The Eurostar connects Britain to Europe, but the beating heart of rail travel in Great Britain has always been the Midlands. For decades Crewe was synonymous with locomotive construction, and major rail companies to this day base their head offices in the Midlands.
Like the rail companies, Francis Jellings, head of IT at Virgin Trains, has found the Midlands to be an ideal hub for his career in IT management. Jellings has been with Virgin for three years, and throughout the conversation you are keenly aware that he enjoys the role. Based a stone’s throw from Birmingham New Street rail station, Virgin Trains has a laid-back office, full of vibrant red walls and chatty staff, despite the grim unseasonal rain the climate is -delivering to the second city.
Virgin is Jellings’ first move away from manufacturing. “I worked in manufacturing until about six or seven years ago, which was when I realised that manufacturing is dying and this is now a service industry nation,” he says.
Jellings, a born and bred Wolverhampton Wanderers fan, was head-hunted by Richard Branson’s rail company for the role of head of IT. “They were looking for someone to come in with a feet-on-the-ground approach to IT, and to improve service, rationalise costs and take a fresh look at what we were doing,” he says.
“In the first year I pulled together a strategy for IT transformation and I am now remodelling that.” He reports to the executive committee of the company, and directly to Andy Cross, business support director at Virgin Trains. Last Christmas the company reorganised its business structure and Jellings’ IT team moved into the business support area of the company, a position Jellings is very happy with, as he feels it best describes the role of IT to an organisation. “The executive committee always listen and they usually back what proposals we put forward,” he says.
With New Street station just across the road, Jellings tries to visit as many different stations in the Virgin network as possible and visits the network’s London Euston terminus on a weekly basis. This get-out-and-meet the users attitude is dear to Jellings’ heart and, he says, fits in with the Virgin culture of “getting off your backside and talking to people”. When he joined the company, his travels quickly taught him that workers in Virgin Trains stations far from the head office felt unloved by HQ. Jellings explains how all staff members at Virgin Trains undergo a training session as part of Vision Awareness, which explains the business strategy to employees at all levels. “People feel they know what the company is trying to achieve,” he says.
Virgin may be Jellings’ first role with a rail operator but prior to joining the Branson brigade he had spent 10 years with Alstom, the locomotive builder which supplies Virgin and many other British rail operators with rolling stock. He joined Alstom in 1996 and had a career that was heavily involved in outsourcing at the company. “I rationalised IT to one site and focused on service delivery,” he says. “There were a lot of issues with IT at the time I joined. Networks had issues, servers were old and needed replacing and bringing to better standard. PCs had no standardisation, so it was crying out for rationalisation.”
Jellings’s first job was at lock manufacturer Yale, which he joined from school in 1966. His first IT experience came as a data processing trainee in the data preparation rooms. Within Yale, he moved from lock manufacturing to its forklift truck subsidiary.
Francis Jellings CV
1966: Joined Yale as data processing trainee. Progressed through programming and systems analysis to become data supervisor and IT manager
1996: IT Manager for transport group Alstom before becoming group external services manager responsible for outsourcing IT support
2005: Head of IT at Virgin Trains
This background in manufacturing taught Jellings the place of IT in a corporation. “IT should be quiet and in the background,” he says. Quiet, that is, in terms of not disrupting the working day of station staff and train crews, not in terms of communications. Jellings, an affable and relaxed professional, enjoys meeting the varied work force of Virgin and learning what he and his department can offer. “I’ve always talked to people. If I put a proposal in front of the board, they ask who is involved from the company. They [the workers] know the best, they are on the frontline.”
When Jellings joined Virgin Trains he was not faced with a mountain of work to tunnel through. “It was nowhere near the state of Alstom, here it was a case of the software applications needed standardisation,” he says.
“I had a lot of knowledge about outsourcing,” Jellings says of the skills and experience he brings to Virgin Trains. “A similar model was already in place here with Capgemini looking after the infrastructure and service delivery.” On boarding Virgin Trains, Jellings set about rationalising IT. “We had server rooms in Euston, Birmingham and Preston. We had hardware all over the place, yet our remote users didn’t have the standards that they required.”
One of the first moves he made was to outsource desktop support when he joined the company; the previous method had been to put a member of the IT staff on a train if there was a problem in Edinburgh. Jellings immediately saw the productivity wasted of having staff travel such long distances and for the Edinburgh staff to be without immediate support.
“The people out there were not getting the same level of support as headquarters,” he says.
Working for a rail company comes with a variety of challenges. There are the obvious ones of staff not being located in a central location, but the essence of the business is to be on the move. Virgin has inherited technology and infrastructure from British Rail, the once nationalised company privatised in the late 1990s.
“Some of the rail industry systems are not up to the modern standards, you have many bespoke systems with interfaces between them,” Jellings explains. To improve the performance of these legacy systems Jellings set out about changing the service model that his department provided.
Travelling by train, whether for business or leisure is on the increase. Stagecoach, which owns a share in Virgin Trains reported earlier this year that pre-tax profits were up from £162m to £174m. The company, which also operates South West Trains and East Midlands Trains, said it was a “renaissance” sparked by increasing demand and effective investment. Over recent years Stagecoach and most rail operators have acquired new rolling stock.
National Express, which has recently taken over operating the East Coast Mainline between London Kings Cross and Edinburgh and Aberdeen, has seen its ticket sales increase by nine per cent in five months.
Commentators believe the renewed interest in rail travel is down to consumers and business travellers having become tired of road travel and its lost productivity, while the ethical and security fears which dog air travel and especially short-haul services, are putting business travellers off flying.
It is not all express ease in the rail industry though. Virgin Trains has had a difficult 2008 as Network Rail – which owns and maintains the railway lines and major stations – makes an £8.6bn upgrade to the West Coast Mainline, which Virgin uses for its routes to Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. This has caused major delays to Virgin trains operating these lines and the company is due to suffer delays until the renewal project is completed in December 2008.
“It’s been a long job, we moved the business-critical servers to a single data-centre in Rotherham, which is supported round the clock. We have rationalised PC software, down from 500 different versions to just 120.”
The pace of change shows no sign of letting up either. Virgin Trains has migrated to the Microsoft Office 2007 application suite, replacing a combination of Lotus and Access 97 applications. In recognition of the importance of the remote offices at stations around the county and to reverse the trend of disparity, Jellings introduced the new applications to them first.
Jellings’ own team consists of four managers who are divided by key operating areas: communications systems such as ticketing machines; operational systems for on-train services and managing the fleet of trains and its crew; service supplier relationships; and general systems for financial, business and human resources systems. Atos Origin and Capgemini are Virgin Trains’ two most important outsource service suppliers, with both companies having a strong heritage in the rail sector; Atos Origin supplies a crew planning system.
Virgin Trains is moving away from an SAP financial platform, “It was overkill,” Jellings explains. The company has opted for a financial procurement system from UK company COA Solutions, which Jellings said will automate procurement processes and go live across the company in September. “I know SAP from my manufacturing roots. SAP does a lot more than it is needed for, but they were invited to tender for the contract,” he says.
When making a significant change to the business and its applications, Jellings always has the project managed by someone from outside the IT department and places an IT project manager alongside them. This way the department that will use the application owns the project to install it. “You go out and find out what the company wants and then you choose a solution that is right for the business.”
Last summer Virgin Trains lost the Cross Country Penzance-to-Aberdeen franchise to European transport company Arriva. As with any change in business operating models, Jellings’ team had to adapt to losing Cross Country. “When we lost Cross Country we took the opportunity to reorganise into one floor as a business and it has improved communications. As for IT, you have to build systems that you may have to hand over to someone else,” he says. Jellings had to hand over two members of staff in the transaction. “People realise that you transfer with the business, but the process went smoothly.” Virgin Trains lost four to five months in the development of new finance systems as a result of the change and lost two people.
Virgin is now under pressure to retain its west coast mainline franchise, which provides rail connections between London Euston and Birmingham, Manchester, Preston, Glasgow and the Lake District. The current franchise is due to run out in 2012 and the company is keen to retain it. Jellings said that the Department for Transport insists that new franchise tenders include smart card ticketing technology in their bid, a technological development that he and his team are currently working on. Self-printing of tickets by customers and issuing tickets straight to mobile phones are also being assessed. “All of this is geared towards the customer.”
Switching to VHF
Rail travel is also enjoying renewed interest from travellers bored of driving or concerned by the carbon footprint of short--haul flights. Virgin Trains is currently -pursuing a programme dubbed VHF (Virgin High Frequency), which aims to provide three trains an hour connecting London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. To ensure train frequency increases, Jellings has conducted a programme of technological enhancements including replacing the wide area network with an IP-based network, and a new planning app-lication is being developed to integrate crew and train planning systems.
Jellings is relaxed and clearly enjoys being part of the rail sector as it re-models itself for the climatic, logistical and economic challenges of the next decade. The challenge can’t be underestimated; as any CIO who travels up and down the country knows, the nation’s rail network has improved dramatically in the last decade. But as Jellings walked CIO magazine back to Birmingham New Street, we arrived to witness trains from Virgin and the other rail operators that use New Street facing delays. The division of the rail network and the under-funding of rail as a core element of the UK’s infrastructure prior to privatisation still throw up challenges to the train operators and their staff looking to deliver a service comparable with the rest of Europe.