“I sense real change at the moment”

“That’s real efficiency for the taxpayer as a result of route services being much more flexible and customer focused in what they offer.”

Another consequence of empowering the routes and strengthening their individual identities has been to introduce a greater emphasis on competition. Frobisher says this is a healthy framework to operate within that drives performance and innovation, while at the same time RMDs are encouraged to share best practice. 

He points to the friendly rivalry he shares with London North Eastern RMD Rob McIntosh, as the Anglo-Scottish routes within their jurisdictions renew traditional battles for pride in a distant echo of the past and the days of the ‘Big Four’. 

“West Coast and East Coast Main Lines are fiercely competitive. We both want to do well and we run a monthly competition we call the Golden Haggis, which is about running a good service on Anglo-Scots trains. 

“There’s a real motive because FlyBe has been attacking the Anglo-Scots train market very aggressively. But by providing a good reliability and a good service, rail will always win. We therefore count PPM failures on Anglo-Scots services and we have a target each day. Whoever beats the target gets a gold star for the day, and whoever has the most stars in a month wins Hamish the Golden Haggis. 

“We’re both doing our best to win, but who’s the overall winner? The travelling public. Rob and I are fiercely competitive, but in a way that we share ideas with one another and try and help each other. I’d like to offer a better service on West Coast and he with East Coast, which is good for everybody.”

With 14 TOCs and six FOCs operating across the LNW route, Frobisher is well placed among his fellow RMDs to evaluate the effectiveness of NR’s mission to offer improved external customer service, too. 

And with such a large number of customers within his own route, including the likes of Virgin Trains and London Midland, he is able to call on a whole host of practical examples that illustrate how far he has been able to flex his new-found autonomy to meet their bespoke needs. 

For a prime example of this new and flexible customer-oriented approach that NR’s route businesses have now adopted, he points to his ability to select the most relevant targets for CrossCountry to meet the needs of their passengers.

Carne also made light of this particular example in his interview with Nigel Harris, as a swift departure from the centralised inward-facing ways of the Network Rail of old. 

Frobisher explains: “CrossCountry is a long-distance operator, and PPM is measured nationally at time plus ten minutes. But if you look at CrossCountry passengers flowing into Birmingham New Street, the vast majority of them change there. Arriving ten minutes late is therefore not a success for those people because you can easily miss your connections.

“And so, although the industry-wide measure says that nine minutes late would be a PPM success, it really isn’t. In fact, it’s worse than that because PPM is taken at destination and there’s about ten minutes’ dwell time at Birmingham New Street, so CrossCountry trains can be 20 minutes late coming into New Street and still achieve PPM at destination. What that means is PPM is not a good measure of customer service. Right-time arrivals is a much better measure for CrossCountry passengers. 

“We were able to amend that for CrossCountry because we have route-level scorecards and we went out to every operator and asked them what matters most to them. We listened and have subsequently put in place lots of other measures around the things that really matter. 

“For example, Virgin Trains historically had quite a lot of Sunday morning services from Liverpool to London disrupted by engineering work, so we put a focus on that and delivered good improvement. The Golden Haggis competition came out of the same scorecard, because we now know our revenues have been attacked by FlyBe. London Midland has told us that next year it is very keen about performance on branch lines, so we’ll look at that.

“These are not measures that you would necessarily focus on if you just applied one global one-size-fits-all PPM for every TOC (as NR did before), but when you get right down to the detail and ask people what matters, it’s led to some very interesting measures that are very customer-focused.” 

Frobisher is more than happy to keep PPM as the topic of conversation, perhaps understandably given that it is a battle he is currently winning to propel the West Coast Main Line towards record levels of punctuality. 

In January, the Annual Passenger Survey conducted by Which? confirmed that West Coast Intercity franchise holder Virgin Trains registered 88.3% of its trains as on-time during 2016, including 100 days where that level was higher still at 90% or more.

That is the highest level the operator has ever achieved on that route, while 88.3% is eight percentage points higher than when Virgin Trains was first awarded the franchise in 1996. This was before the completion of the WCML upgrade in the early 2000s and prior to the introduction of Virgin Trains’ high-speed fleet of Pendolinos, but Frobisher argues that it is nevertheless a powerful indicator that NR’s route businesses forming closer relationships with their customers is yielding impressive performance dividends.  

He says that PPM continues to increase as a result of combined efforts between NR and the operator to identify and resolve the cause of delays quickly, including track defects and speed restrictions.  

“PPM is the best it’s ever been on the franchise. A lot of hard work has gone into that and it’s running well, which I’d say is down to a couple of things.

“Really it’s about attention to detail. We’ve done things like moving the speed restrictions further north, so today you can get from Euston to Birmingham without coming across a speed restriction. You can get from London to Preston without seeing a speed restriction, and that makes a real difference. 

“Then, we used to have lots of drivers reporting bumps, and now we have a guy who cab rides the routes every day to identify any imperfections in the track that drivers might report as a bump, and then we try and get to them fast and fix it. 

“There’s also a really professional operational team from London Midland, Virgin Trains and the other TOCs, so it’s team work and not just infrastructure. We work very closely with them and it’s a combination of a lot of people working together, so I wouldn’t want to take sole credit for it.” 

Frobisher also has several other reasons to feel optimistic for the current healthy status of his route, not least the continued large-scale investment being made in the Great North Rail project that will deliver over £1 billion worth of network improvements by 2022 across the North West in particular. These include North West electrification, the trans-Pennine and Calder Valley route upgrades, increasing capacity in and around Liverpool Lime Street, and construction of the Ordsall Chord linking Manchester’s Piccadilly and Victoria stations. 

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