UK: Profile - Chris Green - MANAGING DIRECTOR INTERCITY. - Christopher Blackhurst talks to InterCity's new chief who has a disregard for red lights.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Christopher Blackhurst talks to InterCity's new chief who has a disregard for red lights.

1943 - Born Winchester. Educated at St Paul's School, London, and Oriel College, Oxford where he took a degree in Modern History.

1965 - Joined BR in West Midlands as management trainee. Spent next years in various jobs learning the rudiments of the trade.

1973 - Area manager, Hull "where I learned to stand on my own two feet; it was a very exposed job."

1984 - Promoted to general manager, ScotRail, following spells as passenger operations manager, regional operations manager and deputy general manager, he fired the national pride and transformed the service.

1986 - Director, Network SouthEast. Launched Operation Pride. "Network SouthEast was tougher than I thought it was going to be".

1991 - Managing director, Network SouthEast.

1992 - Managing director, InterCity "I will do anything for the product I'm running. I will move heaven and earth for InterCity".

Chris Green is enjoying himself. The new director of British Rail's prestige InterCity operation has been in the job just a few months but has already identified three areas for instant action.

Staff phones - "It is absurd that in 1992 the guard cannot talk to his control room. Within three years we will have changed 150 years of railway history by installing extra phones on every train."

Rescue bridges - "It is batty when a train breaks down or is stuck, there is no easy way to transfer passengers to an adjacent train. A simple, folding aluminium bridge between the trains is all that is needed to get 400 people off safely and easily."

More flexibility - "We need to be much more creative about the way we look after people when they have been trapped". (When a train from Scotland to London was five hours late recently, he arranged that everyone on board was told that they would be getting a refund, hired a taxi to ensure four soldiers reached their exercise in Dorset on time and laid on a special train so 10 holiday-makers did not miss their ferry at Dover.).All highly commendable, all part and parcel of a modern, passenger-led railway. But they also raise questions for the rest of British Rail. If InterCity trains have phones, why not all trains? Why not rescue passengers from all trains? When is a train so late that taxis and special trains are provided free of charge? Green's attitude is InterCity first, hang the rest. Money - traditionally the bete noir of nationalised managers - comes way down his list of priorities (when asked how much the phones will cost, he can only "guess" at £3 million and asks his public relations man present to check. It is £1 million.) "I will do anything for the product I'm running," he explains. "I will move heaven and earth for InterCity.

He did the same thing when he ran Network SouthEast and before that, ScotRail. His approach has won him many admirers at manager level and below but it has not always endeared him to more traditionally-minded, cost-conscious, senior colleagues - nor to civil servants.

At a management training seminar two years ago, BR executives - but not board members - were asked to name their stars within the organisation. Green, then head of Network SouthEast, came top. "He emerged very clearly as the leading hero," recalls John Bristow of Forum Europe, the consultant who chaired the course. "They admired him for his initiative and strong personality, for behaving like an entrepreneur and for having an individual mind." Green, he said, was their "model of what managers/leaders in the modern BR needed to be like."

Asked for his view of Green, though, one board member said: "He's very broad brush; doesn't understand economics; a cheerleader type; a stormy petrel; a chap who likes to do it all on his own; not popular with civil servants, wonderful with politicians." Green, 48, now has a chance to silence the snipers.

Sir Bob Reid, the BR chairman, has handed Green the toughest job in BR. Fail, and his career would be over. Win, and he could be the next chairman. Network SouthEast may carry 500,000 commuters a day into London and run over 8,000 trains (compared with InterCity's 750 trains) but InterCity is the jewel in the BR crown. It is truly national, has the fastest and best-equipped trains and, in revenue terms, the best passengers. It even makes money (£50 million last year). But the "flagship", as Green calls InterCity, is also fraught with problems.

The West Coast line, from London to Scotland, which carried a third of all InterCity passengers and is the busiest in Western Europe after France's TGV, is in urgent need of modernisation. The cost, some £700 million, may have to be met by BR itself. If so, Green, as head of the most profitable part of BR, will come under pressure to generate more cash in face of competition by express coaches and airlines. Last year, around a quarter of InterCity's £1-billion income came from first class. Hit hard by recession and competition, its returns have been falling. "If we lose the first-class market, we are in big trouble," admits Green.

Of BR's five divisions, InterCity faces the most uncertain future. As the most profitable and self-contained, with its own (pre-Green) logo and established, separate identity, it is first in the firing line for eventual privatisation. Either it will be sold, or, as now seems more likely, other operators will be allowed access to its routes (Richard Branson has already declared an interest in running a champagne-and-caviar, airline-type service). Green will not be in favour of either option. Once believed to be pro-privatisation, he is now opposed to the idea. "Privatisation is the wrong answer. It is a ready-made solution that does not fit fairly with our problems". As for giving access, he worries "about too many people chasing too small a market". Until then, he says, he will get on with the job he loves best. "I'm a pragmatic individual. I'm more worried about the running of the railway than I am about it's ownership."

Tall, with carefully coiffured, steel-grey hair, tailored, dark suit and striped shirt, Green looks like any senior executive. Only an InterCity tie gives him away. The son of a West London grammer school teacher, Green's antecedents are not those normally associated with a railwayman: a public school, St Paul's, and a degree in history from Oxford. Married with a son and a daughter, Green never seems to stop working or thinking about work. "My best ideas come when I am steering canal boats or talking to colleagues on a Sunday night. You must remember that this is a product that never stops" Neither steam buff nor train spotter - he spends his holidays on canal cruises with his family - he was attracted to the rail by its management training scheme and his love for logistics. "I liked the tangible challenge of moving large numbers of people from A to B on time." Also, he soon discovered, he liked the people. His weekend phone calls, constant use of the word "family" to describe BR staff and keeness to involve colleagues' wives and children in social activities, creates the impression of absolute dedication.

"There is something about railwaymen. They are great fun to be with. The closer I am to the railway, the happier I am." Green's bond with the railway and its people is intense. He is immensely proud of BR and really does see it as one happy family. Criticism of the service and its chairman genuinely upsets him. "There is a myth in Britain that everyone else's trains run normally. Let me tell you for example that half France's trains are out of service at any one time".

He developed his love affair on a 15-year odyssey that saw him traverse the length and breadth of England. His first few years were spent in the West Midlands as a management trainee, learning the rudiments of the trade - selling tickets, shunting and dealing with complaints. After that he looked after a steel terminal, then he worked in personnel. It was only in his third job, in passenger marketing, he says, "the spark came in".

From the West Midlands he went to the East Midlands, as passenger manager. From there he headed north to North Humberside as area manager "where I learned to stand on my own feet; it was a very exposed job" before returning south, to become operations manager for South Western at Waterloo. After that, he says, he knew no fear."Unlike his colleagues at other London stations, the Waterloo manager has no alternative station to go to. Because of the way the lines are laid out, if something goes wrong with his trains he can't send them anywhere."

In 1980, he packed his bags and uprooted his family again, to Scotland where he was chief operations manager then deputy general manager, before, in 1984, he got the chance to run his own show, as general manager, Scotland.

The next two years were the making of Green. When he took over Scottish Rail - since renamed ScotRail- the recession had savaged revenues and morale was at an all-time low. To make matters worse, no sooner was the recession over than the region's coach services were deregulated. Scotland, and especially Strathclyde, its busy commuter area, was filled with cut-price express coach services, offering on-board TVs, toilets and catering.

Green and Scottish rail were staring into a black hole, yet seemingly, as if by magic, the new Sassenach boss waved his wand. Strathclyde was given a five-year, £140-million investment programme. Stations and trains were decked out in a new orange livery. Almost 300 stations - including the symbolically important Edinburgh Waverly and Glasgow Central - were re-built or re-painted and re-equipped with modern stylish furniture. Eleven new stations were added. Ticket clerks designed their own tartan uniform and behind the scenes, staff facilities were upgraded. Staff were released from a stifling bureaucracy. Previously, area managers had not been allowed to spend more than £25 without permission. Green raised the limit to £10,000 or £50,000 a year. Green gambled on fares and slashed them. Passengers flocked to their new-look railway. By the time he left in 1986 the transformation was complete - and the man responsible was the talk of BR. Stories abounded about the demon manager who cared little for authority and less for excuses. He was constantly on the telephone to colleagues at home, cajoling and persuading - Sunday night was and is, his favourite time to ring; he liked to dine out and talk shop with close colleagues; together they had formed themselves into something called the Curry Club; he loved firing off memos and leaving messages; he set the most impossible deadlines. One anecdote had Green consoling the widow of a dead senior colleague. He tells her how sorry he is but that she should look on the bright side. "Time is a great healer and things will get better. You've got two weeks."

According to Green there have only been two jobs he has always wanted in BR and he has had both of them: Network SouthEast and InterCity. Asked if he would like to be chairman, he responds: "It's a very political job. Not a railwayman's but all about managing upwards to government, not down to people on the railway.".

In 1986, Green got his crack at the first of the two. Much of what he did has a familiar ring to it. For the first few months he rode the railway and met customers and staff. Then, six months after he started he launched Operation Pride. A new name, Network SouthEast, was chosen from a list of 200 to replace the old London and South East Region or LASER. Stations were repainted, this time in red, white and blue. Photographs of local managers complete with phone numbers for people with complaints to ring, were posted on platforms. Staff wore name badges; stations were cleaned by specially recruited gangs; smart new litter bins and chairs were installed; passenger information boards were made more user-friendly; staff were encouraged to talk to customers; and previously bleak concourses were brightened by the addition of branches of Sock Shop and Tie Rack.

There was just one major problem: the trains did not work. Much of the rolling stock Green inherited was diabolical (in Kent there are still trains with pre-War sub-frames). Relising that replacements would take time and money (the new 'Networker' trains he ordered are only now coming on stream) he set about tackling the bits that would have an immediate impact. It was not that simple.

Unlike Scotland, where ScotRail fired the national pride, Network SouthEast had the opposite effect. Commuters are a cynical bunch and the idea of a new, meaningless name, coupled with name badges and photos of grinning managers on platforms, almost made Green's vision (in some quarters it was cynically called GWR, Green's Wonderful Railway) a laughing stock.

Green admits that "Network SouthEast was tougher than I thought it was going to be." But any suggestion he put the cart before the horse is laughingly refuted. "Are they (the critics) suggesting I should have waited six years until we had the rolling stock before improving staff attitudes and painting stations?" As to Network SouthEast, "Over 80% of people know the name, which is remarkable. It's become part of the language," InterCity already was. It also had a well established logo, a high standard of service and motivated staff. For once, Green may have to wait for new trains and electrification before the figures improve. "ScotRail and Network SouthEast were major jobs that required a dramatic response. InterCity will give me time to think, to think further ahead about electrification into the next century." Before then, though, there are more immediate possibilities to consider. "Shops on trains, now that's an interesting idea."

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