National Rail Museum Dinner 2013

There are few things I like to listen to more than a man with a French accent. One of those few things is a man with a Burnley accent, so Thursday night’s event at the spectacular National Rail Museum was a particular treat!

The great and the good of the Rail Industry gathered in their 100’s at the National Rail Museum in York for the Annual Dinner, following the success of last year’s event. Now, I didn’t go to that one, but I can tell you that last night was pretty special, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Nigel Harris – he of the melodious Burnley accent, and Editor of Rail Magazine, was our Host for the evening and with his special brand of Northern humour and charm, got the evening off to a good start.

The catering team did a superb job – and to eat such a delightful meal surrounded by some of the most stunning trains I have ever seen, was a treat indeed. There was a great buzz in the room – lots of new acquaintances being made, and old ones being renewed. A real spirit of conviviality, which got louder as the evening went on – presumably helped by the wine on the table …

The whole evening was good, it was really good but what surpassed everything else for me was our speaker for the evening, Monsieur Guillaume Pepy, the President of the state railway in France, SNCF. He was superb, and in my view, inspirational. He opened by acknowledging the UK’s leading role in transforming the Transport sector … and then shared a quote from one of the most famous British characters, Winston Churchill … ‘There’s nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction’.

Monsieur Pepy showed his humour as he introduced himself as the typical arrogant Frenchman, who is coming to teach you how to run your railway … in truth, he gave praise where it was due, namely in relation to the success of the UK commuter rail network, and the fact that our passenger numbers have doubled over the relatively short period of time since privatisation. The French took the opposite approach – and developed the high speed, mass transit approach – and Guillaume was happy to talk about the mistakes that were made, and give some advice on how we can avoid the same pitfalls.

In his view, there are three key lessons to learn from the UK experience:-

1. Investment works – over the last 10 years, the UK has made the greatest investment in its rail infrastructure in comparison to the rest of Europe, including in the rolling stock replacement programme. Nowhere else has seen such sustained growth in passenger numbers as a result.

2. Competition works – He sees the franchise process as a successful one, which has driven standards of safety to a new high, has taken service to a new level, and through the findings of the McNulty report, has resulted in better integration and reduction in operating costs.

3. Innovation works – acknowledging that Rail itself was a British innovation, and reminding us that in deference to this, the French trains still drive on the left hand side, he believes that innovation is leading to new benefits for the passengers. For example, High Speed on the commuter service at Southeastern, and leading Station designs, St Pancras being in his opinion, “the best in Europe”.

The flipside to the UK lessons, are the French mistakes – his words, not mine.

1. The ability for the high speed trains to travel on the classic lines is the key to success. Everyone will want a high speed connection, but don’t extend beyond the profitable lines at the outset – the HSR should provide the links between the major cities, and then connect to regional towns. He cites the Japanese two-tier system as a benchmark

2. Base the High Speed Rail profitability on distances of 2-4 hours. Less than 2 hours, and cars are a strong competitor, greater than 4 hours, and passengers will take to the skies with the low cost airlines.

3. Careful design of the interfaces between HSR and the stations, and the rest of the transport network are critical. We should not underestimate the impact of inter-modal connectivity as we approach the next frontier …

And, then as if he hadn’t been inspiring enough … he ends with some wise words which I have often been heard to say myself.  There is one purpose in mind, and one purpose only. That is Customer Service, Customer Service, Customer Service.

I will leave you with my personal favourite Churchill quote – “I am easily satisfied with the very best” – and thank you, NRM, last night you delivered it.