"In the short-term Brexit will be a challenge for Europe and especially Ireland due to the uncertainty it will create."
Irish Rail (Iarnród Éireann,IÉ) is the operator of the national railway network of Ireland which includes intercity passenger trains as well as regional and commuter services plus freight lines. Established in 1834, since 2000 IÉ has invested over €2 billion on the network. In 2016, IÉ carried 42.8 million passengers, up from 39.8 million in 2015. The total IÉ network is 2400 km in total, with 2050 km of it single track, so train failure recovery and problem prevention is key. With passenger numbers on the rise, putting increasing pressure on the capacity of the network, IÉ sought to improve the performance, reliability, and customer environment of its Hyundai DMU 22000 fleet of trains. This week, our reporter Emily O’Dowd held an exclusive interview with Gerry Culligan, the rail operator’s Commercial Director who revealed how Irish Rail managed to dramatically improve passenger ridership.
Emily O’Dowd (EOD): What led you to begin a career in the rail industry?
Gerry Culligan (GC): I first began working for Irish Rail ( @IrishRail ) in January 2012 and am responsible for all matters relating to revenue and customer care. This was a new role for me which coincided well with my multi-industry experience. I first trained as an accountant but I haven’t pursued a career with a financial role for many years. In previous jobs I worked at Mars, Eircom and Aviva until I was headhunted by Irish Rail. This was a new role formed by the Company and I am enjoying the challenges that come with it.
EOD: What part of the role keeps you inspired every day?
GC: It was very clear to me right when I started at Irish Rail that the company was experiencing a challenging time. The recession greatly affected employment levels which then caused a knock-on-effect on our revenue streams as passenger journeys declined by 20 percent since the boom period. This left the financial sustainability at Irish Rail very uncertain. So it was down to my team to develop a strategy to respond to this dip in revenue and focus on the many levers to ensure financial sustainability. In 2012, a commercial vision was set up by our department to encourage more customers to value us in terms of value for money and quality. Now we are the safest railway in Europe and our reliability is of utmost importance for us. Since the launch of our “Customer First Programme” we now track passenger journeys and experiences daily.
EOD: What are the latest projects that you’ve been working on?
GC: A large priority of mine has been the completion of our Customer First Programme. This means we are improving our technology to replace our current pricing engines, online booking and seat reservations. We aim to be competitive on our dynamic pricing. Additionally, we have strengthened our e-marketing so we can reach out to more customers. This programme first started in 2014, then in 2016 we began deploying and building it. Now we have entered 2017, phase 1 on the project is in effect. We believe these new strategies will deliver positive change and demand.
Other innovations Irish Rail hope to deliver is an integrated transportation service so passengers will be able to book meals; car parking; hotels; car hire all on board one of our trains and replicate the success from airlines.
In summary, my main aim is to focus on the revenue management and increase passenger demand for our services.
EOD: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
GC: Like I said before it would definitely be the recession and its effect on passenger demand and then coming up with strategies to address this. In some ways it is simple – to restore our revenue line we are focusing on the operational efficiency along with appropriately priced railways that the public can afford.
EOD: How will rail change over the next ten years’?
GC: It will definitely change somewhat! And it’s almost too difficult to summarise this in a ten year period. If we look long term, barriers for the creation of single European rail areas will be removed (4th Rail Package). However, in the short-term Brexit will be a challenge for Europe and especially Ireland due to the uncertainty it will create. It could also influence a greater North/South Ireland divide at the border but like I said, it will be difficult to predict.
The industry is definitely likely to change so we will see more electrification on mainlines, an improved carbon footprint and greater reliability.
EOD: And lastly, what is your favourite rail journey?
GC: It would have to be the luxurious new rail journey through Ireland by the Belmond Grand Hibernian Tour.
Last week's 5 minutes with... Ståle Hagen, Norwegian Rail Directorate.
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