By Mike Cowley
A Yorkshireman who was a key player on the team that set up TransPennine Express (TPE) from scratch in 2004 has returned to the award-winning company to take charge of the next – and most critically important – stage in its journey. This time, Sheffield-born Leo Goodwin will arrive with access to a war chest of more than £500 million, not only to ensure that TPE remains the fastest-growing rail operator in the UK, but also with the added responsibility of helping the company to underpin the Northern powerhouse initiative.
Mr Goodwin is well aware that transportation is now inextricably linked to the success or failure of the Government’s attempt to rebalance the economy, and rail offers a faster way of getting there – in all senses – when compared with attempts to reconfigure the congested road network, as anyone who commutes from Manchester to Leeds will testify.
With its strategic objective of linking all the North’s major towns and cities – and stretching up to Scotland – the importance of the TPE franchise has grown in recent years, in that the company is now seen not only as a transport provider but also as an economic lifeline for the region. After all, the Northern powerhouse is all about connectivity – and that is TPE’s business, too.
The announcement of the award of the new franchise to FirstGroup exclusively – previously it had been shared with Keolis – showed that FirstGroup had convinced the Department for Transport that its bid was sufficiently transformational to meet the Northern powerhouse requirements.
While the Government had laid down specifications for the bid – as it does with all franchise awards – FirstGroup was able to meet the challenge with more seats, more services and more trains than had been requested in the guidelines.
The details of the deal appear to be enough to satisfy even the most disgruntled rail passenger – complaints about rail travel have, after all, long been a favourite national pastime – with the headline figures of 44 new state of the art intercity trains, with 220 new carriages introduced by 2020 and the provision of 13 million more seats annually, being enough to silence even the most ardent critic.
During the seven-year life of the new franchise, there will be a significant increase in the number of carriages, providing an 80 per cent rise in capacity at the busiest times of the day and thus mitigating the main gripe about overcrowding.
The new TPE will also increase connections between the largest cities in the North of England and Scotland by 55 per cent by 2019, thus keeping communities and businesses prospering, a prerequisite for the company’s ongoing contribution to the Northern powerhouse.
The total of 220 new vehicles will form intercity trains which will be faster and more reliable than at present, with more seats and luggage space. Journey times will be reduced as the benefits of these new trains and the Government’s investment in electrification is realised. The existing vehicles will be refurbished to the same standard.
The new TPE will also operate a timetable that gives a similar level of service at weekends as on weekdays, reflecting the changing nature of work and leisure travel needs. Pioneering fares will be introduced, including half-price travel for jobseekers and 16-18 year olds, as well as further discounted travel for groups.
FirstGroup will take responsibility for 19 of the region’s railway stations and will invest more than £18m to further develop these transport hubs. Customer information at stations and via websites and mobile apps will be improved, while all TPE trains and FirstGroup-operated stations will be fitted with free Wi-Fi by 2018. Customers will even be able to stream films and videos to laptops and mobile devices, creating an in-flight style of service on the train.
A partnership agreement with Network Rail will be developed to deliver more efficient planning of improvement works, keeping customers moving more often. The new TPE will work closely with key stakeholders including Rail North, Transport for the North and Transport Scotland, as well as with local councils and community groups across the network.
FirstGroup has operated the current franchise as majority partner with Keolis since 2004, increasing passenger numbers from 13 million to 30 million in that time. As sole operator of the new franchise from April this year, FirstGroup will use a range of external agencies to create “a strong and confident new TPE feel and brand”.
The man chosen to make sure all this happens has spent his entire career with FirstGroup. In fact, Leo Goodwin joined the company between leaving his comprehensive school in Sheffield and starting a business degree sponsored by FirstGroup at Kingston University, when he found time to juggle studies and work for the group in a junior management role.
What began as a short-term contract has become a lifetime career. Though no rail buff in the traditional trainspotter sense of the term, what Mr Goodwin found compelling from day one was the sheer complexity of the logistics behind the business – and his first job was to sort out the logistics for the onboard catering offered by First Great Western, the original rail franchise operated by FirstGroup.
This was not simply co-ordinating a trolley facility, as Great Western offered (and still does, on its Cornwall to London service) a Pullman restaurant car service, maintaining one of the pleasures of rail travel from the past. “It gave me a lot of exposure to frontline delivery and so was an ideal training ground,” Mr Goodwin recalls. “As I was doing a business degree, it was the puzzle of putting together an attractive offer and translating that into what is a very complex operation that fascinated me from the outset.”
That was in the late 1990s – soon after privatisation – when the rail industry was going through a dynamic period of change following years of underinvestment and decline.
FirstGroup was also on the move at that time. After having started as a local bus company in Aberdeen, then merging with another bus operator, it has gone on to become a major player in both road and rail. Following its acquisition of Great Western, the group moved on to own Greyhound in the US and is currently the largest private operator of yellow school buses across Canada and the US, the type so often seen as part of the backdrop in movies.
Today, FirstGroup is one of the most experienced rail operators in the UK and the only one to run every sort of railway: long distance, regional, commuter and sleeper operations. It carried more than 280 million passengers in 2014-15, via two passenger franchises – Great Western Railway (GWR, the former First Great Western) and TPE – and one open-access operator, First Hull Trains.
FirstGroup also operates the Tramlink network on behalf of Transport for London, carrying more than 32 million passengers per year, and it runs the Heathrow Connect service in partnership with Heathrow Airport.
Leo Goodwin has held several pivotal roles within FirstGroup since he joined in 1988. After the group’s successful bid for TPE in 2003, he was part of the management team and later became commercial director during a period when the franchise saw industry-leading levels of passenger growth and a significant expansion of services.
In 2013, Mr Goodwin became commercial development director at the FirstRail division, but continued to live in Manchester, having moved there at the time TPE was set up.
Now he is managing director designate – not taking up his new post officially until April 1, but counting down the days by holding meetings across the North to introduce himself to stakeholders and explain the details of the new masterplan for TPE.
Mr Goodwin is well aware that his customers – the passengers – are still looking for answers in areas such as electrification, with many thinking that when the Government called a halt to the work this would also effectively stop the Northern powerhouse in its tracks. “That was simply a pause that has now been unpaused,” he explains, pointing out that TPE has carried on with the groundwork needed to take advantage of electrification when it arrives.
Then of course there is the perennial issue of overcrowding, where discussions focus on key peak commuter services such as Manchester to Leeds. “In 2014, we had four trains an hour running between Manchester and Leeds,” Mr Goodwin says. “Now there are five and next year there will be six – and where once the trains averaged three carriages, the new ones will be up to six. The extra trains and extra capacity are designed to ease this problem.”
Another aspect of the new franchise commitment is that whereas rail in the North has, historically, been heavily dependent on Government subsidies, the current operation is so successful that TPE is now paying for the privilege.
Under the new contract, over the period 2017-18 FirstGroup will deliver £303m to the Government in what are known as NPV or net present value of forecast premium payments (calculated over the core franchise period to March 31 2023, expressed in 2015-16 prices and subjected to the Department for Transport’s “real” discount rate of 3.5). This will mark the transition of the franchise from being a subsidised railway to one which delivers a premium to the taxpayer.
Prior to becoming the managing director designate, Leo Goodwin regarded the highlight of his career as having been when he was part of the management team which ran TPE after the original successful franchise bid. “We had four months to set up the entire operation before we carried our first passengers,” he recalls, “so that was quite an accomplishment.”
Now, however, that is likely to be eclipsed by the work that lies ahead. “It is no longer just a question of simply running a successful rail franchise, but what we can achieve for the Northern powerhouse,” says the man who remains happy to reveal that he is a died-in-the-wool Northerner.
Key benefits of the new TPE franchise
New and improved trains –
- An additional 44 state of the art intercity trains, with 220 new carriages, introduced by 2020.
- Fleet size increased by two-thirds, with over 70 per cent of this being new.
- Existing trains all fully refurbished.
More capacity –
- 20,000 extra peak seats per day, giving an 80 per cent increase into the seven largest cities on the TPE network, and with 13 million more seats available across the timetable each year by 2019.
- More than double the existing capacity on Sundays.
New, better and more reliable services and connections –
- An increase of 55 per cent in TPE connections between the seven largest cities by 2019.
- New 125mph rolling stock supporting reductions in journey times across the region.
- Direct trains from Newcastle to and from Manchester Airport reinstated in December 2016, with a two-trains-per-hour service to Newcastle in December 2017.
- New direct services from Liverpool to Glasgow from December 2018.
- An extension of TPE services beyond Newcastle to Edinburgh from December 2019.
- 16 additional services per day from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Manchester by 2019.
- Six trains between Manchester and Leeds every hour, a total of over 100 services per day.
- Weekend services at similar frequency to weekdays.
- More early and late trains, supporting the economic development of the region.
- An integrated network providing better connections with local rail, bus and light rail services.
- 13 new destinations served, including St Helens and Morpeth added to the TPE network from 2017 and 2019 respectively, with both gaining new hourly direct links to Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and York.
- A target to reduce delays and cancellations by 27 per cent, underpinned by a new partnership agreement with Network Rail.
Modern, flexible, value for money ticketing –
- Paperless tickets via mobiles, available on all routes and for bus/rail journeys.
- Enabling Smart in the North: integrated ticketing with local smartcard schemes.
- More through ticketing with bus, Manchester Metrolink and other tram or light rail systems.
- Discounted fares available for 16-18-yearolds and for jobseekers.
- Online direct debit season ticket purchase and further group travel discounts.
- Bookings available up to 26 weeks in advance for Anglo-Scottish services.
- Delay Repay when things go wrong: automatic compensation for registered customers.
Better connected, better informed, better customer experience –
- Free Wi-Fi on Anglo-Scottish services and at all stations by summer 2017.
- Free Wi-Fi on all trains by July 2018, with free TV programmes and films on demand.
- Improved onboard catering, with plugs and USB ports accessible at every seat.
- Real-time passenger information screens on all trains by April 2019.
- New mobile app with journey planner: real-time seat availability on both the app and the website. A 24/7 social media team, hearing loops on every train, and cycle storage on board.
Station improvements –
- A total of £18m invested in stations across the franchise (19 stations in all).
- £2.8m investment in customer information systems at stations.
- A £1.4m retail development Hull station.
- New or improved ticket offices at Manchester Airport, Huddersfield and Hull.
- Extra car parking spaces and additional cycle parking.
- Improved customer facilities at stations including click and collect.