Former London Rail boss received many job offers. He explains why he chose to join Abellio.

On a recent business trip on one of the UK’s premier railway routes, Ian Brown was given plenty of opportunity to reflect on the way passenger transport is often perceived by the public. An initial delay was compounded as the train lost its path and eventually arrived 25 minutes late. No information was provided to passengers and it was clear that on-train staff were becoming increasingly irritated.

“Everyone got off that train thinking how awful it was despite the fact that they were travelling on a modern train and on well-maintained track,” he recalls. “The passengers felt marginalised.” Fast forward to a journey on Northern Rail’s local network, and the manner of the staff coupled with the cleanliness of the stations and trains left Brown with an altogether different impression, despite travelling on rolling stock that is close to life-expired. “The point I am making is that what Abellio has done at Northern is prove that even a Pacer can provide an acceptable service – only just mind you!” he says. “So it’s not just about the quality of the equipment – it is our people who make the difference.”
This culture of making best use of assets – staff, hardware and relationships with stakeholders – with the aim of weaving public transport into the fabric of towns, cities and villages played a significant part in Brown’s decision to join Abellio’s board as a non-executive director in May. After retiring from Transport for London last November, where he had been managing director London rail, Brown was approached by several transport organisations. His reason for selecting Abellio was that he believes the company has “the potential to be the best”. By this he doesn’t mean simply running the most reliable service, but also focusing on the wider needs of customers and communities having got the basic rail operations right.

This approach has been a theme of Brown’s 40-year career in the rail industry, which began as a management trainee at British Rail. Highlights included introducing new regional metro services in the West Midlands and developing a new freight strategy, which led to more freight being run through the Channel Tunnel than is operated 20 years on by the private sector.

After privatisation of the railways in 1996, Brown was able to expand his experience of building new markets when appointed chief executive of Docklands Light Railway Ltd, the body charged with overseeing the franchising and development of the system. He retained a direct role as chairman after being promoted to managing director London Rail in 2001. DLR patronage grew from 17 million people a year when he took over to well over 70 million when he retired. During that time four extensions, designed to tailor the service to the needs of the local economy and population and attract funding, were delivered.

“So instead of just trying to inflict new railway projects on people, we repositioned DLR Ltd to become an agent on their behalf and deliver the things people wanted,” he recalls. Discussions were held with the boroughs and other local interest groups on the role the DLR could play in their communities. Studies were then undertaken to determine how to fulfil the aim of extending access to City jobs towards East and South London, which led directly to the DLR extensions to Lewisham, City Airport and Woolwich.

A similar approach was taken with the development of schemes for the London Overground network including the East London Line extension and improving train frequencies across the system. “We tried to work out what social inclusion meant and one aspect was that for every white collar City job, four people in the economy were required to provide services – cleaning, technical support etc,” he says. “These key people need to live within 45 minutes of the City. So the East London Line was not only justified on government criteria of crowding and revenue, it was justified on fortifying the economy through social regeneration – ie. widening the catchment area. The response has been enormous, of course.”

Coupled with investments in security, station facilities and smart ticketing, the extension of the London railway’s catchment area has led to a disproportionate increase in off-peak travel – further evidence that rail investment, supported by the community and correctly targeted, can deliver growth well ahead of forecasts.

It is this perspective of railway business development and the requirements of public sector clients such as TfL, the Department for Transport and the passenger transport executives that will prove particularly valuable to Abellio as Brown begins his new role. “What I bring is a bit of poacher-turned-gamekeeper,” Brown says. “It’s about understanding how clients work, developing a dialogue with them and then becoming an agent of change through IT, marketing and service delivery and development. I think that, increasingly, our clients will become the local economies as much as the franchising authorities, and so the ability to perform pro-actively in this way will be more and more important.”

To a large extent, this is a philosophy that Abellio has already embraced – for example through the railway development partnerships that Northern Rail has formed with bodies from county councils to village societies. However, Brown believes greater benefits can be achieved through the new Abellio Way business framework, which defines at a high level the Abellio approach to business, sets out the management template to deliver it on the ground, and ultimately informs the standards of behaviour that are expected throughout the company.

“One of the things that impressed me about this company is that it is not about milking the market for short term benefits, but taking a long term growth perspective,” Brown says. “One aspect of the Abellio Way is really all about delivering from a clients’ point of view, in the broadest sense, in terms of integration and service quality and regeneration. Experience in London suggests that there are likely to be many other areas of the country where markets can be grown in this way to the benefit of the franchise holder and the client. Some other companies have a tricky contractual way of working. From my client perspective, that is not a clever way of doing business.”

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