With transport operations in 15 countries worldwide, Paris-based Keolis brings a global view of how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting transport operations. We spoke to Bernard Tabary, the group’s international CEO

Bernard Tabary, Keolis’ international CEO

French transport group Keolis received an early warning of the scale of the coronavirus pandemic via its Chinese subsidiary. The group’s Shanghai Keolis joint venture with Shanghai Shentong Metro Group operates the Songjiang tram network, the automated metro of Pujiang, and the automated Shanghai Pudong International Airport metro.

Bernard Tabary, the group’s international CEO, says that at first he and his colleagues were puzzled by what they saw in China, but they soon began to witness the “violence” of the crisis and its impact.

Keolis, which employs 68,500 people in 15 different countries worldwide, was able to utilise the global scale of its operations. The group sent masks, gels and other equipment to China in January and a shipment came the other way in March.

Financial results for 2019, published last week, show that Paris-based Keolis achieved a second consecutive year of double-digit growth (10.9%). Thanks largely to the full-year effect of the Transport for Wales contract, group revenues exceeded six billion euro mark for the first time, at €6.579bn (£5.669bn). Profits (EBITDA) were up 6.6% at €418m (£358m).

And, for the first time in Keolis’ history, revenues in international transport, for which Bernard Tabary is responsible, exceeded those of France (53% versus 47%).

Despite the huge challenges posed by the crisis, the affable and upbeat Frenchman was confident about the future when he spoke to Passenger Transport this week.

“No doubt that 2020 will be very different from 2019,” he says, “but the company is well equipped to weather this crisis.”

Much of Keolis’ business is undertaken on behalf of transport authorities around the world, and Tabary says that the crisis has revealed the strength of its relationships with these clients as they rally together to keep essential public transport services moving. In the UK, its clients include the Department for Transport and Transport for Wales (rail franchises), Transport for London (Docklands Light Railway), Transport for Greater Manchester (Manchester Metrolink) and Nottingham City Council (Nottingham Express Transit).

“We have good clients,” he says. “The tradition in our line of business is that we need to have very close contact with our clients because we carry their image, we are close to what they do for the city. And therefore they know what we are going through, we know what they are going through, and in most cases we have already found agreements with them to protect the essential services and ensure that it can restart when it needs to.”

He adds: “Luckily, the sort of clients that we have are clients that are visionary enough to know that it’s a long term relationship and that is helpful.”

The UK response has been extremely professional and fast. As far as the business and contractual approach goes, both Welsh and UK Governments were quickly engaged in dealing with the crisis

He praises the response of UK authorities to the crisis: “The UK response has been extremely professional and fast. As far as the business and contractual approach goes, both Welsh and UK Governments were quickly engaged in dealing with the crisis. As far as rail is concerned, the Emergency Measures Agreements [which replace pre-existing franchise agreements] … have been put together fast, intelligently and efficiently.

“The government has now also reached out to those local authorities controlling tram networks, which is good news. It has clearly recognised how essential these services are to the cities.”

Tabary says that other positives have emerged from the crisis, such as the response from the group’s employees.

“If I look at the resumption of services in Germany that took place 10 days ago we have seen a big drop in absenteeism compared to traditional levels which shows the desire of people to step up and be counted,” he says.

“I must say we have enjoyed a very good relationship with the unions in general who have been cooperative, understanding and flexible. We have been able to do things that we wouldn’t have done otherwise, because we are all facing the same challenge.”

The supply chain has also played its part: “Our suppliers have also stepped up to ensure that the supply of spare parts kept running so that we could either carry on operating or prepare the resumption of services.”

Asked about the longer-term implications of the crisis, Tabary declares that he is an optimist by nature. He sees coronavirus pandemic as one of a number of big global challenges, which also include climate change. And he believes that the agility that the mobility sector has demonstrated during the current pandemic shows that it is ready to adapt to future challenges.

“We have had to rapidly adjust o a pandemic which one could have imagined but no-one really expected to happen, and we know that behind that we have other challenges coming up in climate change, cyber-attacks and potentially other health crises,” he says.

“Our agility will be enhanced by C-19 and we will be able to put that to good use in meeting other challenges which are just as real, but which are less visible at the moment due to the predominance of the C-19 crisis.”

A survey of 1,500 adult residents across the UK undertaken by SYSTRA in April found that health concerns could see 20% of people making fewer trips by public transport after travel restrictions are lifted. Tabary recognises this challenge, and the need to reassure transport users that public transport is a safe way to travel, as has been demonstrated by the group’s experience in China.

We resumed services in Shanghai a few weeks ago and there the patronage is between 60% and 70% compared to pre-crisis levels

He explains: “We resumed services in Shanghai a few weeks ago and there the patronage is between 60% and 70% compared to pre-crisis levels. The traffic jams are absolutely huge in the city because people have shifted to their individual cars as much as they could – no surprise there.”

Tabary is therefore pleased to see that many governments have decided to enforce the wearing of masks for all public transport users.

“I was reading about this city in Germany, Jena, in central Germany, which has for the last three weeks forced the wearing of masks, not only in public transport but also in general. They have had no new C-19 cases,” he says.

Masks cannot halt the spread of the virus on their own but combined with enhanced cleaning regimes and other measures they can help to slow it down.

“The ways our cities are organised, the flows are such that it will be difficult to maintain social distancing,” says Tabary. “I hope that passengers, as they observe the positive impact of simple protective measures will regain confidence in their ability to travel safely on public transport.”

UK is a key market

Keolis has had a long presence in the UK passenger transport market, and international CEO Bernard Tabary is keeping an eye on opportunities to expand further.

A second consecutive year of worldwide double digit growth by the group in 2019 was helped by the first full-year contribution of its Transport for Wales rail contract, which generated turnover of €414m in 2019 (£354m).

Meanwhile, the group obtained a four-year extension for the management of the Docklands Light Railway automated network in London. Since the start of this operation and maintenance contract in 2014, patronage of the 40km long network has increased by 11%, reaching 125 million passengers in 2019.

“To us, the UK is a key market,” he says. “The UK market is characterised by strong governance and resilience. We will continue to explore growth opportunities in the UK as they occur.”

Tabary is confident that reforms to Britain’s railways proposed by the yet-to-be-published Williams Review will take the industry in the right direction. He observes that “rail-bashing” is a characteristic of British culture, but he sees a railway that “evolved very positively” over the past 25 years. He believes that the Williams Review is evidence that Britain’s railway is capable of addressing its flaws. And while he has yet to see detailed proposals, he believes that the reforms “are going in the right direction”.

“I feel that the British rail system offers many positive lessons for countries in Europe and around the world,” he says. “I am confident that the upcoming changes are underpinned by strong foundations.”

About Keolis

Keolis is 70%-owned by SNCF and 30%-owned by the Caisse de Dépôt et Placement du Québec (Quebec Deposit and Investment Fund), and employs some 68,500 people in 15 countries (Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, India, the Netherlands, Norway, Qatar, Senegal, Sweden, the UK and the USA). In 2019, 3.4 billion passengers used one of Keolis’ shared mobility services.

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