Takeover on the trains

Written by
Karam Filfilan

25 Apr 2016

25 Apr 2016 • by Karam Filfilan

Train operator First TransPennine Express is based in the north west of England, carrying more than 26 million passengers a year to 60 destinations. The franchise, co-managed by FirstGroup (55%) and France-based Keolis (45%) since 2004, was put up for tender by the UK government in February 2015 with both organisations submitting separate bids alongside Stagecoach. (FirstGroup has since been announced as the winner, with the line operator rebranded asTransPennine Express.)


The person charged with managing this transition, from a people perspective, is HR director Sue Whaley, who joined the organisation four years ago to lead its 1,200 employees and 300 contractors. She admits the situation is disorientating for employees and the eight-strong executive board, on which she sits.

“It’s like mum and dad are divorcing and are fighting for custody of the children. As an executive team, we don’t know what’s in the bids, but we’ve still had to build a wall around what is going on in the bid teams so we’re not compromised,” says Whaley.

“Most organisations go through change quickly,” she adds. “In rail, you know it’s happening, but it can be months before you know the answer. You have the creeping dread of that change coming.”

This can be unsettling for the executive management team, with new owners inevitably interested in bringing in their own leaders and ideas. 

Sector growth

Keeping employees up-to-date is vital, but Whaley points out that the nature of rail franchising means many employees have been through such tenders before, which happen cyclically (the UK has 23 operators of franchised passenger services).

“Regardless of the new franchise, the rail business is growing,” she says. The business increased its headcount by 10% and added 25% more services across its network in 2014, with more planned for 2016.

“Whatever happens, there will be more trains and more jobs. They might be different to what we’re used to, but there are lots of opportunities.” 

Changing perceptions

A big part of this growth has been around brand perception. “As an organisation, we want to be seen as a customer service business that happens to run trains, rather than a train operator that wants to be good at customer service,” insists Whaley.

Traditionally, the rail industry has been operationally driven, but according to Whaley, the government is focusing on customer service in its tender process. This influences the type of people TransPennine Express needs to bring into the business, with a greater emphasis on soft skills – something the industry has lacked – and on recruiting women and younger employees.

To increase diversity, Whaley and her recruitment team have deliberately changed the language they use to talk about roles at TransPennine Express. “We used to advertise for roles such as ‘conductor’.

That title alienates a swathe of people straight away, who have no idea what the role would be and whether they could do it,” says Whaley.

“All customer-facing roles are now advertised as ‘customer service professionals’. We use phrases like ‘you’ll be caring for 250 people’s safety’ and ‘you’ll be in charge of the train’, rather than technical terms. Doing so has broadened the range of people interested, with applicants from retail, beauty and airlines.”

This shift in branding has led to an increase in female applicants, with 32% of 2015’s hires being women, versus an industry average of 20%. 

Empowering employees

To help humanise the TransPennine Express brand, employees are encouraged to show their personalities, whether it’s conductors drawing faces on tickets or station announcers making jokes.

The franchise has also introduced ‘back on track’, a compensation scheme which empowers frontline staff to make a call on giving customers compensation when things go wrong. This could be a voucher for a cup of tea if the catering trolley is missing, upgrading passengers to first class or even offering a free return. For Whaley, the challenge has been enabling employees to implement the scheme without fear of comeback.

“People worried they would be told off for giving too much away. Part of my role as a senior leader has been to ask people if they’ve been using it and to get them to use it more,” she says. “If the issue is dealt with at that point, the cost is negligible as the customer won’t complain.” 

Understanding operations

TransPennine Express recruited a new customer service director in 2014, and Whaley credits the cross-fertilisation of ideas between HR and customer services for these new initiatives, as well as the support of the organisation’s executive team.

“I sit shoulder-to-shoulder with finance, commercial and operations departments and am valued as a member of that team. Yes, I have my specialist subject and am expected to lead on people, but I’m also expected to have an opinion on the business in its entirety,” says Whaley, who argues that the solidarity of the executive team stands it in good stead for the transformational project to come, post-tender.

Having previously worked for 12 years managing a major dairy plant, Whaley believes operational and business knowledge is a vital component of modern HR practice.

“If ever a budding HR individual can spend time in an operational role, do it. It’s the hardest role in any organisation, with frontline staff asking for things and the weight of the management team bearing down on you. This is where you learn how to manage people and manage upwards too.”

Staying one step ahead of operational managers enables the HR team to advise in any scenario. “That’s why I encourage my team to go out and meet drivers, be on the route and find out what is going on,” concludes Whaley.