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Interview

‘By October this year, we’ll have enough drivers to run the routes even without rest day working’

A big rolling stock order for Thameslink is now overdue.

Bombardier and Siemens have been narrowed down to the final contenders, from which one will be selected to manufacture 1,200 new carriages. The winner was due to be named last year. Is Lawson concerned that the programme could be scaled back? ‘Well, we’re a bit closer to it than some, because we’re

advising the government on the operations side. So from my perspective it’s still carrying on. We’re not happy that it’s delayed by 12 months – we understand why – but for our passengers we want the capacity improved, we want the new trains and we want the new services because that’s what we’re all about. ‘I can only read the tea leaves like everyone else. But

there’s certainly bipartite support for it, the way I read into it. To my mind, it’s almost a done deal. We’ve got a full team of people working downstairs on Thameslink, the concrete’s going into the ground, they’re starting to do signalling work and overhead work now, that’s going ahead with no abatement. Blackfriars is going ahead – what an amazing piece of engineering that is. It’s all happening, so I don’t sense a slow down.’

Of course, Thameslink is only half the story for FCC,

the other part of its operations is the Great Northern. Performance on this line is good – any complaints tend to revolve around high fare levels and overcrowding. Five extra Class 321s were cascaded to FCC from London Midland in May 2009, which added 5,000 seats in the peak and introduced 12-carriage trains between London and Cambridge for the first time. More carriages are on their way, thanks to the HLOS. Platforms will be lengthened at Royston, Letchworth, Arlesey, Biggleswade, Sandy and Finsbury Park to make way for 41 extra carriages. When I interviewed Elaine Holt, the then MD of FCC,

two years ago she was hopping mad about infrastructure failures on the Thameslink route, which she blamed on incompetence on the part of Network Rail. How has that relationship evolved? ‘I’m very happy with Network Rail now, they’re

participating in the daily calls. And we have had some help; we got some priority through signals at City Thameslink on the bottom of the hill when we were getting familiar with the new trains, rather than doing the hill start sequence. But when you’re pulling old infrastructure apart at night and putting it back together, you do introduce failure modes.’ On the financial side, FCC has taken a hit from falling

passenger numbers and, of course, the remedial payments it had to make for Thameslink failures. In the year ending 31 March 2010, FCC saw 2.6 per cent revenue growth. FirstGroup does not voluntarily reveal profits for its

individual companies, but the most recent accounts that are available for perusal from Companies House – those up to the year ending 31 March 2009 – show profits for FCC were down by two thirds on the previous year. The year ending March 2008 shows a profit of £22m on a turnover of £406m; the following year the profit is just £6m on a turnover of £445m. Nevertheless, says Lawson, ‘there are some green shoots

on the revenue side’. FCC qualified for ‘cap and collar’ revenue support from

1 April 2009, which means that the government shares both in unexpected losses as well as unexpected profits. By September 2009 FCC had received £15m in revenue support, but will pay £90m in premiums to the government by the end of the year. Now that things are back on an even keel, Lawson

hopes to bring long-term stable leadership to the company. He’s settled into a routine of travelling back to his family in Derbyshire each weekend, while basing himself at FCC’s London office during the week. ‘We’ve had 11 days straight of 90 per cent-plus on

the Thameslink now, so people are starting to get a bit of breathing space to review things and to think about how we can improve. It’s a question of, “if you see something wrong, you don’t walk past it, you report it, you fix it”. You praise and you give constructive feedback. Another thing is staff engagement; I’m out there and I’m getting round to speaking to everybody about what we’re doing. There’s a campaign to inform the external and internal press about how we’re doing and we’ll be dead honest about it; if we slip we slip. There’s quite a focus now, there’s a new buzz.’ His passion remains for the Thameslink Programme –

it’s what attracted him to FCC in the first place. ‘Thameslink is a big part of my job. What other game is

there in town and why wouldn’t you want to be part of it? The vision and the direction is pretty clear, but there’s some pretty bitter medicine to get us there.’ The franchise has another five years to run, but Lawson

has no plans to go anywhere. ‘They’re stuck with me for a while,’ he says. ‘I plan to be

here until 2015.’

l See Business news, page 11, for more on FirstGroup’s year end accounts

Curriculum Vitae

1967 Born in Queensland, Australia 1984 Queensland Railway cadet 1989 Consulting engineer, mechanical and environmental aerospace engineers WBM

1991 Structural engineer, Bombardier, Australia 2003 VP of engineering, Bombardier, Derby 2005 Senior VP of asset engineering, Metronet 2008 Set up own consultancy, Eye For Solutions, aligned to Rail Care

2009 New trains and engineering director, First Capital Connect

2010 MD, First Capital Connect

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