. Don’t suggest that I’m part of the snowflake generation, worrying about the feelings of well remunerated transport professionals, but it’s incongruous that in this era when we purport to be focused on mental health in the industry, that we don’t reflect on the well-being of those in train companies that are suffering their darkest hours. We talk about “Northern” or “SWR” as though they are humanless, entities, without actually acknowledging that they represent real people.

Everywhere they go, MDs keep spirits high amongst their teams realising the uncertainty they are going through and their social shame because they’re conscious their friends and neighbours are all whispering about how they work for that useless local train company. Don’t tell me TOC MDs are paid a king’s ransom for all this – trust me, I know the facts and many of them aren’t.

So, what for the future of Northern? The OLR team proved supportive on LNER and with Northern, we’ll see high impact customer service improvements and innovation, because it has to be that way. The DfT will be rightly determined to ensure that customers notice the difference – as they have with LNER, which has retained the high performing leadership team.

It will be a good place to be too – LNER folk are happy and so too were people at South Eastern post-Connex – the emphasis was on injecting a feel-good factor, come what may. The OLR will probably operate within a more supportive stakeholder landscape, with a more flexible contract, greater purse-strings and the benefit of the new fleet coming on track. Arriva, as a competent operator, will wonder what they could have done within these circumstances.

Whatever transpires, the key for the sanity of those at Arriva and Northern is to be phlegmatic. For those such as Burchell and Brown, with a career that has been nothing but well-deserved, glory and ascendancy, it would be easy to take all this personally. Let’s hope for all our sake that they don’t jack it in, because right now we need them both. Charles Horton got dog’s abuse for the troubles at GTR and turned his back on the industry – he is now a trainee geography teacher. I hope the current fall guys realise that the railway is like sport – fortunes are all cyclical, sometimes for no other reason than being in the wrong place at the worst possible time.

Similarly, those running the new Northern or any other TOC that might come under public sector ownership, might just as easily have been on the receiving end themselves in different circumstances; if the OLR was looking for leaders to take over a failing train company, they’d probably have Chris Burchell or David Brown high up on their list. Who is not to say, of course, that Brown won’t stay at Northern?

In my time as a “head-hunter” in rail, I’ve realised that the stock of individuals rises and falls depending on the circumstances they find themselves in, ones that are more often than not out of their control. I was at my lowest ebb, jobless and useless after National Express lost the Midland Mainline franchise, having as customer services director presided over then record
NRPS scores.

What I do know, is that there was some genuinely exceptional talent in David Brown and Chris Burchell and others in the Arriva set-up who worked with Northern, as well as the franchise team itself. “Form is temporary, class is permanent” as the old adage goes, and this truism will define other stellar industry professionals who might feel downtrodden following the decision on Northern or the fate that might befall other TOCs in these uncertain months ahead.

VERDICT

Sacking a TOC might make sexy headlines, but the problems on Northern are deep-seated and hugely complex. Let’s hope that whoever is running this train set gets the wider industry and political support that Burchell, Brown and co deserved.

 
This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

DON’T MISS OUT – GET YOUR COPY! – click here to subscribe!