Richard Brown Chief executive of Eurostar: Long train running finally begins to see light at the end of the tunnel

Click to follow

Richard Brownis looking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed even though he was burning the midnight oil a few hours earlier with some of his best customers - lawyers, chief executives, corporate financiers and the like who criss-cross the Channel many times a year as part of their jobs. They are members of something called Club 180, named after the minutes it used to take Eurostar trains to get from London to Paris - and to Mr Brown they are "gold dust".

Richard Brownis looking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed even though he was burning the midnight oil a few hours earlier with some of his best customers - lawyers, chief executives, corporate financiers and the like who criss-cross the Channel many times a year as part of their jobs. They are members of something called Club 180, named after the minutes it used to take Eurostar trains to get from London to Paris - and to Mr Brown they are "gold dust".

Gazing out from his offices above Waterloo station overlooking the Eurostar terminus, Mr Brown says: "They provide rich feedback about what we are doing right and what is not so good." Last night's response was "overwhelmingly positive and encouraging" he confides, which was a bit of a disappointment. "I like listening to criticism because it tells you how you can improve further."

Mr Brown jokes that he intends to requisition an extraordinary meeting of Club 180 to rename it Club 135 in two years - that's when the high-speed Channel Tunnel rail link to St Pancras station opens fully, shortening the journey time to Paris to just 2 hours 15 minutes. Brussels will be even closer - just one hour 53 minutes away.

Mr Brown reckons the £4bn, high-speed line will boost passenger numbers by at least 10 per cent. "It does several things for us. First, it gives a further substantial reduction in journey time. Second, because it is a dedicated line, it should improve punctuality. Third it will mean two new stations at Dartford and Stratford which gives people more ways of accessing Eurostar."

It might even be enough - whisper it quietly - to push Eurostar into profit finally after the decade of stupendous losses borne by its three shareholders - London & Continental Railways, the state-owned French railway SNCF and its Belgian counterpart SNCB.

Bizarrely, even though Mr Brown is chief executive, he does not know exactly how much Eurostar loses each year because he is not privy to the charges SNCF and SNCB levy for use of their high-speed lines on the Continent - even though they own 60 per cent of the business.

Doesn't this hamper him in his job just a little? "It is a bit frustrating. The top lines we can influence - we see sales figures daily and what items like catering and train maintenance cost us. It is the less visible things like access charges and electricity charges we don't see regularly. What the three rail companies have said to us as a management team is 'we want you to maximise your contribution to our infrastructure costs over time'. Our job is to return as much money as possible to our shareholders."

Having three state-owned or at least state-bankrolled monsters to report back to would not be everyone's cup of tea. But Mr Brown appears to thrive on it. "Having worked for National Express, I can tell you it is an awful lot easier and you feel a lot more supported working for three large shareholders than for hundreds of thousands of smaller ones and a number of City institutions.

"My three shareholders are railway companies who understand the opportunities and constraints we operate in. You don't have to go through the process of educating investors who don't always understand the ins and outs of the market you are in."

It also means that Mr Brown does not have to worry quite so much about the bottom line. Had Eurostar been a private company - like the deeply troubled Eurotunnel - it would have gone bust long ago. Like Eurotunnel, it was conceived two decades ago on the basis of some highly dubious passenger forecasts. "There was an element of self-delusion. I think they were presuming people would take the train from Manchester to Barcelona via the Channel Tunnel. It was as ridiculous as that."

But unlike Eurotunnel, the taxpayers of France, Belgium and, indirectly, the UK have continued to shovel in the cash to underwrite Eurostar's losses and indulge its extravagances - the last makeover of its terminals, for instance, was designed by Philippe Starck.

The opening of the high-speed link and the move from Waterloo to St Pancras, probably in the autumn of 2007, will be "quite a nice logistical challenge", Mr Brown says with a degree of understatement.

But it could finally prove to be the turning point in Eurostar's fortunes. Mr Brown predicts passenger numbers will rise from a forecast of 7.5 million this year to 9 million in 2008, enabling Eurostar's French arm to make a profit that year, followed by profits in Belgium the next year and a move into the black in the UK sometime after 2010.

Before the move to St Pancras, Eurostar plans a relaunch in September of services to Paris and Brussels, aimed primarily at enticing more business passengers to foresake the plane. The key to it will be to provide business passengers with their own dedicated check-in facilities and, more importantly, their own dedicated carriages.

Passengers

"We have done very extensive research amongst both our own passengers and those on airlines. Overwhelmingly business passengers said they would prefer to travel with other business passengers because they want to be able to work on board. They don't want to be interrupted by middle-aged couples going off for a romantic week to Paris or groups of excited Japanese tourists.

"One of the bugbears of flying these days, particularly on low-cost airlines, is that you never quite know who you will be sitting next to. If you want a quiet journey and time to work on your laptop and prepare for a business meeting, the likelihood is you will not be able to do so.

"Interestingly, the leisure passengers said exactly the same thing. They did not want to be sat next to boring businessmen in suits tapping away on their laptops, yapping on their mobiles and laying out their spreadsheets. They want to feel relaxed and free to indulge themselves a bit and have an extra drink, not feel restrained by folk in suits."

Mr Brown says the objective of the relaunch is to give business passengers a long-haul style service on what are short-haul routes. "It is the exact opposite of what the airlines are doing. They are taking service out in order to cut costs."

Eurostar is confident the strategy will succeed in attracting more fare income, pointing out that business passenger numbers are already growing at twice the rate of overall traffic levels.

Mr Brown says the plans went down a storm with his Club 180 members. It is also the sort of audience he feels most comfortable amongst - pressing the flesh and putting his ear to the ground rather than acting the showman and making grand speeches.

Asked to name the businessmen whom he admires he comes up with unassuming but effective operators rather than flamboyant entrepreneurs: Ray Webster of easyJet (as opposed to its founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou); Chris Garnett of GNER (not Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Trains); and Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco (rather than Philip Green).

"It probably does say something about my approach to business. Richard Branson is an entrepreneur, a deal maker and a marketeer. He is brilliant at all those things but he would never claim to be the leader of an operation.

"If you are running a consumer service business, as we are, the bulk of your time has to be spent out with your people delivering service on the ground and out talking to your customers relentlessly."

And with that, he heads off towards the platforms down below to get stuck in.

Track record

Pay: £190,000

Age: 52

Education: First class masters degree in engineering from Cambridge. Graduate of Harvard Business School's advanced management programme.

Career: Joined British Rail in 1977, working for its container transport division Freightliner and then Inter-City, where he set up Midland Mainline. Joined National Express in 1996, becoming chief executive of its trains division and then group commercial director. Became chief executive of Eurostar in August 2002.

Personal Life: Married with two daughters, one son. Hobbies include sailing, skiing and walking.

Comments