The Lowdown: Like a Virgin? Certainly not this rail boss

How do you get the trains to run on time and save taxpayers' money, too? Ask the head of GNER, says Heather Tomlinson
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The Independent Online

"We have had the car park at Grantham extended" is not a statement that many brides would expect to find in their father's speech on their wedding day. But when Chris Garnett, chief executive of Great North Eastern Railways (GNER), gave his daughter away, he made sure he told the guests about this development. Not because he is a terrible train bore, but because his son-in-law's family come from the area and use the station.

"When Emma started going out with Ben, one of the issues that came up was car parking space at Grantham," he says, tongue in cheek. "I specifically mentioned it in the speech to avoid complaints."

It is not often, however, that Garnett finds himself placating customers. Even though GNER was one of the operators most affected by the chaos in the wake of the Hatfield tragedy - it was its own London to Leeds service that was derailed - the company boasts of its consistently high scores in passenger surveys.

The reason is the quality of his staff, Garnett claims. "If you tell passengers what's going wrong, you can deflect some of the justifiable criticism." He uses GNER services himself about twice a week, usually travelling first class.

His daily commute is on South-West Trains, from Putney to Waterloo ("the service is getting better; I wouldn't say any more"). He then takes the Tube to King's Cross station, the main hub of his company's services. From the vantage point of his office above the platforms, he can see GNER trains lining up and monitor their timekeeping. At one point during the interview, he interrupts himself to exclaim cheerfully: "That's the Aberdeen two o'clock running dead on time!"

The 57-year-old Garnett has plenty of experience with timetables. He has been running the East Coast franchise, which operates from London to Yorkshire, Newcastle and Scotland, ever since the line was privatised in 1996. GNER has since had its ups and downs but the good-humoured Garnett is proud that the service is profitable and popular.

"How many businesses have moved from a £75m subsidy to turning profits, increased passenger volumes by 30 per cent, and raised customer satisfaction levels?" he asks. "To do all three is unusual."

GNER is one of the few operators that does not take subsidies from taxpayers' money. It actually gave £27m back to the regulator, the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), last year. In the first half of the year, it had sales of $329m (£209m) and profits of $34m, compared to $299m and $25m the year before. (It reports in dollars as it is owned by the Bermuda-based Sea Containers group.) Only three quarters of its trains arrive within 10 minutes of the time advertised, but GNER causes only 20 per cent of the delays itself. The finger of blame for the rest is pointed at other train operators or the track manager Network Rail, the successor to Railtrack. GNER used to cause more delays, but it is spending £30m so that its trains are now twice as reliable.

GNER is keen to spruce up the service before it bids to hold on to the franchise from 2005 onwards. It is forking out a further £100m on refurbishing the rolling stock and stations, putting on more trains, and giving them internet access to enable passengers to use their laptops.

When the franchise comes up for renewal next year, Garnett is likely to be pitted against his old foe Virgin Trains, which runs the West Coast line and lost out to GNER when the franchise was last up for grabs, two years ago. "My time at the moment is spent on getting ready for the bid for next year," says Garnett.

GNER also wanted to run the West Coast line after it was first privatised. "Our bid was £1bn more expensive than Virgin's. I think you would say now that was very good value," says Garnett. He is interested in bidding for the line again, but may have to wait up to nine years to do so.

The rivalry between the two long-haul operators is obvious. Garnett speculates on whether Virgin's problems with tilting trains and subsidies will prevent it from bidding for the East Coast franchise. "We are in a strong position. Virgin have got so many problems of their own at the moment."

After losing out to First Group last year in an unsuccessful bid for the small operator GB Railways, Garnett wants to get more franchises under GNER's belt. He is interested in inter-city routes such as the Great Western and the South Eastern. But he says he is not interested in the Northern franchise, which connects GNER's strongholds of Leeds and York through towns including Harrogate. "We are not into the game of bidding for what are massive loss-making businesses that survive on subsidy," he says sternly. "Where every passenger you carry costs the taxpayer more."

In fact, he finds the rust-buckets on routes that connect to GNER's services an embarrassment. "We keep on going on to the SRA - why not offer new trains for the York to Harrogate route?"

While it battles to win franchises, GNER must fight off a new threat - from the budget airlines that operate from London to Newcastle and Edinburgh.

"With all the disruptions post-Hatfield, the low-cost airlines have taken market share," Garnett admits.

And then, of course, there remains a more familiar problem, in the shape of "people who drive and don't think of using the train. We were getting them back up until Hatfield, but we have lost them. We will get them back by being reliable and through things like internet access." He also wants to improve the online booking system and mobile phone reception on trains, and to introduce proper coffee and fresh milk to put in hot drinks.

Garnett's enthusiasm for his job is as strong as ever. "I'll go on running railways. I love the railways," he says. "I want to get a seven- to 10-year [franchise], and one or two other franchises before I retire."

However, it should be noted that Ben, his son-in-law, still prefers to travel by car - despite the extension of the car park at Grantham station. If Garnett can persuade die-hard motorists like him to get on his trains, he would have an even more profitable business to preside over.