By Mike Cowley
As managing director of the TransPennine Express (TPE) franchise, Leo Goodwin enjoys nothing more than the smell of fresh coffee while travelling around the rail network. Not just because he likes coffee anyway, but because the range of customer satisfaction changes made by the new franchise included the decision to extend on-board provision from the conventional instant coffee traditionally found on trains to everyone’s favourite, freshly ground.
Not only has the beverage issue now been addressed – with locally sourced beer also being among the changes customers will notice as part of the improved catering service – but there is an ongoing total transformation of what was already the most successful rail operator in the country.
With Aberdeen-based FirstGroup having recently been awarded sole rights to the TPE franchise – which it had previously shared with French-owned Keolis – Mr Goodwin has been chosen to lead the business and answer the question of “Where next?” for the operator.
That First TPE seeks to underpin the Northern powerhouse initiative by ensuring better connectivity in the North of England and into Scotland has become part of the mantra for the company, with its newly devised brand featuring a version of the Northern Star and with Leo Goodwin – a proud Northerner – at the helm.
This was further reflected in the brochure accompanying the brand launch, which dwelt unashamedly on the North’s role in the Industrial Revolution and the part rail has played since then – George Stephenson designed the first steam train in Newcastle upon Tyne, while Leeds was the startingpoint for the first commercial service. The TV commercials being aired continue the pro-Northern theme and the role that First TPE intends to play.
With an investment of more than £0.5 billion, the new TPE means business in every sense of the word. Although the North will have to wait until 2018-19 for the arrival of the three fleets comprising 220 brand new carriages (and providing 13 million extra seats – enough to fill the Old Trafford football stadium 150 times over), the enhanced catering service will be followed later this year by a £27 million refurbishment of existing trains to “like new” standard.
Come 2017, the roll-out will gain momentum: free Wi-Fi at all TPE stations, new intercity carriages, mobile ticketing on all routes, the reintroduction of a direct Manchester Airport to Newcastle service, an expanded weekend timetable and six First TPE trains an hour between Manchester and Leeds.
A direct Liverpool to Glasgow service will be introduced in 2018, followed by service to Edinburgh 12 months later, with on-board entertainment systems enabling customers to stream films and the latest TV shows.
First TPE also intends to ensure that every stop will benefit not just from its service but also from its business expertise, providing mentors for local startups which show potential in areas such as music, art and food and drink – and which, in turn, will contribute to the ongoing success of the North and Scotland.
All this has been made possible by being part of FirstGroup, the leading transport operator in the UK and North America (it owns the famous Greyhound bus brand) with revenues of around £56bn. FirstGroup’s interests in the North and Scotland also include First Bus – the North’s largest bus company – and Hull Trains.
The importance of buses in helping to deliver the Northern powerhouse was emphasised by Tim O’Toole, the First- Group chief executive, when he was interviewed by Super North at the time of the TPE franchise launch. Mr O’Toole pointed out that while trains link cities, true transport connectivity cannot be achieved without buses also being in the equation.
Although it has long been the dream of transport gurus to link buses with trains, it is only the technology being introduced today that will allow this crucial transport interface to work effectively for the first time – which is why First Bus in the North is investing £50m to make it happen. “Most people don’t take trains, most people take buses,” Mr O’Toole says, “so the bus network needs to be supported by investment, just like rail.”
With the First Bus fleet being upgraded, the FirstGroup chief executive believes that buses will become ever more important in terms of public transport, in part due to the range of new technologies such as passenger information systems based on GPS (Global Positioning System) and the fact that the five major bus companies have agreed on a common platform for smart ticketing.
“New technology such as Automatic Vehicle Location linked to GPS means that buses will finally have arrived,” Tim O’Toole says. “These are not Buck Rogers dreams. We are investing in these systems and already unveiling them now and over the next couple of years both here and in America, as we intend to spread them across all our divisions.”
Arguably just as important as the new technology, however, is the introduction of dedicated bus tracks – in partnership with local authorities – which provide passengers with a realistic alternative to facing traffic jams in their own cars or in taxis.
“When you have a successful economy, you are always going to get congestion on roads,” Mr O’Toole says. “That’s why investment in public transport – both in rail and in bus services, where there are segregated bus lanes and guided busways – makes so much sense.”
A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Tim O’Toole has an unrivalled knowledge of UK public transport in that he was brought over to sort out London Underground after years of neglect and decline – and he managed it. He has thus seen the growing importance of public transport in London, where congestion charges and dedicated lanes have led to an increase of up to 20 per cent in bus use in the past 15 years.
“The biggest reason people don’t use buses in the North today is a lack of support, a lack of confidence in using the network,” he says. “Not sure how to pay, or where to go. Just as we will be investing in TPE, we are also investing in our buses to create an absolutely dependable service that people can easily make part of their routine.”
Along with the bus service becoming even better for users, so too will the rail network. “The future of rail is improved signalling systems,” Mr O’Toole says. “We need more trains out there at any one time – so it means we need to get them to run closer together, but to operate safely. We are seeing it in London with the introduction of the new European ‘in-cab’ signalling system. This will start to spread, so the advancements in the next 25 years will be really fantastic.”
Meanwhile, back at TPE, Leo Goodwin is convinced that the new franchise is in a position to help correct the economic imbalance between North and South. “Our economy is smaller than London,” he says, “but with a similar number of people. And the reason is that it doesn’t operate in the same integrated way.
“What the North needs is a worldclass transport network. Our vision is to take the North further, to speak to our shared ambitions as Northerners for economic growth and prosperity in our region.”