Credit: Julian Dodd

Interview: Trainline's Clare Gilmartin - 'You don't have to stay at work till midnight'

THE MT INTERVIEW: The super-focused CEO has made a rapid journey to the top. Now at Trainline she has big plans for the humble rail ticket. Will the nation's smartphone-toting travellers get on board?

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 04 May 2016

Clare Gilmartin is a rarity, and not only because of the rather obvious fact that she is a female chief exec in the very male business of rail. It's a sector where the big cheeses apparently prefer to spend their time lobbying politicians or playing with their life-size train sets rather than worrying about the poor old passenger, who often seems to be regarded as an unwelcome intrusion on the boardroom agenda.

So it makes a change to come across a rail company boss who pays more than lip service to the needs of their customers, welcoming emails from Trainline customers and even choosing to hook into the call centre to hear tales of woe and frustration from the frontline of the UK's creaking and overcrowded rail network.

'I listen to customer calls every week, and I encourage my team to do so as well. You can look at data all day long but sometimes you just need to hear a customer talking. When they are struggling with a mobile ticket or with part of their journey, that's an invaluable insight. There is nothing like hearing the human emotion when things go wrong for fuelling my enthusiasm for getting it sorted out.'

It's hard to imagine the bosses of, say, Southeastern or Northern Rail relishing the prospect of being on the receiving end of some of their more irate and exasperated punters quite so much. But for Gilmartin it is part of a modus operandi that has seen her rise spectacularly from Unilever graduate trainee at the age of 22, to CEO of one of the UK's most successful digital businesses, selling a train ticket every 2.5 seconds, handling transactions totalling £1.6bn annually and growing at 25% year on year, at the tender age of 40.

'I have always been customer focused in all my roles,' she says. 'I thrive in consumer-facing industries, I have to be a fan, to experience the product as a consumer to be inspired by it.'

Such a hot prospect indeed is Trainline that it was snapped up in January by the US private equity big guns at KKR for a rumoured £450m, a surprise purchase which derailed what had been expected to be one of the highest profile IPOs of 2015. Still, having paid a mere £163m for it back in 2006, then-owner Exponent was probably more than happy with the deal.

Hired to see the business through an IPO that never was, if Gilmartin is disappointed not to have ended up the boss of a plc, it doesn't show. And Trainline's new owners must be delighted to have inherited a CEO who is at least as focused on growth and delivery as they are themselves.

'The common thread throughout especially the latter part of my career is that I have always worked for growth-oriented shareholders and for smart people. KKR are both - very growth oriented and very smart and collaborative. They have a global network of experts that is hugely valuable to our company.'

So her vision for Trainline (grammarians may mourn the loss of the definite article, dropped during a rebrand earlier this year) is to be the place where underappreciated rail users can go to find someone who is at least trying to understand what they want and give it to them. 'We have built a customer research lab here where we watch customers using our products. I use our service myself, every week.' The aim, she says, is to save punters time and money. 'There's a huge opportunity to bring a better customer experience to rail.'

Right now the spotlight is firmly on mobile. Train travel, she reckons, is made for mobile, and yet 87% of rail tickets are still bought in the station. 'That means queueing, which we know people hate, and typically paying the highest price by booking on the day they travel rather than in advance.'

Trainline has been pushing its mobile app hard across all devices, and it now accounts for 70% of the firm's 27 million monthly visits. It's been downloaded 8.5 million times, making it the UK's most popular travel app.

Trainline is not the only rail ticketing app available. All the train operators have their own websites - some of which are run for them by Trainline - and many have apps too. It is not even always the cheapest. But its app is designed with speed and ease of use firmly in mind, and does what it says on the tin. There's nothing like peering at a small screen with a dodgy 3G connection to put you off trying to save a couple of quid via clunky apps based on desktop sites that don't work properly on a phone.

Of course, a cynic might point out that Trainline isn't really a rail company, and that it's easy to be all about customers when you don't have to manage the daily grind of actually running the trains and coping with leaves on the line, the wrong kind of snow and all the other minutiae of trying to get a 21st-century performance out of a 19th-century network.

But that, says Gilmartin, would be missing the point. 'We don't run the trains but there are things we can do. Our purpose is to help people make smarter journeys, and sometimes that includes when the train has been delayed. We can offer information, alternative routes, help people get compensation.'

Besides, not really being a rail company can be a positive advantage. For starters, the franchise system in the UK means that no single train operator is in a position to sell tickets for all services on all routes - but Trainline is.

It has also enabled the firm to hire a 150-strong team of digital engineers - the largest tech team in the industry says Gilmartin, and an asset that many rivals would dearly love to emulate. But talented coders who turn their noses up at a legacy rail business are only too eager to work for a UK-based fast-growing tech outfit, specialising in mobile.

'Our app is all created here, it's a very different proposition for an engineer to importing something that's been built in Silicon Valley. They have a target to hit at the end of the year but it's not for me to say what features they should add to get there, they're fully empowered to do that themselves.'

Softly spoken with a slight Irish inflection, Gilmartin is measured and thoughtful, informally but not casually dressed. 'As a leader I try to set a very clear purpose, one that will last for years. Then I set the strategy and goals behind that, and spend a lot of time hiring the right people and growing the people that we already have.'

Trainline's other big growth bet is on international rail travel. It already sells tickets on behalf of Germany's DB and Italy's Trenitalia, and is in talks with other major operators including SNCF in France and Renfe in Spain to roll out integrated ticketing across the continent. It's also rumoured to be a potential buyer for Captain Train, the leading independent rail ticket distributor on the continent. The idea being that booking a rail ticket from London to Lisbon should become as easy as buying a comparable plane ticket is today.

Integrating all those disparate IT systems is tricky, and some users report their attempts to book international tickets on the site have been frustrated. But there is solid commercial logic behind the idea. 'The fact that the EU Commission is opening up rail in Europe to competition is making rail companies think about broadening their distribution and boosting top-line growth. Trainline has a single platform and 15 years of experience in the UK. We have a lot to build from.'

Born in Dublin to professional parents (her father worked for the Bank of Ireland, her mum for Aer Lingus), her childhood taught her to seek out new experiences and apply herself to do well at them. She was a competition swimmer, and still runs as often as she can. 'My parents worked very hard, to give us opportunities in sport, in music and travel. So I've always looked for opportunities and been inspired by them. When I looked for my first job, I came to the UK because there were more opportunities here.'

No surprise then that her career has been a carefully managed process, rather than the agglomeration of accidents that mark some less well-planned ascents of the ladder. After a stint at Unilever, impatient to get on, she joined BCG. 'I had to cut my salary for two years but it was like an MBA, a fascinating insight into management.' Then in 2003, just as she was growing frustrated with never seeing the results of her work - 'I'd close a project and move on, with no idea of the outcomes or how successful our advice had been' - the call came from eBay, then a West Coast import, which had only recently hung out its virtual shingle in the UK.

'It was still pretty small but the opportunity resonated. I was busy, I had no time to shop, and here was the entire world's inventory on my desktop. Secondly, the culture was very human - when I went to the interview, I overheard someone ordering fish and chips for the whole office. I thought, "Wow, this is the kind of place I want to work!"'

It was her big break. Having started as head of eBay Motors in the UK, looking after the sale of second-hand cars and car parts, she finished up as the vice president of eBay Europe, one of the firm's biggest jobs outside the USA (a feat which saw her make it onto MT's 35 Women Under 35 list of female high-flyers in 2011).

'I believe very strongly in merit-based progression, and there was lots of that at eBay. As the company grew, I grew, my role expanded every six months. It was an amazing experience.'

So why did she leave? 'Towards the end, progression for me meant moving to the US and I had decided I wasn't going to go there. I am very close to my family, my parents live in Ireland and a 45-minute flight between my kids and their grandparents is about as much as I could tolerate.'

Her three kids are aged seven, six and one, and she and her husband (a fund manager who also runs a care home) try hard to make weekends strictly a family affair. 'My focus is on outcomes not hours spent at a desk or anything like that. So for the most part my family time is sacred, I have to be fully present for them at the weekend because that's how I justify coming to work during the week.'

So instead of heading west across the Atlantic, she has brought eBay's Silicon Valley tech culture with her to Trainline's Farringdon offices instead. 'There's a huge opportunity in rail that tech seems to have forgotten about. Passenger numbers have doubled since the late 90s and Trainline is a pioneer, it's delivered sustainable growth for the best part of 15 years and been profitable for seven or eight.'

Why aren't there more female CEOs like her? Partly it's because she has always worked for companies and bosses who were 'flexible and weren't hung up on when I was or wasn't at work provided I got the work done,' she says.

But it's also because she has had the determination to set her own course and stick to it. 'A mentor gave me some advice very early on that I have followed ever since. It is that you can chart your own path, you don't have to work like everyone else and stay till midnight.

'It was enormously helpful because I didn't want to become that working parent who misses sports days and Christmas plays. Managing the balance ends up being a series of decisions daily, weekly, monthly - but we are never going to get more women in leadership if they think that they have to work 15-hour days and every weekend to get there.'

So there's another rarity to end on - a chief exec who doesn't measure commitment by the clock. 'The reality is that if you work efficiently and are focused, it doesn't have to be like that.'


To keep Trainline on the rails and growing fast enough to satisfy its uncompromising new owners at KKR

To make international rail travel within Europe a realistic alternative to flying

To run the 12 miles home from her office to Barnes at least once a week, even through the winter


1975: Born, Dublin, Eire. Studies international commerce & German at University College, Dublin

1997: Sales & marketing manager, Unilever

2000: Consultant, Boston Consulting Group

2003: Head of motors, eBay UK

2007: Senior director, eBay UK & Germany

2010: VP, eBay Europe

2014: CEO, Trainline

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