Northern's self described 'fat controller' Robin Gisby vows to put train passengers and staff first

The new chairman of Northern wants the train operator to put passengers and staff first as the former franchise enters public ownership.
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Robin Gisby, who has an engineering background and describes himself as a 'fat controller' who has held several senior management posts with Network Rail, returned to the industry in 2018 as chair of LNER after the government's Operator of Last Resort took over the London-Edinburgh franchise.

Now the 63-year-old faces a new challenge in reviving a 'tired and battered' network that serves routes across the north of England.

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The new government-owned operating company now running Northern has already released its 100-day plan with promises of immediate action, including deep cleaning of trains and new uniforms for staff.

New chairman of Northern Robin GisbyNew chairman of Northern Robin Gisby
New chairman of Northern Robin Gisby

They have also confirmed the appointment of former Transpennine Express managing director Nick Donovan to the Northern board, the only change at the top table. The outgoing MD, David Brown, has been given a role with the Operator of Last Resort.

Gisby admits he was semi-retired and 'waiting in the background' when it became apparent that private-sector operators Arriva looked likely to be stripped of the Northern franchise by transport secretary Grant Shapps.

The first 100 days

The Northern name, branding and livery will all remain - Gisby refuses to commit public money to repainting the fleet of trains. His focus instead is on a morale boost for employees, who have to contend with outdated facilities and poor-quality equipment.

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"We really want to invest in the staff depots at rural stations, as well as at Leeds and Manchester. The quality of the uniforms is not good enough and they are not properly equipped. These people are doing very tough jobs, they need our support and they need to be looked after."..

Northern trains will each undergo up to nine hours of intensive cleaning to rejuvenate their interiors.

"It can be quite hard to spot decline on a day-to-day basis, and you can become tolerant. There is pressure on the utilisation of the trains - they often don't get back to the depots in time to be cleaned properly, so they just get a half-hour wipe down.

"We are resetting standards and we want to remind everybody what a good railway looks like."

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Gisby is prepared to assure passengers that Northern has enough rolling stock to plug gaps during the deep cleaning programme, with more new trains set to appear on the network within three years.

"We will have enough trains. We want to grow this railway - it is underused, and within the next 2-3 years we will invest in stock. Northern's routes have been served by cast-off trains from other areas of the country, but the new trains from the CAF factory (in Wales) are in service now and we have drivers saying they are the best trains they've driven in five years. There are orders for more and they will be new - there will be no more cast-offs."


Gisby readily admits that Northern is a difficult railway to run - but cites a series of issues with infrastructure and capacity as having had a detrimental effect on performance and reliability.

"The allocation of capacity needs to change, especially around Manchester. The tracks are very constrained. It is complicated and we will discuss reallocation with Network Rail. There is an extraordinary range of trains, and there is the same issue on the two-track stretch outside Leeds at Colton Junction. There is a whole mix of different trains, many of them long-distance, but most journeys are made over shorter distances by commuters.

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"We will have a close relationship with Network Rail and we will work with them on electrification and capacity enhancement schemes."

Williams Review

Gisby dismisses rumours that the Northern network could now be split into east and west regions, as it was prior to a regorganisation in 2000, and defused fears that the franchise could be quickly re-tendered to private companies again.

"There are no plans to break it up. There are no constraints on time either."

He also thinks the upcoming Williams Review could set out a new model for the franchise system, which has become increasingly contentious after several failing TOCs had their contracts terminated early.

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"What I think we will see happen is longer-term arrangements - 20-30 years. Things like the ticketing system and the fare structure are very important, and at the moment they're out of step with the way people work. A longer-term deal would give freedom to address these issues, which can be harder to do if you are deeply involved in franchise commitments."

He also believes the implementation of concession models - whereby a local authority is paid by the government to run services in their area - is a possibility, especially in regions such as Manchester, which has metro mayoral control.

"It could happen - there is a devolution issue, but it needs to be a marrying up of political devolution and geography."

A testing period

"This is a great business, it has struggled recently and we want it to grow and develop. I see it as a collection of local businesses, and what matters is local engagement.

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"It has been a difficult franchise, and there has been a lot of external pressure from the media and from stakeholders. The management are tired and a bit battered. They need to be left alone to get on with their jobs."

Expansion and new routes

Gisby raised the intriguing possibility that Northern could even operate more routes in future - and could become involved in the re-opening of former 'Beeching axe' lines that closed over 50 years ago.

"We want to expand - we want more trains, passengers and routes. I was involved in the re-opening of the Borders Railway in Scotland and that could be somethingt this railway could do.

But firstly, we want to focus on providing a better service for existing passengers."

Industrial relations

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Arriva's tenure as operator of Northern was defined by their poor relations with the RMT trade union, to which many rail staff belong. A series of strikes over several months in 2018 badly affected services in Yorkshire, while there are also historic agreements in place that do not require drivers to work Sundays.

Gisby is confident that interactions between management and front-line staff will become more cordial and productive.

"I think management has got better and with the changes that will happen, relations will be easier. Improvements in Sunday working are already happening. We want people to be able to depend on weekend services and we want to grow revenue, and for that we need to take the staff with us."