INTRO: As the passenger market has opened up to competition, Connex has become one of the world’s major private-sector rail operators. The company operates over 6700 km in Europe, the USA, Australia and New Zealand, and provides commuter train service on 1120 km of routes

BYLINE: Michel Quidort

Director of Corporate Communications, Connex

THIS MONTH, Connex is due to take over the operation of local rail services on three routes radiating from Auckland in New Zealand. It will be the latest addition to the company’s growing railway activity, coming just four months after the expansion of our role in Melbourne, where Connex took over responsibility for the former M>Train suburban operations with effect from April 18.

It is important to note that all of Connex’s rail operations are managed under contracts won through an international tender process. Public transport operations have been outsourced for a fixed period, subject to service specifications set by the organising authority, which in all cases remains in control of transport policy, sets fares and retains ownership of the infrastructure.

This question of infrastructure ownership is very clear to us. Infrastructure must remain public property because it is an effective tool for urban and regional development. Nevertheless, there are a variety of models that can be adopted to manage the relationship between the rail operator and infrastructure manager.

This relationship can be governed by a performance regime, such as that adopted in the United Kingdom which gives the infrastructure manager a role in ensuring service quality, particularly when it comes to train punctuality. This was the regime under which Connex operated the South Central and South Eastern commuter networks serving London, from 1996 until 2001 and 2003 respectively.

One lesson learned from our British experience, and a particularly important one for a dense and interwoven network like the one in London’s southern suburbs, is that the separation of infrastructure from train operations requires positive, on-going co-operation between the two partners.

Under the UK performance regime, Railtrack and now Network Rail has to pay penalties to the train operators for any delays attributed to infrastructure problems. Because the mechanism sometimes had perverse effects, Connex proposed an understanding, and then a co-operation agreement, with Railtrack to resolve difficulties together, improve infrastructure performance and relations between operating staff at both companies. Our ultimate objective was a better quality of service.

The infrastructure regime can take other forms, as is the case of Connex subsidiary Rheinisch-Bergische Eisenbahngesellschaft. RBE operates over a 34 km route between Kaarst and Mettman via Düsseldorf, which forms part of the S-Bahn network serving the Rhein-Ruhr conurbation. The two outer ends of the line are owned by Regiobahn GmbH, formed by local authorities along the route, while the centre portion is managed by DB Netz as part of the national network.

Following a competitive tender, Regiobahn awarded RBE the contract to operate the route. With trains running every 20min over the busy section through Düsseldorf’s station, this contract between two relatively small organisations, RBE and Regiobahn, has resulted in the region’s best punctuality rate with 97% of trains running on time. From 800 passengers a day before operations went out to tender, the line now carries 16000 passengers a day.

Where the train operator enjoys sole use, another option is for it to manage the infrastructure as well, under some form of outsourcing arrangement. In the field of contract operations, this form of vertical integration is mainly practised outside Europe.

Connex is a member of the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad consortium which operates commuter services in Boston. MBCR is responsible for managing traffic on the routes out of North Station. The southern section of the network is controlled by Amtrak as part of its Northeast Corridor.

Vertical integration has also been adopted in Melbourne, where Connex has adopted a flexible approach to meet the requirements of the local transport authority, forming the Mainco joint venture with Alstom (which holds a 70% stake) to maintain the infrastructure as well as the rolling stock.

Meeting the peak challenge

We believe that there is no magic formula for meeting the capacity requirements of the morning and evening peaks, the major challenge for commuter operators which determines the size of the rolling stock fleet and how the service is organised. The options are limited but, once again, close co-operation between the train operator and infrastructure manager is crucial.

Connex has tried several approaches to increasing capacity on saturated infrastructure. Take the UK example again. An important and positive development since rail privatisation in 1996 has been the upward trend in passenger traffic, with the result that train operators in Great Britain are now carrying over 1billion passengers a year. On the South Eastern network, the short station platforms made it impossible to lengthen trains. The only option was to maximise standing room by introducing new trains with fewer seats, which inevitably drew some criticism.

To make the best use of scarce timetable paths on busy routes, Connex has adopted a policy of splitting and joining train portions wherever possible. Multiple-units are coupled together when travelling out from the centre to the periphery where they split to serve different destinations, and the process is reversed in the opposite direction. This solution has been adopted by the Bayerische Oberland Bahn in Germany to maximise capacity on sections shared with S-Bahn services in München.

Solutions to the problem of the peaks are not always of a technical nature, and staff training also plays an important part. Intensive training on simulators, for example, can help optimise driving techniques so that drivers know how to adjust their speed to be as punctual as possible, especially when arriving at key stations or junctions, where it is crucial that trains arrive precisely to schedule.

Staff can also play an important role in maximising the use of assets that see most of their traffic during the peaks. On our London commuter operations we experimented with the Connex Village concept, with a post office and convenience store at Gillingham station. Ticket office staff who had only been busy for up to 3h a day at peak periods now had business throughout the day. They were very motivated, although they had to adjust to the notion of the customer in the fullest sense of the word. The additional commercial revenue also benefited the viability of the station.

As Connex no longer operates in the UK, it might seem strange to draw on our experience in that country. But despite the imperfections of the privatisation process, we believe that the UK remains a fantastic testing ground for new solutions to re-launch the rail industry. Some concepts have been successfully exported to continental Europe, such as the creation of dedicated rolling stock leasing companies.

Information is the key

Providing passengers with accurate, up-to-date service information is essential for winning new customers and retaining existing commuters. Connex has paid close attention to the provision of passenger information on many different types of networks, and in Melbourne timetables and service updates are now being delivered to customers by SMS.

Through SMS messages, customers can access train timetables from their mobile phones and find out what time the next four trains to their destination will be leaving from the station they specify. Between the launch of the service on April 19 and the end of June, there had been 57000 inquiries made by SMS. Customers can also be notified if their train is late or has been cancelled, and so far almost 5000 subscribers have registered to use this service. All they need to do is enter their preferred travel times, route, departure and arrival stations and mobile phone number.

But technology is no substitute for a human presence, and Connex has provided customer information staff on its trains in Germany, sometimes handled on a contractual basis. In Melbourne, our new contract with the Victoria state government calls for an increased staff presence on trains and at stations. Staff are provided seven days a week at 67 of the 209 stations, and with support from the state government, Connex will be staffing 31 other stations at the morning peak period and 20 in the afternoon. There are also plans to deploy additional on-train staff during the evening peak. This policy mirrors that followed by Connex on the Stockholm metro, where more staff have been deployed on trains and at stations to reassure and inform customers at peak periods.

In Boston, MBCR has made a major contractual commitment to creating a customer service department responsible for all station personnel in contact with the public. It will ultimately oversee on-train staff, and will be responsible for improving passenger information, ticket sales and station cleanliness. The performance of the operating consortium is regularly assessed against these criteria.

Decentralised decision-making

Throughout its operations, Connex applies a policy of decentralising decision-making and management responsibility. Individual rail operating companies are formed of commercial, operating and technical (maintenance) business units. The objective is to be more responsive to the market and customers, and to improve efficiency.

Since August 1999, the annual productivity of Connex employees in Melbourne has risen from 8000 to 10000 passenger-km per staff member. The training programme has been stepped up in order to reduce the impact of the significant shortfall of drivers across the Australian railway industry. Driver training was a major focus in the UK and remains so in Germany.

In Melbourne, driver training and new management techniques increased on-time train performance from 93·4% of services in 1998-99 to 96·6% in 2001-02. The number of trains cancelled over the same period fell from 2076 to 909. These improvements were made despite an increase in the number of services operated, which rose from 4796 trains a week in 1999 to 5134 in March 2004. This amounts to over 17000 additional trains a year, and passenger traffic has been steadily growing at an annual rate of 3%.

Following the takeover of the M>Train routes, we currently operate 11981 trains each week in Melbourne, using a fleet of 316 three-car EMUs. The Victoria state government has set itself the target of increasing the market share of rail, tram and bus in the Melbourne metropolitan area from 6% to 20%. In Auckland, the regional stakeholders have agreed in principle to try and increase commuter train patronage from 2·5million to a target of 25 to 35million passengers a year by 2015.

Competition has been the engine of growth at Connex, but competition is not justified unless it benefits passengers and increases the rail market share. The most successful contracts won through competitive tender define relations between the contracting authority and operator, setting targets for service quality improvements while controlling the cost of passenger service to local government.

’Competition is not justified unless it benefits passengers and increases the rail market share’

Michel Quidort


CAPTION: Connex is poised to start running suburban services in Auckland, New Zealand

CAPTION: Connex subsidiary Rheinisch-Bergische Eisenbahngesellschaft operates a 20min interval service between Kaarst and Mettmann in north Germany, forming part of the Rhein-Ruhr S-Bahn network

CAPTION: The ’Connex Village’ concept brings in additional revenue and allows staff to be employed throughout the day rather than just in the commuter peaks

CAPTION: Connex is a member of the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad consortium running commuter services in Boston, where the principal stations offer retail opportunities

CAPTION: Driver training was one element of the Connex package that helped improve punctuality of commuter services in Melbourne, where passenger traffic has grown at the rate of 3% a year

Relever le défi de la banlieue

Les services de banlieue désormais assurés par Connex sous contrat de service public vont de la ligne locale en Allemagne au réseau MBTA de Boston, USA. A travers ses différentes exploitations, Connex a suivi une stratégie de prises de décisions décentralisées et de responsabilisation du management, dans le but d’améliorer l’efficacité et d’être plus réactif au marché. Le management de l’infrastructure est un facteur clé tandis que l’entrepreneur privé s’empare des défis consistant à faire le meilleur usage de la capacité de ligne existante et des atouts utilisés seulement complètement durant les périodes de pointe

Anpassen an die Herausvorderungen der Pendler

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