INTRO: Murray Hughes joined Chris Green in the cab of a West Coast express for a first-hand look at the task ahead

WHEN Chris Green was appointed to the top job at Virgin Trains early last year, he inherited a high-profile business that appeared to be heading rapidly downhill. But few people could be better qualified to turn it round.

Above all, Green knows his patch. Former Director of British Rail’s flagship InterCity business, he enjoys first-hand experience of running a national inter-city network with tough commercial objectives. He had previously managed all London’s commuter services as Director of Network SouthEast, and before that his career spanned numerous managerial posts on Britain’s national rail network, including two spells in charge of ScotRail. After leaving British Rail in 1995, he gained private sector expertise at Sir Alexander Gibb, where he took charge of that consultant’s rail business.

Returning to the railway, he accepted the massive challenge facing Virgin. But already he has pushed through major change. A firm believer in ’walking the talk’, Green is well known to staff throughout the business. Walking up the platform to the cab of Train IH11 to Manchester, Green stopped for a few encouraging words with the catering crew, who obviously knew him.

Once in the cab, Green spent time explaining the changes to track layout and signalling to watch for on the first 28 km to Watford. This included bidirectional running on all tracks in and out of the terminus. Departure was punctual to the second, and as we drew out, he was chatting to a trainee driver who had joined us as part of his route-learning programme.

Green was proud that since the Euston remodelling there had been only one points failure in a month. He drew attention to the UIC60 rail replacing bullhead rail that, remarkably, had survived since the last major changes at Euston in the 1960s. The new layout allowed speed to rise to 145 km/h just 4 km from the buffer stops, and Green looked forward to ’the 26% improvement in acceleration’ from the Pendolino trains due to enter service in 2002.

Once at Watford, Green took the opportunity to visit the joint operations control desk where he has in place a complete operating team with suburban franchisee Silverlink should it prove necessary to turn trains back at Watford while work continues at Euston. They will stay in place until the last work has been completed in January. While walking the platform, Green was quick to help luggage-laden passengers board a waiting train. Virgin’s service ethos is for management to experience the demands and needs of customers, helping out where required. During one major problem at Euston recently, the entire marketing and sales staff left their offices to offer help and advice to stranded passengers.

Virgin has a long way to go before the service is ’boringly efficient’, but Green has mapped out the path, and whatever lies ahead, it is clear that he will be in the front line. In return, he expects first class service from his staff and from the army of contractors and suppliers on whom Virgin depends.