Richard Brown Eurostar's Derbyshire resident chief executive
13:46 29 April 2010
Richard Browns father thought his son was making a bad choice when he entered the world of transport over 30 years ago. Who would want to go into a declining industry, something that in some quarters was even considered a public joke?
He thought he was speaking in my best interests, but actually it was a good career move. Ive always enjoyed it and never once been bored, which is the most important thing in your work, Richard says. The British have always had a love-hate relationship with the railway, he observes, a much more schizophrenic attitude that is in sharp contrast with the love-love relationship of the Swiss and the pride of the French in their rail systems.
Born and brought up in London and educated at Marlborough College, he didnt have any reason to go on a train until he was a teenager. After completing his engineering studies at Cambridge and doing an MPhil in town and transport planning at University College, London, he embarked on the graduate milk round and accepted a job with British Rail as the least well paid but the most interesting of the three offers he got.
I still think its a worthwhile industry because its pretty important to peoples lives. Its got a social and economic value as opposed to selling dog food, he says, making it clear that hes in no way denigrating selling dog food but that it wouldnt give him the satisfaction of doing something worthwhile and useful.
If a symbol of the modern rail industry were needed, its St Pancras International in all its glory. Richard Browns small and markedly no-frills office is just a stones throw away from the restored station, magnificently transformed from its dirt, drabness and draughts to become what the trade classifies as a destination station: somewhere youd want to visit in your lunch hour for the amenities and for the sake of it, even if you werent travelling; something combining the feel of New Yorks Grand Central station and the buzz of Amsterdams Schipol airport.
Richard ran the old station for a period, when he was head of Midland Mainline at the time of railway privatisation. I was painfully familiar with it, he says with feeling. It was scheduled for renovation but with no date, so we had to make do and mend. Now its one of those things that everybody in Britain who knows about it is actually proud of and feels weve done something really well.
We always knew there was a gem there waiting to be revealed in all its glory. Its a wonderful old building, wonderfully restored and made fit for 21st century use. Its a blend of new and old, old with bold design, and Ive never heard any criticism of it.
Richard became Chief Executive of Eurostar, a Franco-British-Belgian partnership, in 2002. He had previously been Commercial Director of National Express Group plc, where he set up its UK Trains Division, at the time the largest passenger franchise operator. He was a Director of British Rails Division before privatisation, a time he acknowledges to have been a very difficult one in terms of political and other pressures on the industry.
People were talking about The Rail Problem there was even a book with that name, he recalls. It wasnt declining but it was static and seemed a problem industry even then, not one which offered solutions to other problems. Thats been the sea change of the last 10 to 15 years, that generally, politicians, media and the wider public see the rail industry as one solution to the transport challenges we have in Britain, and that its making a useful and important contribution.
Eurostar carried 9.22 million passengers last year. The company had been in existence for seven-and-a-half years when Richard joined, and the first section of the first high-speed passenger line opened in 2003, seamlessly and to a high standard of punctuality, so that was a turning-point, he remembers. But it was by no means plain sailing: the next section hadnt yet been given the go-ahead, and the possibility that it wouldnt be financed led to a degree of uncertainty for all about what the future would hold.
It was an ashamedly emotional first day when the new St Pancras opened on 14 November 2007. Ninety-seven per cent of the 186mph trains arrived on time in Paris and Brussels on the first day and thousands of visitors came just to be part of history. The opening had been preceded by 50 roadshows all over the UK, including one at Derby, Richards home station. He has lived in Littleover since moving to Derby to set up one of the Intercity business units, wouldnt want to live anywhere else and rarely gets on a train home without seeing someone he knows.
People in the south-west who had been linked to Eurostar services via Waterloo were frankly less than over the moon, he acknowledges, about having to cross London to get to the new station. But Derby responded with joy to its new direct link to the Continent, and tops the league for the growth rate of passengers travelling on Eurostar since its launch from St Pancras.
Im sure its been helpful to Derby because its plugged it into the high speed continental railways network and reinforced Derbys already strong position on the map, he confirms. I think its very difficult to point to any numbers for developments that wouldnt have happened without it, but I have no doubt that its been helpful and constructive.
The buck stops with the Chief Executive, so it was Richard Brown who took the flak from angry passengers when Eurostar services were disrupted at a crucial travelling time before Christmas last year. He made a high-profile and unreserved public apology on that occasion and acknowledged to customers that the company would have to win back their trust and goodwill. How difficult was it, I wondered, to be the public face in such circumstances?
You have to be prepared to deal with it, he says simply. You shouldnt be doing a job as chief executive unless youre prepared to be accountable, to stand up and be counted, so I suppose I dont thinkabout it much. It goes with the territory: you take the rough with the smooth. And youve got to continue to lead through it.
Weve spent a lot of time with passengers, particularly those who were the most irate and upset with us, to really understand what went wrong so that we can put it right and they feel they have been properly listened to. He has learned over the years to trust ones instincts first. If your instinct is to get out there, apologise, do what you can to put things right, then thats probably right.
Hes in one or both of Paris or Brussels each week and estimates that he spends 85 per cent of his time conversing with people, whether thats members of his team, groups of staff or passengers. As a chief executive, you have to have a feel for the DNA of an organisation the different groups of staff, backgrounds, preoccupations, what makes our passengers tick and what they look for from us, he reflects.
My job is to make sure Ive got the right team of people in place. I cant do all their jobs for them and couldnt do any of their jobs. Im the conductor of the orchestra, if you like, rather than any individual player. He observes that at 57, he is probably one of the oldest in a commercial organisation that attracts a lot of young people, almost half of whom are bi-lingual. Eurostar employs 1,400 people in the UK and is a company that punches way, way beyond our weight, he says with satisfaction.
The future is exciting. There are over 5,000kms of high speed line in Europe, a figure set to triple in the next 15 years. As more of these lines open, the potential for connection with the next two phases of high speed travel in Britain becomes ever more exciting. High Speed Two is gaining momentum in the UK and with cross-party consensus, its looking increasingly likely that it will go ahead, Richard says. To get them all to agree on a relatively nitty-gritty area like transport is previously unheard of.
Theres already a significant growth of people travelling to London from the regions and using Paris and Brussels via Eurostar as staging posts for further destinations on the Continent. Thats partly because air travel is not what it was. Security and reliability issues mean journey times extending, not reducing, Richard suggests. In 10 years time, he says, most cities in the northern part of the Continent, France, Germany, Holland, Switzerland and Austria will be in practical travelling time from London.
He opts for rail travel whenever he can, preferring its human scale to that of out-of-town airports that have outgrown their capacity. Perhaps when we were younger, flying was a glamorous thing to do. It was aspirational. Now its a commodity, and train travel is sort of replacing it as that aspirational, more glamorous way of travelling, he reflects. Its a lot more civilised. Flying is just a hassle now, even if you are lucky enough to be the 0.1 per cent of the population who can afford to travel first class. Its bearable but its not pleasurable these days, is it?
He has no hesitation in naming his favourite rail journey. He and his wife, Gweno, met on a skiing holiday and skiing holidays remain an important part of our holiday plans every year. We always go direct by train because we have direct services to the French Alps... weve even gone to Austria by train, and that was fun. It involved several more changes but thats part of it, and lots of flights these days involve changes too.
Richard commutes weekly from Derby and owns to seeing more of his grown-up children than his wife is able to, since all three work in London. He admits with some shame, I dont have a very good work-life balance because I spend more time at work than I would probably wish. Its one of the things I want to change in the future.
As for his philosophy of life, he ponders, I do believe quite passionately in handing things on in a better state than I inherited them. It doesnt matter whether its moving into an old house and doing it up, or getting involved in some sort of relationship issue, or whether its money or business or the environment.
Its pretty important to me to move it on, develop it, grow it, whatever. Leave things in a better state. I guess youd call that a philosophy?