Ready for take off

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Feb/March 2012

Heathrow Express’s new managing director, Keith Greenfield, talks to RTM about attracting more foreign visitors to the UK onto the service, and how the operator benchmarks itself against airline business travel standards rather than other TOCs.

At the end of 2011, Heathrow Express took on a new managing director – Keith Greenfield, who had been working for parent company BAA on the airlines side.

Although Greenfield is a chartered engineer, his background has primarily been in business, including as director of wholesale business at Orange UK from 2000-2009, and airline business development director at Heathrow operator BAA after that.

He has the luxury of taking over at an operator with already-impressive performance figures in the high 90s, to the extent that he can say: “On punctuality and reliability, we are virtually where we need to be.” However, the consequences of the few service failures it does experience are especially serious, he said.

“The difference for us is that a failure can have very serious consequences for our passengers, because of the nature of our service, and the fact they’re picking up, say, a 14-hour flight from Heathrow to the Far East. If we let them down, the consequences are probably more severe than on other rail services.

“So, the absolute number of occasions of, and the seriousness of, any failure is equally as important to me as the public performance measures. It’s also very important that we know how we recover from that, and how Network Rail help us to recover from any failures that do occur.”

While the track and infrastructure between Airport Junction and Heathrow itself is owned by BAA, the company employs Network Rail to maintain and operate it, much as it does with the rest of the national rail network. Between Paddington and Hayes & Harlington, Heathrow Express runs on Network Rail’s own track.

Customer base

The good performance figures mean that Greenfield’s job can be focused on attracting new customers, and he has a definite strategy to do that, concentrating primarily on in-bound visitors to London.

He explained: “The ultimate definition of success for me is more passengers using Heathrow Express. We have a lot of KPIs, and measurements underpinning that, but ultimately that is for me the measure of success that I’d most like to move. There are a number of different levers we have to do that. We already have, by railway standards, a very good product. By airline standards, which is the benchmark we compare ourselves with, we need to catch up a little bit.

“More people need to know about Heathrow Express at a much earlier stage in their travel experience. Over half the people using Heathrow airport – and my previous job was at the airport, working with the airlines – don’t live in the UK. None of those people have cars parked at Heathrow; they are a primary target market for us, the in-bound foreign traveller, many of whom will be travelling into London anyway. We’ve got a great market there, and we need more of them to know about how great Heathrow Express is, before they even take off on their journey.”

Getting people out of the car

The transport mode that the operator is seeking to squeeze is taxis, which Greenfield suggests is the typical alternative option for many in Heathrow Express’ customer base and potential customer base.

But he said: “From a customer perspective, we’re a lot faster and cheaper than a taxi, and don’t emit anything like the carbon that a taxi does. If they’re heading to Southampton, they’re not going to be using Heathrow Express, but if they’re heading into central London, there’s really no reason for them to use a taxi.

“But one challenge we’ve got is that around the world you can probably count on your fingers the number of air-rail services comparable with Heathrow Express that exist. There’s not that many, so the bulk of our foreign passengers aren’t even aware of the possibility of an air-rail express service.

“It’s not in their thoughts because they’ve not seen it in their home countries. We’ve got an awareness challenge there – showing that it’s the fastest option, and a lot more cost-effective than road transport.”

He is proud of the company’s word-of mouth and advocacy successes, in that 96% of its users say they would recommend it to colleagues and friends. Keeping that number high depends on providing a “consistent and exemplary” service, he said.

“When we’re good, we’re very good, but we’ve got to ensure that the service is exemplary every time. We can’t shout loudly about our service unless the service delivery is worthy of that. We’ve got some work to do in making sure it is, at all points.”

Fare deal

As a privately-owned railway and railway operator – it even owns its own rolling stock, unusually for a UK operator – its fares are unregulated.

Its fares may seem on the high side for a 15-minute journey, but Greenfield says that with the myriad of competing transport options its passengers could choose, and the profile of their typical user as a business traveller, the current fares strike the right balance.

Its walk-up fares are £19 single, £34 return, with a small discount for booking online for single fares, and a £5 surcharge on-board. First class fares are £28 single, £52 return, again with an online discount, while it also offers carnet tickets, offering 12 journeys for £198 (£286 first class), valid for one year, and some other discounted options. Airport workers also get discounts.

Greenfield said: “Customers have lots of choice to get to Heathrow; both in rail terms – via Heathrow Connect, the joint venture between us and First Great Western, and also London Underground. They also have buses, coaches and taxis and minicabs. There’s a great deal of choice. Our service is obviously the fastest and most comfortable to central London, and that’s why our fares are where they are, and our investment in our service is very substantial.

“I think the price is about where it needs to be.”

Greenfield said: “Heathrow Express is different to other railways. We were specifically created 14 years ago with the mission to provide a fast, reliable and comfortable link between Heathrow and London, and that remains our aim. That’s a specific purpose, and our passengers have got a specific profile. Nearly all are catching a flight or have just caught one, and the majority are business travellers. Because of that, our product can be tailored very specifically to that group.”

He pledged improvements to the ‘service side’ of the business, meaning staff interaction and passenger information, adding: “Very often customers recommend a product or service not so much by what it does but based on the service they received while using it. We’re in the same position as other rail companies in that respect; our service is only as good as the people delivering it at the front line.”

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