Having sized me up while I waited in reception – I didn’t recognise him initially when he was standing at the nearby drinks machine looking at me quizzically, Julian Drury turns out to be circumspect and clever, controlling the interview through scrupulous politeness, and a certain look when he cares not to comment.
It’s on record that he dabbles in street theatre, but while there was no sign of the flamboyance that might be necessary for such a hobby, Drury is quietly eloquent and one can get a pretty good idea of why this Toc has been showered with awards and setting records on a regular basis.
Drury is clearly a rail man through and through and confident enough to be in the current arena.
“Working in the rail industry is like working in a shop window 24-hours a day because we are so visible, to our customers and stakeholders. There’s a lot of debate, a lot of media and political interest, and what we do affects the finances of government.’ Does that bother him? ‘Not at all, we’re used to it. When you’ve been in the industry for a couple of years you understand that’s the environment.’

A tense time

The Essex Thameside franchise is one of the longest granted so far at 15 years, beginning in 1996 to 2011 and extended to May 2013, ironically to allow the government time to conduct a review of the franchising process. In fact Rail Professional interviewed Drury in 2009, a time when c2c was asking the DfT for the extension, and he spoke then about how long franchises enable real progress. Three years on and bids were lodged for the franchise renewal in September last year, by Abellio, First, MTR and c2c’s owning group National Express, with the successful bidder due to be announced in January. Then came the West Coast debacle. So at the time of the interview, yet more government reviews on the franchising process were prolonging c2c’s tenure, or rather, delaying news on its future (alongside Greater Western and Thameslink) – Sam Laidlaw’s on what went wrong with the West Coast…recently, you guessed it, delayed… and Richard Brown’s on recommendations for future changes to the franchise model.
That can’t be an easy situation to deal with? Drury is fairly tight lipped for obvious reasons: ‘The department [for Transport] has told us that they are not able to make a final decision until it gets the results of both reports. We’re talking to it quite closely as you’d expect but I think we’re looking at early January time.’ Fingers crossed then, ‘Yes. We have some views like everybody else and we’re talking to Richard’s team to add our contribution but it will be some while yet.’

Taking it personally

It felt like an imposition and a probe into what would seem like a travesty, to ask how Drury would feel if c2c doesn’t keep the franchise. ‘I can’t comment because it’s not something we can comprehend. We’re pretty committed to keeping it and we are really ambitious for what we can achieve if we do.’
As an Essex resident, I feel his pain. c2cfeels like a gift of a service: covering some of the most deprived as well as affluent areas in the south of the county, it is something to be proud of. ‘From the day I joined, I have been proud’, says Drury. ‘They are a really, really great team here and very committed, in a way that I haven’t encountered elsewhere, to turning in good results. On the few occasions that we don’t, people take it personally, which is very interesting.’
But it wasn’t always the case, because a well-documented piece of rail history is that it used to be known as the ‘misery line’. The days in the early 80s, when tired commuters would pour into Fenchurch street from Tower Hill tube or offices in the City, longing to get home to Essex and get their slippers on, only to find a crowd that would have done the Olympic stadium proud. And this would happen once or twice a week.
‘I wasn’t there at the time, but customers still tell me about it,’ says Drury. ‘Often conversations start with, ‘Now you won’t remember this, but…’ and then they tell me about the misery line and how much better things are now. In fact I was told some months ago that in those days the company used to issue notes which passengers could take to their employers to prove that they really were delayed, which I find amazing! Even the idea that could happen is difficult now to understand.’

With staff after winning Rail Operator of the Year at the National Transport Awards. Stephen Jessup-Peacock, next to Julian, won Frontline Employee of the Year for his heroic leadership during last summer’s riots

A virtuous circle

So what is the secret to c2c’s ‘journey of transformation’? According to Drury it’s in the detail. A whole series of incremental improvements built upon each other in the last 15 years. And he gives an emphatic ‘yes’ when I ask if he feels it has needed a full 15 years. ‘It’s given us a long-term horizon for investment. So starting right back in 1996 with the line being re-signalled (a decision taken by British Rail in its closing days and implemented in the early days of privatisation), we then had the really big improvements that came as a result of franchising investment in a new fleet of trains in 2003, £30 million spent on the stations; a fully gated network (unique for a franchised operator), and CCTV on all our stations, which are also credited with Secure Stations Accreditation, a police accreditation mark.’
c2c also introduced driver-only operation in 2003 and is still the only toc to have done so post-privatisation. Drury credits a lot of efficiency being introduced as a result of that move. ‘What you get is a network which is gradually getting better levels of investment, higher levels of facilities, tighter security, improved revenue protection, reduced costs, increased efficiency, and by putting all those together you start to get into a virtuous circle.’

Exchange of expertise

The network the company runs on is superficially simple in structure, but it turns out that brings its own challenges and explains why Drury and his management team focus hugely on making the service 100 per cent reliable. ‘What we’re running is a network that’s operating at its absolute maximum at the busiest times of day. For a large part of the route it’s a two-track railway, and in the busiest hour of the morning we’re running 20 trains an hour, which means we’re at maximum capacity because it’s a three minute gap in the signalling system. So we have to run the whole railway like a production line, or conveyor belt as we sometimes call it, and there’s no leeway for any mistakes. If one small thing goes wrong, everything stops. So it’s actually very demanding to operate.’
The results show however that they’ve pretty much got that licked, so I wondered if others come to c2c for advice. ‘We’ve had a lot of exchange visits with colleagues from other railways and we’re part of the Japan Exchange Programme, which a lot of the UK operators take part in. We’re very committed to it and in fact our engineering director has just come back having learnt a lot of lessons as to how the Central Japan Railway Company runs its Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train service. They certainly have things to teach us despite our success, chief among them thoroughness, the importance of planning and following your plan through, as well as detail. It sounds very boring to say that detail is behind it, but in a way boring is good because if you get it right it puts you in a different place.’
Drury admits he didn’t set out thinking along those lines. ‘I can honestly say that I’ve been associated with c2c and its predecessors in previous jobs, indeed I only took over four and a half years ago, but I know that we didn’t used to have the same methodical, detailed, careful approach. It’s something we’ve gradually learned over time.’

Letting the customer take the lead

My tour of the c2c line days before the interview included the swanky Thorp Bay station, which after a £500,000 facelift is the company’s first ‘smart station’ and aims to ‘break down barriers’ between customers and staff. It’s obvious that there must be some sophisticated marketing behind all this. ‘We’re very keen to learn from our customers,’ says Drury. ‘We follow the sort of things they do, their interests, the way they think, and we ask them how they would like us to change the way we do things, so we are continually re-inventing ourselves.
‘So far they’ve told us they want ticket buying to be a simpler and more comprehensible process; they want staff to be more approachable; an easier transit through the station and a high standard of facilities. Thorpe Bay is the embodiment of our research findings on customers in that area, who tend to be techno-savvy workers in either the City or Canary Wharf. They’re very switched on people who know what they want and are capable of making their own choices but what they want is for the complexity to be removed.’
Drury is animated when telling me that the company has become addicted to Twitter over the past year and half and now has 9,500 followers. ‘Twitter – and this would surprise people if they knew it – has changed the way we manage the business. It’s moved us from being quite traditional in the way we respond, maybe taking weeks or months, to one that tries to respond while the customer is experiencing something, so we’ve shortened our timescales right up! We’ve got miles and miles to go but we’re moving towards letting our customers educate us rather than us telling them what they can do.’

Thinking smart for the future

That’s an objective being set for the future, which leads to the question of how Drury wants c2c to evolve if it keeps the franchise. ‘We’re still very ambitious, which might sound strange but we are. We took on the EFQM model (European Foundation for Quality Management) system last year and one of the concepts is that you set long-term objectives for the business rather than shorter-term ones such as who owns it. So having the possible opportunity of continuing to run c2c is good because it kind of fits in with the model that we’re already operating. The things we’d like to do are around developing the sort of customerflexibility that I’ve spoken about and becoming more responsive to the changes that customers want from us.’
A key initiative for this year, which c2c has already volunteered to do, is smart ticketing. ‘It’s the one big thing that the rail industry has barely touched,’ says Drury. ‘There is no equivalent to London’s Oyster card for most of the national rail network, but there are plans to roll it out across London and the south east finishing in 2014, and we’re very keen because our customers have been asking for smart tickets for some time.’
Drury explains c2c’s vision is to have a single, initially plastic, ticket that can be used from anywhere on its network, through London and out the other side without having to be changed. ‘You could load other products on it, for example if you want to make a different journey from your season ticket, and we’d love to include car parking as well. It would become a really easy way to save people having to carry pockets full of change or worry about missing a train because they are trying to pump coins into a parking meter.’

The only way is Essex

Just how far c2c has become enmeshed in the fortunes of Essex is evidenced by the fact that Drury is a board member of one of the new Local Enterprise Partnerships, part public, part private bodies set up by the government to replace a number of development agencies including the old regional development agencies.
‘I’m involved because in regional terms, c2c is quite a significant sized business, and a large one in South Essex terms,’ explains Drury. ‘We’ve got responsibilities way beyond running train services, because we’re physically in the middle of the community and because so many people use us for other purposes. We’re a conduit for business development just by the nature of what we do and we’re quite active in the local community in that we have extensive links with local authorities and community groups.’
A part of that involvement includes thoughtful schemes such as providing free two-month season tickets to successful jobseekers registered with Job Centre Plus. Again Drury becomes animated, ‘It covers that really horrible period after you’ve started and before you get paid for the first time, when you’ve got no cash and could be caught in that catch 22 situation where you can’t afford to commute.’

People make the difference

Another part of my pre-interview day out involved a tour around C2C’s East Ham depot, or as Drury describes it, ‘Our lovely East Ham depot’. Built in 1962, it certainly holds its own having just moved up to fourth place in the National League Tables, overtaking several fleets that have had brand new depots in the last couple of years.
‘There is a view that you need to have a brand new, ultra-modern depot with heavy investment in order to get the best reliability,’ says Drury, ‘and while there is some correlation between equipment, facilities, investment and reliability, it doesn’t automatically make everything right – it’s also to do with the way you work and the people you’ve got and their commitment – we have people who can produce some of the best results in the UK so we’re really quietly pleased about that.’
Before we end, Drury can’t wait to add something that genuinely shows his passion and commitment. ‘It’s a lovely business Lorna, it really is. It’s just such a pleasure to be a part of this. I’ve worked in the industry for 32 years and I’ve had more fun here at C2C than anywhere else. They’re a good bunch to work with.’
Long may it continue.