Getting Northern Rail on the right tracks

Getting Northern Rail on the right tracks

Organisation: Northern RailSector: Transport + InfrastructureRole: Interim Manager

The UK’s largest train operator relied on the help of two Interim Managers to get the new operation up and running.

The Interim

IAN DAGLISH has been an interim manager for five years, during which time he has carried out marketing assignments for London Electricity, publisher Leo Cooper and the British Army.

He spent the greater part of his career marketing consumer goods for major multinationals, first in foods for companies including KP Snacks, Bird’s Custard and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and later in more diverse markets including pharmaceuticals, publishing, computer software and the motor industry.

WENDY WILLIAMS has been an interim manager for seven years and worked as a consultant for five years before that. She specialises in HR and change. Previous clients include the Department for Rural Affairs, and she is currently working for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. She has also done assignments for Barclays Bank and the Co- Operative Group.

Before she became self-employed, she held HR Director roles in organisations as varied as Alfred McAlpine, local government and Turner and Newall – for whom she worked on global leadership in America, Germany and France.


Northern Rail is the largest train operating company in the country, and provides local and regional services throughout the north of England. At the heart of its operations are the cities of Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield, complemented by a range of other leisure and tourism locations such as Blackpool, York, four national parks and many sporting venues. It operates 2,500 train services every day (east coast train operator GNER does only 250), carries 70 million passengers a year, over 1675 miles of the national rail network, through 472 stations, using 269 trains. It has 4500 employees.

In autumn 2004 a joint venture between global public service group Serco and Dutch rail operator NedRailways won the franchise to run Northern Rail, which had been formed out of Arriva Trains Northern and First North Western. Northern Rail became operational in December 2004.

Wendy and Ian brought a professionalism that gave us a lot of comfort

The franchise will run for up to eight years and nine months, with the final two years depending on the company meeting strict performance targets. The reason for combining the two previous train operating companies was to deliver better service to passengers and greater value to taxpayers through more focused provision of services. But to meet these requirements set by the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), there would need to be a designed both to harness upward and  downward communication and to kickstart  the culture change programme by  making staff responsible and  accountable for identifying positive staff  benefits – including reward and  recognition.  strong management focus on punctuality,  information and cleanliness.

Given the huge additional challenge  of merging the two existing  organisations, Tricia Riley, the new  Human Resources and Change Director,  realised that she would need additional  help in the short term because of the  sheer scale of the task.

She explains: “We had to merge two  companies, with very different cultures  and terms and conditions, into one, and  we had to build, develop and support  the executive team, which was  incomplete when we won the franchise.  It was a big, very complex situation, and  we needed someone with lots of change  management expertise and experience  to help us do it. And we had no time to  lose: we had to start demonstrating the  benefits of the combined companies and  of Serco-NedRailways’ expertise  immediately.”

It took several weeks to find the right  person, but on March 1st 2005, courtesy  of Impact Executives, Wendy Williams, a  seasoned HR and change professional,  joined Northern Rail as Interim  Change Director.

One of Williams’ first roles was to look  at how best to integrate the two  predecessor companies. “We needed to  look at the sort of culture Northern  needed, to differentiate it from its own  past and from the cultures of Serco and  NedRailways, which each had a very  different culture too,” says Williams. “It  was a problematic exercise, because  people were understandably unsettled  and cynical about the change, and  frightened that there would be lots of  redundancies.”

She approached the task from the  bottom up and the top down, analysing  what staff wanted in terms of  communications and culture and then  discussing with each of the executives  what they believed good leadership in  Northern Rail would look like. “It was  important to define behaviours that  were specific to Northern’s  requirements, rather than generic,” says  Williams. “Because they helped design  behaviours appropriate to the needs of  the businesses, both management and  staff engaged far more quickly with the  new culture than they would otherwise  have done.”

Williams quickly identified  communications as being a major  platform of the change programme, and she oversaw the introduction of an initiative called ‘Imagine’, which was  designed both to harness upward and downward communication and to kickstart the culture change programme by making staff responsible and accountable for identifying positive staff benefits – including reward and recognition.

Riley says: “Wendy acted as a catalyst  for change in a new and complex  environment. She had strong insights  and intuition, combined with depth and  breadth of change management  experience. But her fresh perspective   allowed her to stand back from the  operational constraints that are peculiar  to the transport industry, and though we  were all focused on the here and now, she  kept reminding us of the long-term  picture. She was a catalyst for change: she  took a strategic view, created the  frameworks to support that view and left  us with thought-provoking ideas about  how to take things forward.”

One of the executive roles still unfilled  by the summer of 2005 was the Head of  Marketing and Communications.  Frustrated at not being able to find the  right full-time individual, Commercial  Director Chris Kimberley hired Ian  Daglish, another Impact Executives  interim manager, to plug the gap. Daglish, a classically trained marketing  professional with experience of a wide  range of industries, joined Northern on  August 8th.

But the focus for marketing at  Northern was not wholly, or even  primarily, on meeting the needs of key  travelling customers. Because much of  the brand message would be  communicated by Northern’s 4,500 staff,  many of whom have day-to-day contact  with customers, they needed to be made  aware of their own vital role in marketing  the Northern brand. What’s more, in a  business partially funded by government  subsidy, and with marketing investments  shared by business partners such as  Passenger Transport Executives and local  authorities, Daglish had to engage these  stakeholders too with Northern’s  marketing plans.

By the time he left, at the end of  December 2005, Daglish had laid the  foundations for his permanent successor  to build on. A series of different field  marketing activities had targeted  different groups of travelling customers,  and key working relationships had been cemented with business partners – so  raising the profile of Northern and  winning confidence in its commitment  and ability to support its market.

He had also recruited and structured  an effective marketing team, filling key  vacancies and replacing further leavers.  Kimberley concludes: “The  contribution that Wendy and Ian made  has really helped us to get Northern up  and running. Organisational change is  always challenging but they brought a  professionalism to it that gave us a lot of comfort.”

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To find out more contact Trudy Peeler

Tel: +44 (0)20 7314 2006