"We are clear about our business model and our commercial strategy and we are confident that we have the necessary resilience and experience to navigate through the unknowns of the next few years."
For more than 20 years, Eurotunnel has carried motorcycles, cars, vans and trucks between England and France, shaving around an hour off the time it takes to make much the same journey using the ferry. It’s perhaps this time-saving factor that explains why the service is such a hit with customers – Eurotunnel set new traffic records during summer 2017, when it carried more than 560,000 vehicles between July and September. Eurotunnel’s commercial director, Jo Willacy, shares her experiences of working at Eurotunnel with SmartRail World for this week’s 5 minutes with… In the interview, Jo tells Dave Songer why she thinks Eurotunnel is so popular with passengers, the importance of a long-term view during choppy waters and the steps the company is taking to transport more people, more efficiently.
Dave Songer (DS): Thanks so much for taking part, Jo. What made you to want to work in the rail industry?
Jo Willacy (JW): I don't tend to consider myself to be in the rail industry. I would argue that I work in the transportation industry, because for me the focus is on what we deliver, not what we do. Eurotunnel is an iconic transport operation and unique infrastructure. I am sure that for many this alone would make it an attractive place to work, but for me it is all about the challenge of commercialising the unique advantages of a fast, reliable and regular cross-Channel rail link.
(DS): Working at Eurotunnel must be exciting. What do you enjoy most about it?
(JW): I enjoy working in a truly bi-national, ‘franglaise’ company that succeeds in merging the strengths of our individual national cultures and styles. Not many international companies achieve this but I think we can because of the unique footprint of our railway infrastructure which physically straddles the Channel plus the fact that the Channel Tunnel has been a true partnership between the UK and France from its inception.
(DS): What is the biggest professional challenge you've faced?
(JW): In 2009 the cross-Channel truck market was impacted, like all other markets, by the economic downturn of the UK economy. At its lowest point truck traffic demand fell by 20%. This put great strain on the business but we succeeded by maintaining a long-term, strategic approach rather than adopt a short-term tactical plan. This meant that we focused on service delivery excellence in order to protect our price premium and accelerate our volume recovery as market conditions normalised. It was a brave position to take because it relied on the intrinsic value that our customers placed on our competitive advantages versus the ferries that adopted a volume protection strategy. I'm pleased to say that we got it right.
(DS): It's more than 20 years since the Eurotunnel's first journey; what's been the biggest change for the line since then?
(JW): Fundamentally the service is the same. Whilst our engineering is very complex the customer experience is designed to be very simple so there has been no real reason to change it. Most of our changes are behind the scenes and focused on the efficiency of our maintenance and operations. Our focus on efficiency includes environmental considerations and we engage actively in ensuring that we offer the most environmentally-friendly way of crossing the channel.
(DS): What are Eurotunnel's key business priorities for 2018?
(JW): As always, our priorities are on maintaining our competitive advantages and generating value for our shareholders. We have made significant investment in our Freight Shuttle rolling stock in order to increase our capacity and reinforce our reliability. We will look to capitalise on this in 2018.
Inevitably, we are closely watching the progress of the Brexit negotiations but we are clear about our business model and our commercial strategy and we are confident that we have the necessary resilience and experience to navigate through the unknowns of the next few years.
(DS): Freight forms a large part of Eurotunnel's business – how has that changed over the years?
(JW): The Freight Shuttle service has gone from strength to strength. We now carry more 1.6m trucks a year and act as a critical transportation hub for 'just in time' and perishable goods transiting between the UK and mainland Europe.
(DS): What's your favourite rail journey (anywhere in the world)?
(JW): Ooty to Mettupalayam on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway in Tamil Nadu, India – sooty, scary and wonderful.
(DS): It’s been really interesting hearing your thoughts, Jo. I look forward to taking another journey on Eurotunnel – it’s been too long.
Last week's 5 minutes with… Jacqui Dey, operations director at South Western Railway.
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