The right connections

Elaine Holt, managing director of First Capital Connect, outlines plans to develop the network and offer increased benefits to customers

First is the UK’s only rail operator that runs every type of passenger train service. From regional and commuter services, open access and freight services to high speed intercity trains, overnight sleepers and local branch lines, First’s service is all encompassing. First Capital Connect, the group’s newest franchise, brings together the Great Northern and Thameslink franchises for six years with a possible extension of up to three years.

Awarded to First Group in December 2005 by the Department for Transport (DfT), the new Capital Connect franchise began operating at 2am on April 1st 2006, and includes the networks previously covered by the former Thameslink and Great Northern franchises.

Elaine Holt, managing director, tells Railway Strategies more about this new and exciting franchise: “First is delighted to have won the competition to run the Great Northern and Thameslink FCC JJ 06 bfranchise. First Capital Connect will now run trains between London, Brighton, Bedford, Peterborough, Cambridge and King’s Lynn. The creation of the new franchise gives us a real opportunity to develop many areas of the network to deliver real, l benefits to passengers. We want to deliver changes in the customers’ experience, but we know that there are many improvements to be made.”

Elaine adds: “First Capital Connect’s objective is to be a customer-facing organisation, committed to improving the whole journey experience, from customer information, service delivery at stations, reliability and punctuality improvements through to investment in ticketing and revenue protection. We are investing £52 million in the franchise, the majority in the first three years, in a programme of action including improvements to stations and trains, security and safety, and, most importantly, investment in staff. It is through our staff that we can deliver the levels of customer service that will improve the journey experience.

“We will make a number of improvements as part of the investment into the franchise, introducing, in particular, new cleaning standards and station maintenance. We will also bring the engineering of our trains in-house for the Thameslink part of the business, because that is in need of special attention, and we will also invested in protecting revenues with investments in gates. Every train will be deep cleaned within six months, and every Thameslink train will be internally refreshed within three years.”

Additionally, First Capital Connect is investing in customer improvements for journey planning, including improvements to the website and ensuring customers can access information at stations with a series of new measures including new electronic train information displays at 17 stations. “The customer is our first priority,” stresses Elaine. “They are telling us there are improvements to be made, so we are trying to make them. We are a customer service business and we therefore have to listen to our customers – we simply must. We did some valuable research during the bid phase to see what both customers and non- customers wanted from our service, which has enabled us to set out an accurate investment programme. We talk to our customers on a regular basis through several different mediums, including online web chats and find that we learn a lot from such experiences.

“The customer’s priority at the moment seems to be getting a more punctual and reliable service and, of course, we continually strive to deliver this. Our aim is to get the basics right and provide a service that is punctual, reliable, clean and safe. We have had a relatively good first three periods with a PPM of over 90 per cent, but we still have a long way to go. From our perspective, we are focusing on our fleet performance to make sure we invest in the fleet and deliver the improvements we needt in the areas of reliability and punctuality. However, as you can see from our investment programme, there is an emphasis on improving the whole journey experience, not just making sure trains run on time. Nonetheless, punctuality and reliability are essential.”

First Capital Connect will also become more visible at stations. There will be more revenue protection staff, two British Transport Police (BTP) sergeants, three BTP constables and 24 Police Community Support Officers. Capital Connect will appoint a head of security and also create a new control centre to monitor CCTV from a single, central location. Within the first years of the franchise, First Capital Connect will install 167 new CCTV cameras at 24 stations, 78 more help points at 36 stations and automatic ticket gates in at least 11 stations.

First Capital Connect, one of several franchises responsible for taking commuters into and out of the capital, often runs trains that can get overcrowded. In a move to reduce overcrowding on evening peak services, the franchise has introduced restrictions on the use of off-peak tickets on its northbound evening peak services out of London which took effect on 11th June 2006.

“We realise that overcrowding is a major concern to our customers and we are looking at several ways of resolving this problem,” explains Elaine. “Peak northbound services from London, particularly in the evening, are significantly overcrowded. We are committed to taking action to proactively manage both the supply and demand for these popular services and improve the quality of the journey for all customers.”

It is expected that the introduction of the new restrictions on the use of off-peak tickets on northbound evening peak services out of London will reduce passenger numbers and have the effect of prioritising seats on these trains for season or full fare ticket holders, providing a more comfortable travelling environment out of London on weekday evenings.

“Our primary focus, for the moment, is on improving what I have said before, punctuality and reliability,” says Elaine. “There are a whole raft of plans and investments, which will help us to do that. One of the major challenges we face, from my perspective, is that we have been here nearly three months now and everybody expects changes to be delivered immediately, which isn’t quite achievable. So, it is about managing expectations and ensuring we deliver the commitments set out in our bid.”

Elaine concludes: “We are delighted to be awarded both franchises and look forward to delivering the improved performance, capacity, facilities and customer benefits proposed in our winning bid. I am relishing my role and look forward to the future.”