Paul Comfort : I'm Paul Comfort and welcome to a very special edition of the award-winning podcast, Transit Unplugged. On today's episode, we continue our seven-part series, where we visited seven major CEOs of transit systems in Australia, the Land Down Under. On today's episode, I'm pleased to bring you an interview with Howard Collins, who is CEO of Sydney Trains, which is the suburban passenger rail network, serving the city of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. He's also the CEO of the New South Wales TrainLink or the statewide system there as well. This massive train system covers a core of over 500 miles of track, 178 stations over eight lines, has train frequencies just one right after the other.
Howard Collins is the mastermind and the CEO of this system. He was the former COO of the London Underground, and now leads up this major system that you will be amazed to hear about. He also took us on a tour of their new rail operation center, which is a great large, massive facility, which is one of the most technologically advanced operations control centers I've ever been a part of. We were there just before it opened. I got to sit in what he called the Captain Kirk seat and look upon the massive world's largest television screen up on the front, where they have all kinds of information displayed. They brought together all kinds of operational controllers from around the network all in one protected facility.
This is an amazing man, leading an amazing system. I'm so happy we were able to bring it for you today on Transit Unplugged. Let me know what you think.
Intro : What does it mean to be a successful public transit agency? What are you doing to lead the way? It's time to learn from the top transit professionals in North America. This is Transit Unplugged, with your host, Paul Comfort.
Paul Comfort : Welcome to Transit Unplugged. I'm your host, Paul Comfort, and today we continue our series of Australia, Transit Down Under, and it's exciting today to be in Sydney, a major capital city. I know it's not the capital city, but for the world, this is what people think about when they think of Australia, just as an FYI.
Howard Collins : Absolutely. Thanks, Paul. Great to be here. Yes, it's the Sydney Harbor Bridge, it's the Opera House. It's the image of Australia as well as I think New South Wales, and that's the capital. Sydney is the capital of New South Wales.
Paul Comfort : Well, great to be with you. We are recording this in your central train station. Tell me about this and the network a little bit that you oversee as CEO, Howard.
Howard Collins : Well we're in the Bradfield Room, named after John Bradfield, really the architect of the modern suburban transit system. In the early 1900s, he went around the world. I think he even went to the States, London, Europe, and he looked around and saw these fantastic electric transit systems, and he came back to Australia with a big report saying, "I need to build a suburban railway," and he did a great job. In fact, we're still building part of his plan even today.
Paul Comfort : Is that right?
Howard Collins : Yeah. He's a very important man to us as far as the railway's concerned.
Paul Comfort : Howard Collins has two roles, and now I hear you have four roles. Tell us a little bit about your role here as the CEO of multiple-layered organizations that make up the rail transit in this city?
Howard Collins : Well, I suppose the first thing is we're very proud that we are the biggest. In fact, you could put all the passengers of all the other capital cities together, and it wouldn't quite add up to the number of people we carry on the Sydney and New South Wales network.
Paul Comfort : How many is that?
Howard Collins : We're now topping about 430 million journeys a year. We have gone from a really low base in the early days, but now in the last five years, our challenge has been that growth. 37% increase in the last five years. The more we put in more trains, the more people come. My job as chief executive of Sydney Trains and now New South Wales TrainLink is really that vertically integrated organization. We still quarry stuff out of mines to build the ballast, but we maintain the tracks, the infrastructure, the trains themselves, most of those trains themselves, the staff, the drivers, the guards or conductors you'd call them, and also all the station staff as well. Fourteen thousand people, about 10,500 or so in Sydney Trains and the remainder in New South Wales TrainLink.
Paul Comfort : How much money does that cost every year?
Howard Collins : Well, it costs about $4 billion really to run this place. Don't forget we go to Melbourne and Brisbane with our long-distance trains, our XPTs, as well as serving the metropolitan area of Sydney and many other cities around New South Wales.
Paul Comfort : Tell us about what type of service are you running? We've got the electric trains we saw here. What other types of service are you running? Are there different layers of service?
Howard Collins : Well, I always say we're a little bit like Australian animals. We've ended up with quite an interesting, unusual beast of a railway. You start out in places like Kiama, electrified network right out in 100 or so kilometers down south. It really is a rural railway. Then as the train gets into Wollongong, you start serving an intercity, Long Island Railroad sort of experience. Then the train gets as far as probably Hurstville, and then it almost changes into metro and goes underground, and we try and run a three-minute service. That's one train. We're a multifunctional railway. And of course, uniquely on the electric system, our trains are all double-deck trains. Big 400-ton, 2000 people, eight-car trains.
Paul Comfort : We just rode it coming here. It's phenomenal. We rode one of the newer cars. It said we're one of the new 24 cars.
Howard Collins : Absolutely. Just off the manufacturing shelf. 24 new trains. Fantastic opportunity. Another 17 coming.
Paul Comfort : Who built them?
Howard Collins : They're built in China. A joint venture obviously with Downer, the Australian partner, with our Chinese partners. We built 78, and then another 24. We're almost finished that delivery. Another 17 on top. And they're fantastic trains. Live CCTV streaming back to our control center. Great comfort. Good LED lighting. A great train, out of the box, reliability ten times what our old trains are.
Paul Comfort : Really? That's something. I'm sure you always have a lot of construction projects going on. As we were riding in, I saw train car after train car full of ballast. Looked like you were doing some new work out here, or-
Howard Collins : I think that's the challenge. As my old American boss, Tim O'Toole, said, "It's like running a marathon and doing open heart surgery at the same time." Rebuilding this place at the same time, we're trying to run as many trains as possible because we're busy. We carry twice as many people at the weekend we did ten years ago. Because of the new ticketing system, because it's almost next to nothing to travel at weekends, we get a hell of a lot of people just coming down to Sydney, traveling around the network, doing all the social stuff that they love doing at weekends in Sydney, and we've seen a huge growth in that area.
Paul Comfort : How did you end up here? Tell us a little bit about your career journey.
Howard Collins : Well, that could take half an hour in itself, Paul. But I would say I'm a railwayman. I dream about railways. I probably have for 59 and three-quarter years. I left school at 18 and joined London Transport in September 1977, long before you were born, Paul. But I would say I had always, as a kid, had an interest in anything on wheels, planes, trains, motorbikes, you name it. And I got a job in London Transport. I did most grades, got on a training scheme, drove trains, signaler, did all sorts of jobs. Got into general management. Really got excited about projects. I was involved in the opening of the Docklands Light Railway.
Paul Comfort : I've been there.
Howard Collins : The Jubilee Line extension, that fantastic project.
Paul Comfort : Oh, you did that? That is amazing.
Howard Collins : A fantastic opportunity to learn about new technology, and that's where I had the passion to do new things and reinvest in the railway. And ended up as the chief operating officer for London Underground in 2008.
Paul Comfort : What an honor, huh? What did you start out as when you first got in there?
Howard Collins : I think I started out as basically a traffic administration trainee. £2700 a year. It was incredible. I gave my mom £20, and the rest was mine.
Paul Comfort : Is that right?
Howard Collins : Yeah.
Paul Comfort : You went from that to CEO.
Howard Collins : Yeah, and I think one of the things is, whilst I recognize getting new people into our organization, or any organization is great, but some of the people who have had that life, career journey through the organization, you remember things. You recognize things. Sometimes operational incidents only happen once in a lifetime. Sometimes things that you can see from projects - we learn a lot I think, not so much from all our successes, which has many, many fathers or mothers. Sometimes I've found I learnt the best from perhaps thinking it didn't go too well and I'll have a go next time.
Paul Comfort : Failure's an orphan, right? We learn from it and move on. What did you do after 2008 when you were CEO?
Howard Collins : Did all sorts of things. We had a fantastic opportunity for two great events. One was the London Olympics. I was put in charge of all the public transport delivery for the London Olympics. There were a lot of Aussies there who had learnt a lot from how well the 2000 Olympics worked in Sydney. It was a great time. It didn't rain for the four weeks, which is incredible for London.
Paul Comfort : Wow, what a miracle.
Howard Collins : We got 90% of the people traveling on the public train network. They gave up their free BMW chauffer-driven cars. I remember meeting the American basketball team on the train because they decided they wanted to travel the tube. It was a wonderful occasion and a great public transport event.
Then the other thing I feel very proud of was celebrating 150 years of London Underground, and putting a steam train back underground, which I think myself and Sir Peter Hendy had this idea. I think everyone else thought we were crazy, but it was a fantastic event, and having three of the Royal Family turn up for celebrating our, and having all the railways around the world coming and joining that celebration in January '13 was fantastic.
Paul Comfort : I bet you. I've met Sir Peter. He and Andy Byford and I spoke at an APTA conference in LA a few years ago. Great guy.
Howard Collins : The interesting thing there is a very, very small number of us who are now scattered around the world, who really come from that source of UK and London. You've got Neil Scales up here running Brisbane. He and I worked together. Andy Byford, we were general managers together in London Underground. Ian Dobbs, Rob Mason, Andy Lasala. There is an amazing small community out there.
You asked me about how I ended up here.
Paul Comfort : Yeah, so let's go there.
Howard Collins : How did I end up here? I actually was very comfortable doing my job in London.
Paul Comfort : I'm sure.
Howard Collins : Then the phone rang. "Hey, we're reorganizing Sydney. Are you interested?" And actually worked out with a great opportunity - my wife's got a brother here. My son was off to university. It all fell into place, and after 36 years of working for London Underground, and everyone thought I was going to be there for the next 36, I decided to make a move, and you know, Paul, it's the best thing I've ever done.
Paul Comfort : What year was that?
Howard Collins : 2013. Almost six years ago.
Paul Comfort : Why was it the best thing you ever did?
Howard Collins : I think one of the things was just doing something different. Also, at the end of the day, when you're the chief executive, the buck stops with you. I've learned a lot from that and broadened my experience and my career from understanding what all sorts of people do in different sectors. And Australia has hit the golden age of rail. I think for the first time in probably 50 years, Australians realize public transport is the only way to get cities to work. Expanding cities like Melbourne and Sydney, which are going to grow from five million to eight million in the next 20 years, you can't drive, you can't have that culture of car anymore. You've got to look at London and New York, and you'll see that public transport.
We've got about a third of the network we really need to run Sydney effectively, so my crusade, and one of the reasons why I wanted to come here, was to change what was an operators' railway where trains were dots on a diagram and customer service was only talk to customers when they really do pester you, to actually transforming this place where I feel proud that we are probably one of the most focused customer service railways in this part of the world. I know the others are catching me up and doing great things, but I would say that was the real focus.
The other thing was getting investment through from government to get more investment in rail, whether that's metros or us. I've been on a bit of a crusade, speaking wherever I can to say, "This is what we need." Amazingly, the Aussies have been listening, and I'm delighted to be working here and look forward too many years to come.
The only other thing, Paul, it's a great place to live. I mean, for a Brit. If you're going on holiday for two weeks of the year, you might get down to the beach and enjoy a beachside experience twice a year if you're very lucky. Here, I do this every weekend — swim, sail. I live near the beach. It's a fantastic experience, and I jump on my train every morning.
Paul Comfort : That's great. Tell us about how you're accomplishing those visions you have about customer service and the funding and those kinds of things. What are you doing to make that happen?
Howard Collins : Well I was very fortunate that when we started up our executive team under Sydney Trains and New South Wales TrainLink, we got some good people on board who really understood customer service. We brought on board, for example, Liz Ward from New Zealand. She really revolutionized the customer service side. And basically, we said to people, "If you want to continue serving our customers in a proactive way, come and join us. If you really don't like customers and really do find it difficult to engage, there is an opportunity for you to further your career somewhere else," in a nice sort of way. We've seen an amazing influx of people joining us who really do love customers, who are out there every day and are prepared to do anything.
Most of my stations have a chief executive, each one of them. I call them chief executive. My local station, well aware, Brian Chan, fantastic guy. He knows everybody — a CSA on that platform. I call him the chief executive because he knows what's going on. He helps old ladies across the road. He sorts out things. He understands the local customer. And I've got about 150 of those stations where that one person knows the customer is out there every day, sweeping up, keeping the place clean, making sure that everything is immaculate, and really engaged with our customers.
Paul Comfort : I don't know that other people do that actually, in other transit systems. In Baltimore, we didn't have a train station kind of manager at each one, who took accountability for that. That's a great way to do it.
Howard Collins : They aren't managers. I think this is the interesting thing. These are frontline staff who just take on that responsibility, and I think it's about giving and empowering people to make some of those decisions, to feel that they have the responsibility. I mean the other alternative is to de-staff stations, have the police turn up occasionally. What do customers say? They want people present. They want to see people. They recognize you can't have them 24 hours at a quiet station. But I have learnt through the years that if you provide that customer model, people will then travel. They feel safe. They feel someone they can speak to. They're out of selling tickets anymore, because, with our open card, you're not in a ticket office secure world. You're out on the platforms making sure things are right. I think if you walk around the system, you'll see a lot of our staff are there. We changed the uniform. We upgraded the signing. We got obsessed by the color orange, as you can see around the room here, Paul.
Paul Comfort : Yes, it's all around, yeah.
Howard Collins : But I do think that's the big change. The other area I suppose is I had the opportunity to speak to our stakeholders about what we need to do in terms of investment. How do we need to up the system? We need to make sure the place is more reliable. We have things which are very old. We've got a signal box up at Mount Victoria, which was modernized in 1911. That's when they put electricity in the place, because before it didn't have that. It had old lamps and rods. We are still pulling those huge levers up there to signal the trains. Whilst I love history and historic things in railways, we do have to modernize, and we're now on that journey of improving our network by looking to the future and saying, "How do we get greater capacity?"
Paul Comfort : Let's talk about that, because I know that's a key here. You were telling me that that's kind of what you all did in London, and you're bringing that here. Tell us about that.
Howard Collins : I think it is a repeat story. It is looking at what others have done in the past, and certainly what we did in London, and many other cities have done the same, is to say, "How do we get greater capacity? We can't fit any more trains on the track with the current signaling system. We're really running a timetable which is at the edge of its reliability. It runs well, but we have to make sure those trains don't hang around for more than 30 seconds. Otherwise, things will slow down." It's a bit like London, New York. With growth, what do you do? Well, you look at how to make those trains go faster and more effective. We've seen how European cities have put in digital systems, whether that's the CBTC system that we had in London Underground or the more open system which allows us to run those 140 freight trains which come through our network. European train control systems. That's what we're going for.
We've started that journey. We've got the first 900 million, which will allow us to get capacity on some of our most congested lines, and then we believe that the network in the metropolitan area, we want to convert over. This will mean in-cab signaling to start with. This will mean automation in the congested areas. In fact, for the layperson it's about saying we can get our trains closer together, we can get them to operate in a very optimized condition, following each other safely under computer control, rather than at the moment we have to allow for the longest freight train running on our tracks to keep those trains apart. I've seen it done. And I think there's an opportunity here in the next five to 10 years to improve our capacity, probably by 30 or 40%.
Paul Comfort : That's going to require you to hire a lot of new people, train them. How do you manage a workforce of how many people did you say?
Howard Collins : About 13000-14000.
Paul Comfort : How are you handling that? Is that going well? Are you in a constant hiring-
Howard Collins : Well, railways traditionally, if you look at the operational and engineering side, we have a very low turnover. People join us and want to stay. We are a good employer. When I meet my train drivers and guards and customer service assistants who have joined us from the street, I often say, "What job did you do before?" "I was a teacher or a policeman. I was someone who worked in the retail industry." We're getting people of such great caliber into our network. I think that's a great investment for us.
But there is a scarcity of those skills in engineering, of digital systems engineers or signaling engineers or electrical guys and girls. We are very interested in trying to ensure, through training and through universities, to try and get a pipeline of people through Australia. Particularly, we're very interested in getting the diversity balance. We want to encourage more women to join us in that journey.
Twenty years ago, we had our first female train driver, which seems very, very late to the party, considering most other railways probably had them 20 years before that. I've got 367 female train drivers and guards now. But in management, in engineering, we really want to work with those universities and maybe even schools to say, "There is a real future for both men and women in this rail industry." We're investing $50 billion in the next five to 10 years in the rail public transport area, and therefore that must lead to great careers and great opportunities for people.
Paul Comfort : Do you have a dedicated funding source, other than obviously the fares, or do you have to go back to the government every year and ask for money?
Howard Collins : Well, like most public transport areas, the fares cover something, but they don't cover the operational costs unless you're in London where fares would give most Australians a heart attack, I think. But I would say we have had consistency of investment through government on the capital side of that. We have now basically had the investment stream for replacing all of our rolling stock now for new and modern, so that's either here or coming. We have investment in, obviously, metros, which will give us capacity. I think we just have to keep on that crusade, Paul, of making sure we're relevant to those people who are making those decisions. I think for cities and states, mobility of people, moving them around from city to city or suburb to suburb requires great public transport.
You know Australians have traveled a lot, so they go to New York, they go to London and Paris. They see all this public network, and they come back and ask the question, "Well, why isn't it happening in Melbourne and Sydney and Brisbane?" And that's a good question. It's our job to make sure it happens.
Paul Comfort : And you get $50 billion. Again, is that part of their annual operating budget, or do you get a piece of the action on sales tax or property tax or anything like that?
Howard Collins : What has happened is under this government, they've recycled a lot of the state assets, so the poles and wires for example which transmit have been a leased a long turnout, and that returns big chunks of dollars back into the government's coffers. Their state balance is in surplus, and therefore a significant proportion of that releasing or selling off has come into public transport as opposed to other areas. We've sort of reprioritized. Generally, I've found over 42 years transport tends to be at the bottom of the shopping list for government investment. I think government realized you've got to invest in schools and education and hospitals, but transport's got to be that centerpiece of gaining the ability to move around from schools and hospitals, the ability to keep the cities going.
Paul Comfort : It's the arteries of the city, so to speak.
Howard Collins : Yeah. And I think we have been fortunate that there has been some asset recycling and some sales of those assets which have sat in the public sector for years, which has given us that cash injection, enabled our capital to invest in those programs.
Paul Comfort : When I was in Victoria earlier this week, they outsource a lot of the operations. How do you handle that here?
Howard Collins : Yeah, we do a lot. I mean, it's quite interesting. It depends on state by state. Traditionally, in public transport, New South Wales has been a public transport operated and owned business. But over the last ten years, the bus side has almost gone completely over to contract management.
Paul Comfort : Is that part of what you oversee?
Howard Collins : Yeah, absolutely. If you think about two-thirds of our fleet now is run and managed by Downer over a PFI deal for 30 years. We manage that contract. A lot of our work, whether we're working on the tracks or cleaning or anything else, we keep the great tension between private and public sector. I have a cleaning team about a third of our network. They are absolutely on the money because they know they have to compete and make or buy as we call it against the private sector, which we utilize as well.
Paul Comfort : That's good. There's competition.
Howard Collins : There's a mix. People talk about, "Oh, Sydney Trains, it's a state-run organization. The private sector could do better." I say to my guys, "Think like the private sector. Think about the costs and the operations as well as the efficiency," and we mix the best of both worlds.
The one thing I'd always say about railways is I have come to the conclusion, Paul, after many years that a vertically integrated railway, whether it's private or public, is the way that gets the best deal for the customer. I've seen in the UK slicing and dicing it with Network Rail running the tracks and the signaling, the train operating companies, of which there were 42, now slightly less, trying to fight each other to get access to the railway, and being a commuter of one of those experiences, and I won't name the railway, it didn't really do the customer a lot of good.
So, I'm agnostic about private or public. I think you can mix it. But make sure there's someone accountable for running the show. I know every day I'm accountable. When every customer comes up to me and talks to me about their experience, nine times out of 10, it's very positive. I always wear my name badge. People joke it's so my wife recognizes me when I get home late at night, she remembers my name. But I think, Paul, it's about actually being accountable. I think in Sydneysiders' terms, as I walk the street sometimes, they say, "Hey, aren't you that Pommy guy running the railways?" And I said, "Yep." And most people will say, "We have seen a difference." Most people will say, "We've got things we've got to do still." But I'm actually warmed by the general sentiment of Sydneysiders to say they have seen a difference.
Paul Comfort : Clearly. I mean I would agree with that, having just been a few days and ridden it. It's awesome.
Howard Collins : But there's a lot more to do.
Paul Comfort : Let's talk about that. What's coming next? What's on the near-term horizon for you?
Howard Collins : Well arrival of more new trains. A new intercity fleet. The regional fleet. A Spanish provider for one.
Paul Comfort : You've got CAF working with you.
Howard Collins : CAF working with us will be fantastic for the regional rail. A first South Korean train coming, Rotem, new intercity fleet with UG, which is an Australian company. That will be interesting. As I talked earlier, the digital systems. The reinvestment in some of our stations to get step-free access. We've done 90 stations. We've put in lifts at 90 stations, made them accessible to our customers, very important. Ensuring we integrate with the new metro system, which is coming very soon. From a Sydneysider's point of view, they don't care whether it's run by one company or another. We've got to show a seamless approach to transport. There is so much going on. That's why it's so exciting.
Paul Comfort : Tell us about this station that just got renovated that you went to this week. That's a nice anecdote about what this job is really about.
Howard Collins : Sydney's a bustling suburb, but when you get out further, you realize the history of New South Wales was really developed by the railroads. When they got to a place called Millthorpe in 1876, the only way to get to Millthorpe was by train. In the 1940s, this station produced more freight than any other station in New South Wales. The goods and services and farming were loaded onto this station and went down to Sydney. You can imagine the place. But in the '50s and '60s, people got cars. The place became more and more rundown. Freight went on roads. And then by 1986, the station was closed. The community was dying.
But then in the 2000s, they realized that country towns in New South Wales had something to offer. That rural lifestyle, the restaurants, the community engagement. And the power of Millthorpe as a town, really over the last ten years, has been banging on the door, saying, "We want to reopen the station. We want to be part of the New South Wales rail network again." Yesterday, 300 kilometers west of Sydney, I jumped on the train, and we stopped for the first time in 33 years on a new little platform we built, with this beautiful 1886 station, and 500 people there to greet us. Forty-two people got off the train. It was such a great event.
Railways for many towns are something about a resurrection and redevelopment of their communities. Now Millthorpe is one of the thriving destinations to go as a tourist. It's got a Michelin-hatted restaurant. It's got a chocolate factory. You can walk down the streets, and it's a time warp. You can tie your horse against the railings, and almost go in like a Western-style saloon bar and order your whiskey. It's that quaint. And lots of people like going there. But you could only go there by car before that. Such a great event.
The purpose of railways is not just running. We in the New South Wales regions, it's a community engagement. We spruced up the place. Cut down 40 years of growth and trees and grass, and renovated the station a bit more. Put in a few modern facilities like CCTV and stuff like that. It was a great occasion, a great occasion. We've got a few more to do.
Paul Comfort : From that kind of history of rail in this area, I want to take you to the future in my last question. You've been doing this for over 40 years. What do you see ten years from now? What's your vision? Leaders like you almost always know where they're headed. Where are we headed? What is Sydney Rail going to look like ten years from now, 20 years from now?
Howard Collins : Well, let me tell you. We have a 2056 strategy.
Paul Comfort : Well, there you go.
Howard Collins : Going out to there. I threatened all of those people that I'll still be here.
Paul Comfort : You might be.
Howard Collins : I'll be 97. But I do see a huge future for rail.
Paul Comfort : You'll be Sir Howard Collins by then.
Howard Collins : Well, I don't know. But I think I'll be well underground by then in more ways than one. But Paul, I would say the vision I've got is that within the next ten years, we'll be carrying half a billion people on our network. We'll be respected as being one of those world global cities which has a really good transport system, the metro, Sydney Trains, buses. We'll be keeping our heads above water in terms of competing with those other cities who have really got ahead of us in terms of their service.
And I do see tomorrow's generation, of which my son is just one of them, don't want to drive around. They want to be engaged. They want to be connected with the community. And I do think one way we can do that is to have really good public transport. I'm passionate about that. Every breath I take, and every time I spring out of bed on a Monday morning, I feel that we're getting there. I just want to give people the inspiration and the leadership to ensure that we continue that journey well after I've gone down some track in the future.
Paul, I travel on it every day. I've clocked up 133,000 kilometers, which I record every day, how many kilometers I've done. I probably know most of my 14,000 staff by sight. And I would say it's not me, it's the whole of my team are doing a great job out there.
Paul Comfort : That's wonderful. Well, you're doing an awesome job. I can't wait to see what it's going to look like in 10 years, because I know you're going to take it there. You've already made so many improvements in the six you've been here. I feel like I'm talking to - you kind of look like Michael Caine. And you sound like him. I'm talking to the Michael Caine of transport here. Pretty awesome. And very excited to be with you here today, and I know after this, you're going to show us your operations control center. It's been a phenomenal visit to Australia, and thank you so much for being our guest on Transit Unplugged.
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