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The Irish Rail boss who knows private sector knocks


David Franks knows all about setbacks. Some years ago, the Irish Rail chief executive was involved in a failed management buyout of the London Tilbury and Southend railway line.

Last year, a bid to run the lucrative west-coast line in the UK was cancelled after it emerged that civil servants ran a flawed tendering process.

It was this "debacle" that led him to Dublin and one of the toughest jobs in the Irish transport sector. But challenges are nothing new to him.

"The one thing that has been part of my career is I've always gone into difficult jobs where there hasn't been much money," the 56-year-old says.

"After the west coast franchise bid in the UK, which was a debacle, I was beginning to think about what I would do, and this opportunity arose.

"There are big challenges. There's the basic stuff like operating safely and punctually, and doing that effectively with a very constrained financial position. That's the toughest part of the job."

The loss-making railway company has had a turbulent few years, fighting for its survival amid falling passenger numbers, cuts in government subsidies and plummeting revenues which fell to €186m last year, down €35m on 2008.

The company posted a €22m loss in 2012, but things have stabilised, says Mr Franks. Revenues are up 4pc this year, with passenger numbers "holding steady".

His first job was as a junior railman with British Rail, which he joined 40 years ago this month.

From Salisbury but now living in Killiney, Co Dublin, he worked in the public and private sectors in the UK, France and Sweden before moving here five months ago.

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"Here, everybody knows everybody and if you've had a conversation with another stakeholder everybody knows about it," he says.

"Working in a semi-state is bureaucratic, but so was British Rail. There is a focus on protection of public funds and making sure we're not spending taxpayers' money unwisely. But it's much different from a PLC. In a PLC, you get fired. Here, you get a slap on the wrist."

The father of two is a keen angler and both he and his wife Johanna are Manchester United season ticket holders. He's also president of the Union Sportive Internationale des Cheminots (International Railway Sports Association), which runs annual competitions in everything from alpine skiing to kegels (a form of bowling) and football.

And while sport takes up a lot of his time he has big plans for Irish Rail. A high-speed business service between Dublin and Cork and developing an airline-style booking system rewarding those who buy early are among his priorities.

"We should be able to get people to Cork much more quickly to compete (with the motorway) and that means we need to improve line speeds. The vision I've got is to try and get the journey time down to Cork to two hours.

"Cork is critical because we're connecting the two major cities. I would also like to explore operating more trains to Belfast, where there's only a train every other hour.

"What we've done at the moment is play with timetables, taking stops out of a service which is yielding improvements of up to 20 minutes. We're exploring the opportunity of a fast business train, in the short term, which will be more or less an express service."

One criticism of the rail network is the cost of tickets, with no reward for booking early. That's going to change too.

"Our big problem is our systems capability. The most sophisticated booking system will point people to the cheapest prices. You offer the low prices early and as the train starts to fill and you get nearer to departure time, you start to raise prices.

"You don't punish people who book late, you reward people who book early. You're trying to generate a reason for people to travel with you, and you need a system that allows people to find the cheapest tickets.

"We're working with the National Transport Authority on a project to bring about that capability and that will cost between €10m and €15m. But that doesn't mean we can't do anything today. We have inter-city tickets for €9.99."

He hopes the €4bn expansion of the DART network – including a spur to Dublin Airport – will go ahead, and he also aims to raise €1.5m this year cracking down on fare evasion. He has joined ticket inspectors "four or five times" on a series of blitzes across the network.

But he also wants to put it up to the Government to decide whether under-used lines should remain open.

"If we get enough income we can keep these routes open for a social need, and I'm going to be very transparent about the operational costs of the routes," he says.

"If the government wants the lines open, they will have to be funded from subvention or fares. If it's impossible to generate enough income from the fare box, we'll need subvention to keep them open."

Expanding the freight business would require heavy investment in rolling stock, and the work isn't there, he says. There are no plans to resume full dining services across the network "yet".

He says his biggest success was being named rail business manager of the year in 2000, and turning around First Northwestern, "a business many people felt was a basket case. Most of my top team went on become MDs in their own right".

His biggest failure? The MBO of the London Tilbury and Southend railway. Failure is not something he contemplates in this job.

"We're working on our five-year plan, and if we deliver on that I will judge that as a success," he says.

"The plan is to get us back to financial health and to start a culture change programme where the business is very much focused on customers and revenue and not so focused on cutting costs. I want to move away from a place of slashing and burning."