"For international visitors arriving at Heathrow, they are accustomed to train services that are slow, noisy and unreliable. We are the opposite..."
Even amidst the patchwork quilt that is the UK rail network, the Heathrow Express which links London Paddington to Heathrow Airport is unusual. A pioneering dedicated airport express train launched in 1998, its a non-franchised, non-subsidised private company owning its own trains, the stations at Heathrow as well as the entire below-ground section of the line between London Paddington and the airport. It’s the fastest rail link between London and Heathrow, with 150 services running every day. With a strong reputation for passenger engagement and innovation, it was for example, the first train company in the UK to launch e-ticketing our Editor Luke Upton was keen to learn more. He recently spoke to Heathrow Express Director, Fraser Brown to learn about his route into rail, the challenges and opportunities his work brings and of course his favourite rail journey…
Luke Upton (LU): Thanks for the time today, how did you get into the rail industry?
Fraser Brown (FB): Pretty much by accident! I started my career working in the oil industry. I joined Exon Mobile as a graduate and spent 10 years working for them in various management roles across Europe. That led me to Gatwick Airport where I was Head of Travel after which I moved to the largest airport hub in the UK, Heathrow.
Within the airport I moved into my first transport role managing Ultra Global PRT. This is a Heathrow backed SME which designed, developed, built and now operates the world’s first commercially operational Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system. I was responsible for managing the implementation of the system at the airport as well as working with UK and International Governments to promote the transport mode for economic and social development of cities and University campus areas.
And from there I joined Heathrow Express in 2014, becoming Director in 2015.
LU: Thanks, and what do you like most about your job?
FB: The variety. I am extremely proud of the Heathrow Express ( @ ) workforce. We have a very different make up to the average train company in the UK. Our 490 colleagues are made up of 40 different nationalities and 14 ethnic groups. The age range extends from 20 to 62 and 40% of our drivers are women, compared to the national average of 4.5%
I also travel on the train regularly myself giving me the chance to chat to our customers and colleagues. Customers are at the heart of our business. I am sure many businesses say that, but as a management team we spend valuable time with customers and colleagues to understand how we can deliver the best possible service in the industry. The latest National Passenger Survey was issued earlier this month, with our customers rating Heathrow Express 91% for overall customer service, a testament to everyone’s hard work.
LU: What’s the biggest challenge in your role?
FB: Getting the message out about Heathrow Express. We have a large number of customers, 16,000 a day, who love us and are regular users. But the train isn’t full every day which is unusual for a rail company.
Our train is fast, reliable, offers comfort and a calm environment for travellers. For international visitors arriving at Heathrow, they are accustomed to train services that are slow, noisy and unreliable. We are the opposite. Raising our profile globally and getting that message out is complicated.
LU: What will be some of the biggest differences between rail now and in 10 years’ time?
FB: I think the rail industry will continue to become a more consumer facing rather than just a logistics service. Developments in technology are changing the way we do business and we are getting to know our customers better. At the same time we can use digital innovation to improve our customer service.
An example of this, we recently collaborated on a project introducing digital screens to the baggage carousel areas at Heathrow. The concept is simple. As travellers wait for their luggage to arrive, the displays show live travel updates comparing cab, tube and Heathrow Express journey time and cost. These screens are a world first and have won multiple awards.
LU: And to conclude, as we always ask, what is your favourite rail journey?
FB: As a Scot of course I would say the most scenic rail journey in the UK which is Fort William to Mallaig in Scotland. A 40 mile journey which takes about an hour and a half, most of the line is a twisting single track railway through fabulous Highland scenery past lochs and Ben Nevis ending up in the fishing village of Mallaig. From there short hop to the Scottish Islands and you are in paradise!
LU: Thanks very much for the time today!
5 minutes with… You? Each Friday the team here at SmartRail World will bring you a great new 5 minutes with... interview. This fun, fast-paced feature will help you get to know more about personalities across the industry, their ideas and experiences and of course their own favourite rail journey! Want to take part? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.
Last week's 5 minutes with... Philippe Leguay, International Director Urban Railway Transport Systems at Keolis
Next week's 5 minutes with... Dato' Azmi Abdul Aziz, President & Group Chief Executive Officer, Prasarana Group (Malaysia).