'First Hull Trains will be part of this city's future success and prosperity'
WHEN Richard Parry arrived at First Hull Trains, he was excited about driving the company forward.
The former acting managing director and deputy MD of the London Underground has amassed vast experience within the rail industry, most recently as the managing director designate who spearheaded First Group's bid for the Inter City West Coast franchise.
But while he was prepared for both the opportunities and the challenges ahead, he was less prepared for the instant challenges posed by the network's infrastructure owner.
"My immediate experience was standing on the platform in a high-vis vest because of Network Rail issues," he said.
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However, Richard is the first to admit First Hull Trains has faced challenges in recent years – so much so he raised the issue before I even posed the question.
"We have got to offer a reliable service," he said. "That goes without saying.
"I know in the past few weeks we have had more bad days than we have wanted, but we are working very hard to ensure we have a reliable fleet of trains.
"95 per cent of the people who work for Hull Trains live locally, so they take it personally when the company has a bad day, because they know it will be their friends and family they serve on a daily basis.
"We have now signed a deal with Alstom and are working closely with them to ensure we have access to supply chains and parts."
What most people probably don't realise when they are standing on a platform waiting for a train that doesn't show up, is that the company is subject to a range of issues outside of its control, from prolific copper theft and signaling failures to staff sickness and emergency maintenance works.
"We have had real problems around Doncaster in the past few weeks, which have made a real mess of all operators' services," he said.
"We cannot overcome these challenges without improvement from Network Rail.
"As a small player on the line, we can be part of the solution but we cannot bear the brunt of it.
"First Hull Trains only has about 100 employees, which means we really have to juggle resources.
"We are blessed with having really motivated, flexible and service- orientated people and there is a real focus on customers here.
"The business depends on that because we are never going to have the same great hinterland of support bigger companies have, but if somebody calls in sick we have to really rally around to find someone to cover the shift.
"Customers don't need to understand that – it is not their problem – but it is something we need to deal with.
"Copper theft is also an issue that has dogged the industry. It is a big issue in London and it is certainly not unique to Hull services, and the problem is so great Network Rail has now set up a task force specifically to deal with it."
Richard's openness and willingness to tackle challenges head-on makes it clear why he was hand-picked for the acting managing director role at First Hull Trains, an interim position he is due to maintain for six months.
But do not be fooled into thinking "interim" means "stop gap until the next appointment is confirmed".
Indeed, the rail industry stalwart has plans and a vision for the company that run to 2016 and beyond.
"It is great to be part of a business that has so much going for it, particularly in terms of the ethos and atmosphere," he said. " It is a business with real character.
"First Hull Trains is made up of people with a lot of pride and commitment, but what it lacked was a leader to inspire it and move it in the right direction.
"My appointment is really to see how we set things out going forward, and part of that is how do we roll our investment plan out going forward."
The company's annual wage bill sees more than £4.5m being flooded into the local economy from its 100 staff, with almost double this amount spent elsewhere in the Hull area through the use of its local supply chain.
However, the company plays a bigger part in the local economy than simply paying wages, as Richard explained.
"Hull Trains is part of the story to help the city prosper and it is part of the city's future success," he said.
"Growth within the company has been huge and it has added real value to this area.
"It has seen a ten-fold increase in rail demand. All operators have grown across the UK, but nowhere near on this scale.
"Hull is a growth city, so it is symbiotic with First Hull Trains.
"As a business, we can really unlock opportunities for the region. We are absolutely at the centre of that, and I think people here recognise that."
In November, First Hull Trains revealed ambitious plans to spearhead a possible investment of up to £100m in the region's railways.
The proposals would see the company lead the charge to electrify 35 miles of track between Hull and Temple Hirst Junction, five miles to the west of Selby – an opportunity Richard is keen to promote.
But first the open-access operator needs to extend its current operating license beyond 2016, another project Richard and his team in London are keen to address.
"We would like to make a case for more services but first we have to get to 2016," he said. "I have huge confidence we will continue to move the business forward because of the support there is for First Hull Trains."
"I believe the city needs Hull Trains to succeed, and we tend to hear exactly what people think. That is why the Chamber of Commerce, local MPs and business leaders are so passionate about the business.
"The worst thing we could have as a business is indifference.
"If people didn't care and didn't expect great things of us that would be terrible."