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Episode 043: Transit Unplugged Podcast - James Pinder
James Pinder – V/Line

“Railways are very, very complicated systems, and they require thousands of things to happen in order each day for them to work effectively.”

Continuing our adventure Down Under, our guest has spent his entire career in the rail industry. James Pinder started as an engineer in the U.K. before eventually becoming the CEO of V/Line, the regional rail operator for the state of Victoria, Australia. Pinder discusses the challenge of trying to modernize the whole system while V/Line’s service is growing (at ~10% per year). He also gets into his philosophy of how he builds his team and the culture of V/Line. Finally, he lets us know that “V/Line is about improving in the basics around safety, performance, operational excellence, customer satisfaction, and coming right back to why we exist.”

If you want to know more about V/Line, you can check out their website.

Remember to check out to learn from top transit professionals and stay up to date to catch all the latest episodes.

Show Transcript

Paul Comfort : I'm Paul Comfort. Welcome to this special edition of the award-winning podcast, Transit Unplugged. Today we continue our seven-part series on transit in the land Down Under, Australia. Today I meet with James Pinder, the chief executive officer of the V/Line or Victoria Line, which is the commuter rail and commuter bus service run under contract with Public Transport Victoria. James has been in the transit industry for a long time - has a lot to tell us about how he runs this massive commuter rail system outside of Melbourne and for the state of Victoria. All that on this edition of Transit Unplugged.

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 : I'm Paul Comfort, and this is a special edition of Transit Unplugged. I'm in Melbourne, Australia with James Pinder, the CEO of V/Line. We've had a number of interviews with his colleagues, and we're excited to be here in his office. James, thanks for being with us.

James Pinder : Thank you, Paul. Thank you very much.

Paul Comfort : Why don't we start by just telling us a little bit about the service you operate and how it fits into the whole, the triumvirate of services, so to speak, that are here in Melbourne, which has some of the biggest and best transit in the world.

James Pinder : So, V/Line is the organization that I look after, and V/Line is, widely regarded as Australia's largest regional rail operator. What a lot of people don't realize is that we also operate a lot of coach services. We carry about 20 million train trips a year, and we carry about a million other coach type trips.

We cover all of Victoria, the entire state of Victoria. To give people from the other side of the planet a rough idea, Victoria is probably about the size of the United Kingdom. We operate a fleet of mainly diesel mobile units, but we do have some low-carbon services that operate right across the state, joining up Melbourne with the five regional centers around Victoria - so around Jilong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Seymour, and Traralgon in the east. And from those locations, we also operate these regional coach services that connect other smaller communities that are right around the state.

We're about 2000 people. We are growing phenomenally fast. There's a huge investment program that's occurring right across the state of Victoria, predominantly focused around Melbourne but not exclusively. There is a huge investment program in regional route as well. The regional rail revival program upgrades part or some of all five of those lines that I've mentioned earlier on.

It's a really exciting time for our industry. We are growing incredibly fast. I've been in this role now for just over two years, and in that time V/Line has grown from an organization that had just over 1500 people to just over 2000 people, to give you an idea.

Paul Comfort : And you directly operate the service, right?

James Pinder : We perform two roles. We are the operator of V/Line training coach services. So, we are the accredited operator. We are also the accredited infrastructure maintainer. So, we maintain the infrastructure that our train services operate on except for where we share tracks with Metro Trains, who are the other big train operator in town. So, we do share some of their infrastructure, but where we operate exclusively on our infrastructure, we maintain that infrastructure as well, right across the state.

Paul Comfort : When you say train and coaches, by coaches you mean buses?

James Pinder : Well, people like to call them coaches because, I think, the main difference is around comfort. So typically, a coach will have a toilet on it and be a little bit more comfortable. The bus is something that you would normally catch in the city.

Paul Comfort : We call that commuter buses in America.

James Pinder : It's just the terminology. So, our coaches would be similar to the Greyhound style coaches you'd see in the U.S. We carry about a million passenger trips. We don't own any of the coaches that we operate. We subcontract those to coach operators right across the state. But we do operate our rolling stock, train rolling stock so that there is a little bit the demarcation there.

Paul Comfort : Yes. And for daily passenger counts like on the commuter buses, the coaches, do you know what your daily passengers for a weekday would be, on average?

James Pinder : I could tell you those numbers, but I don't know have them in hand. I just know that if you aggregate them over a year, we carry about a million people on our coach service every year.

Paul Comfort : And you're bringing people into the cities for jobs? That's the idea?

James Pinder : Well this is another thing about V/Line, V/Line is changing. It's transforming right before our eyes. So traditionally V/Line was very much a regional railway service that used to provide people with access to the city for medical appointments, maybe to come to university. And, conversely, going in the opposite direction, it would be a railway service that someone might go to visit an Auntie, who lives in Warrnambool, once or a couple of times a year or whatever it was. We still provide that service for a whole lot of Victorians, but we are fast becoming a peri-urban style, commuter style railway between those five hubs that I spoke about earlier.

So historically, a little brief bit of history - about five years ago now, the Regional Rail project, fast rail project was completed. Essentially, three of our five lines became dedicated regional train lines between Jalong, Bendigo and Ballarat, which are our three biggest cities in Victoria, if you exclude Melbourne. And those are our dedicated lines. Now once that project was completed, we saw a huge increase, something like year on year, 10%, 10%, 10% increase in our patronage. So, places now that didn't exist previously in terms of conurbations, places like Tarny, for example, which is almost a brand-new suburb - 10 years ago, it wasn't there. These suburbs, we've built train stations at them, and they are now becoming some of our busiest train stations.

So Tarny, which is just over three years old now is already V/Line's second busiest train station behind Southern Cross, which is the main hub. And the success of it is phenomenal. Entire urban sprawl is growing around these stations as they've been built. So, V/Line is changing and of course as the need or the specification for the railway changes, then we have to change too.

We're very busy modernizing our operational control systems, the way that we manage our operation, rostering systems, all of those sorts of things that historically have been done in a very, I don't want to say old fashioned, but a traditional way. Those kinds of systems are no longer capable of managing this huge operation that we are becoming. So, whilst we're modernizing our services, we're also trying to modernize our back office and our operational systems so that we can cope with the demands and the growth in particular. So, it's, as I said earlier on, it's an exciting time to be looking after V/Line right now.

Paul Comfort : So how did you end up in this role?

James Pinder : I've worked in the railway industry my whole life. I started as an engineering apprentice back in the day in British rail, 1984. So that's 30 something years, too many years. And I spent most of my career working in railways in the U.K. Predominantly went through the whole privatization cycle there.

Just over six years ago, I came to Melbourne for the first time. I worked at Metro, a rolling stock engineer by trade. I used to look after the rolling stock at Metro. I did that for three years. I went away from Metro and went back to the U.K. for a year, got married and then was offered the opportunity to come and run V/Line and I've been here ever since for the last couple of years.

Paul Comfort : Nice. And what would you say is the biggest challenge for you being the CEO of this fast-growing commuter rail system here?

James Pinder : When I think about the context of what it is we're trying to achieve, V/Line has a really strong brand in Victoria. So, for all the reasons that I've described earlier on, you know, the fact that we connect regional Victoria, a lot of people have relied on V/Line historically. I mean, our staff, they work out in those communities quite often. There'll be one person that works for V/Line in a place like Bacchus Marsh for example. He's not only a V/Line employee on the day when he's at work. He's a V/Line employee in that community all of the time - 24/7. So we do have a real strength of brand, predominantly associated with our long history and we are changing. The challenge for us is to modernize this organization and manage the transition in some cases where we're operating these high-density, high-frequency commuter style services, but maintain that strength of the brand. We don't want to lose what it is to be V/Line as we go through this transformation.

In terms of tackling the role, for me, railways are fairly similar organizations. We only really have two resources at our disposal. We've got the money that the government gives us every year to run the railway, and we've got our people. So, our focus is on ensuring that we've got the right amount of money and the right level of funding to operate what it is that we need to operate every day. And the rest of the time we focus on our people, and if we're not creating an environment where we're getting the best out of our people, then we won't get the best out of V/Line it's simple as that for me. There's a lot of focus on process procedures. If we were in Japan, they would talk about the rules, but really our focus is finances, process, and people from our one side of the railway triangle.

We then spent a lot of time understanding what the system capability was in terms of the infrastructure and in and the other resources, like the rolling stock, for example, the other assets. And then it's just a matter of maintaining the balance of the triangle. I call the railway triangle, making sure that the system requirements, the timetable, how many services we're operating and many people are balanced with a system capability and the capability of the organization. And if we strike that balance, we end up with a safe, high-performing, reliable railway system. If we get that balance wrong, we're trying to get too much out of our system, or we're not investing enough in our assets or our people, then inevitably you end up with the poor railway.

We do focus on the basics whilst we keep one eye on the future. And the eye on the future for us is to make sure that as Melbourne and, in our case, regional Victoria is growing, that we are in good shape to support that growth because we have a lot more value than just a transport provider. We have a huge amount of economic value to the whole state of Victoria by connecting these communities and making sure that we're keeping a whole show moving.

Paul Comfort : I'm interested in, if you don't mind talking a little bit more about it, the people, processes, and money. Let's talk about people first. What are you doing in that area to get the most out of your people and to empower them, etc.?

James Pinder : The first instance, it's about having the right people in the organization. For me coming into this role two years ago, there are already some fantastic people in V/Line. And it's about making sure that as I created the executive team and the team below the executive team and the team below that team, I'm striking the right balance between bringing in new resources and improving the DNA.

But I am also giving the people in the organization already the opportunities to progress through the organization. And in some cases, it's been a simple matter of taking a square page that was in a round hole and putting them in a square hole instead. And suddenly you see this person who may have been feeling a little bit demotivated because they're in the wrong role with a whole new lease of life because you put them in the right role.

Paul Comfort : That's wonderful.

James Pinder : Railways for me are all about people. And that leadership role for me was about creating that environment where people can be their best.

Paul Comfort : So, you like team building, building the right team. And do you communicate with them regularly? Your vision and they buy into it?

James Pinder : We have a whole raft of different communication platforms that we use. We've got a weekly newsletter that goes out. We've got a quarterly senior managers leadership forum that we organize. We've got V/Rack that goes out once a month electronically. We use things like Yammer. I find, from my perspective, the most valuable communication opportunity that I get is when I go out and about in the business and talk to people face to face. I and each of my executives will spend at least one day a week doing that.

So yesterday I was out on the Gippsland corridor. Why did I choose Gippsland? When a couple of weeks ago we had some fairly major bush fires move through the region. So, it's a matter of me going out and making sure that people are OK, connecting with people, making them aware that somebody in head office is even interested in that they're still OK.

We also reinstated some long service award type evenings that a few years ago were pushed to one side, shall we say. We have monthly staff recognition events, so we'll invite people to head office, and these are people that can be nominated by anybody right across the organization. A peer can nominate a peer for going above and beyond. So, we'll hear some fantastic stories about people out in the field, whether it's helping someone that was thinking about jumping in front of a train to one extreme or delivering some project that makes customer satisfaction scores go up in a certain area right across the piece. And what's great about that for me, not only is it people recognizing their colleagues that have gone above and beyond, but it also allows me to invite those people into head office so that people that work in head office get to recognize that there is a railway out there. It's quite often, sitting in an office, you can forget that when you're dealing with payroll or you're dealing with finance or procurement or H.R. So, it's fantastic. It's gone down well.

Paul Comfort : That's awesome, James.

James Pinder : I keep saying to people, we won't stop doing it until the recognitions dry up and each month there's more and more and more and more. We started with three or four a month. Now we're up to sort of 12-15 a month. It's great.

Paul Comfort : What do you give them if they're recognized?

James Pinder : Recognition. Well done. They get to stand next to the CEO, shake his hand, and somebody will read out a nice little message that reflects what they've done.

Paul Comfort : Do you do that in front of their peers?

James Pinder : In front of everyone. Anyone can come along and then we'll have a cup of tea and a bit of cake and all go back to work afterward. But these things, we laugh, and we joke about it now, but they're really powerful. You know, some of the stories that are here, even when I spend a lot of time out and about I'll never, never fail to be surprised about some of the stories I hear from our staff about stuff they get up to day in and day out. So, it's a great story.

Paul Comfort : And how about the money? How are you funded? What is your farebox recovery ratio? Those kinds of things.

James Pinder : From a funding perspective, we are completely funded by the state. The farebox is slightly complicated here because everything farebox wise goes through to the PTV. There is a farebox allocation, but it is not something that necessarily reflects either the number of services we provide or the number of passengers that we carry. So, our funding comes from the government.

Paul Comfort : Is it mostly the state government? Victoria?

James Pinder : Yeah, it's all the state government. So, we will make a budget submission each year based around a four-year forecast. And each year we will refresh that forecast.

Paul Comfort : Does the federal government provide any capital funding or anything.

James Pinder : Some of the major projects, some of the major big build projects that are going on in Victoria are being funded by the federal government, but typically the funding is allocated by the state.

Paul Comfort : So that's what the Prime Minister was doing here yesterday?

James Pinder : The Prime Minister was down here yesterday with the Premier of Victoria talking about the new airport railway link that they're going to build. So that's a good example of where the state and the federal government are combining their resources to build something.

Paul Comfort : Is that MTM's project or yours?

James Pinder : Yet to be determined. Some of these big projects are delivered as PPPs. Others are delivered directly by the state and some of the states. And we are part of some of these alliances that deliver some of these projects in some examples and Metro or MTM work in partnership with some of these alliances to build some of the other projects. It's a real mixture of different frameworks when it comes to these major programs of work. But the bottom line is there's probably over $50 billion being invested in transport if you include things like the west gate tunnel (which is a road project and Melbourne Metro) and in the airport link and regional rail revival that I've already mentioned, and the level crossing removal program.

There are billions and billions of dollars being invested. And for someone like me going back 30 odd years which started in the railways, and railways generally were shrinking to see that they are now growing and thriving almost in like a renaissance of railways right around the world but particularly is the case in Victoria. It's fantastic, but it comes with its challenges. Making sure that we primarily keep people moving whilst we're rebuilding the infrastructure is a challenge and wouldn't it be terrible if 10-15 years down the line having invested all this money, we were sitting there thinking if only we'd have done this instead, or if only we'd done this as well. It's a real responsibility. But at the same time, it's very exciting.

Paul Comfort : What's next on your plate for expanding and moving forward?

James Pinder : Our focus currently at V/Line is about improving in the basics around safety, performance, operational excellence, customer satisfaction, and coming right back to why we exist. It's easy to get a little bit carried away in the current environment where all this exciting stuff was going on. We have to remind ourselves that our role in life is to operate the railway and the coach services and maintain the infrastructure. So, doing that well every day and doing it better tomorrow than we did it today and better again than we did it yesterday is our challenge.

I'll often say to people, railways are very, very complicated systems and they require thousands of things to happen in order each day for them to work effectively. And the prize you get for doing that well today, you should get to do it all again tomorrow and all again the day after. And it's like that, and it's relentless. But at this moment in time, it's exciting and certainly building the capability of V/Line through its people will continue to be our focus going forward.

Paul Comfort : Since you have the responsibility of maintenance of your railways, tell us about your efforts there because that's something that resonates throughout the world. In America, we call it state of good repair. Other places it's ISO 55000. What are you doing to maintain all those rail assets, your vehicles, the linear assets, etc.?

James Pinder : We are in the process of going through an accreditation process for ISO 55001 as well. But more practically, in the two years I've been here, I can tell you for example that when I first started here, there were 55 kilometers of speed restrictions on the network, which essentially is the railway's way of staying safe when there are defects on the infrastructure. Now we have 4 kilometers. So I know that just from that assessment that we've improved things like upgrading level crossings, installing axle counters, things like making sure that we manage, creep on the railway so that we don't have to slow trains down as much when it gets hot, and it does get hot here. Trust me. And all of those kinds of measures. They're all heading in the right direction.

Are we done yet? No, we're not. But what we do know from the work that we've done in improving both our linear assets and through Bombardier, the reliability of the rolling stock assets, we see our performance steadily improve. Now we're not shooting the lights out. You don't change the operational DNA and the operational performance of a railway overnight unless you change something significant or unless you change the way you measure the numbers, shall we say. But what I do know is that V/Line is growing at a rate of about 10% a year. So, we're carrying more and more passengers were running more and more trains and, in that context, we are getting more reliable.

When I spoke earlier about balancing that triangle, we're asking for more and more out of our system, and our system is becoming more and more reliable. So, I know that we must be doing the right thing with our assets because if you weren't doing the right thing with our assets, then our infrastructure would not be as reliable and our performance figures will be going in the opposite direction. Is there a lot more to do? Yes, there is always more to do. You're never done.

Paul Comfort : How are you able to keep up on the number of train operators, etc. that you need if you're growing 10% a year?

James Pinder : Well, it's phenomenal right now, Paul, we've got over, I think, I went along to see the latest intake of trainee drivers last Wednesday, and that took us to over 120 trained drivers in training right now.

Paul Comfort : How long is your training program?

James Pinder : It varies. It varies between people that may have previously experienced already in other companies where it can be as quick as 20 weeks to people that have never driven or trained before having to learn a network that's the size of the United Kingdom it can take 70 odd weeks to learn the entire network.

Paul Comfort : And you're unionized, I'm sure?

James Pinder : Of course. And we work very closely. I wouldn't describe our relationship with the trade unions as being overly friendly, but we have a functional relationship with the unions, and we'll continue to do that. And over time that relationship will get better and better. I want no doubt about that.

But to come back to the training piece, we have got record numbers of not only drivers but signal maintenance technicians. We've got 18 apprentices we took on last year. That's the largest intake of apprentices that we've taken since our records began let alone in recent times. So, we're doing all the right things.

We do in some areas have an aging workforce. Like other parts of the world, a number of years ago, the government here decided that the compulsory retirement age was no longer a thing. People like staying at V/Line because it's a great place to work and a great place to be. But our workforce is getting older.

So we've got lots of people in training right across the piece. Our driver establishment, to give you an idea is something like 370 so we've got 370 and over 120 in training, so that's a third again almost, and we're getting through it. We're growing fast. Tomorrow I'm going across to our driver training center, which we have recently doubled in size, so we had to buy the accommodation next door to fit all of our trainees. We've got our simulators going in down there as well, so it's an exciting time.

Paul Comfort : I don't know any service that's growing 10% a year. I mean that is amazing.

James Pinder : We know that we're Australia's fastest growing railway. We suspect that we're probably, except for some of these brand-new railways, one of the fastest growing railways in the world. But what we also are very keen to point out is that we are also very much Australia's fastest improving railway. We're trying to keep that improvement rate up with our growth rate because that's very important to not only our customers but also to our staff or other stakeholders in government, in particular.

Paul Comfort : I love your approach of the three-legged stool, making this thing all work together. If you had to prioritize one or two actions that you are going to take in the next six months to a year, as we close this out, what are your top priorities as it relates to innovation?

James Pinder : From my perspective, it’s not innovation in the traditional sense, but what we're trying to persuade our key stakeholders in both the department and in government that we probably need to take a slightly longer-term view of V/Line. For example, if we had a long-term funding model, we would be able to make slightly different decisions with what we invest our money. So, rather than renting a track recording machine (at a significant amount of money for per shift), if we were to be given the funds to buy our own in four or five years, it would have paid for itself.

It's just good general financial management, trying to install that kind of philosophy for V/Line. Whereas traditionally we've got a government that's been very supportive of V/Line, done some great work over the last few years, trying to encourage people to take a slightly longer-term view. Everybody knows it makes sense, but you know, at the same time, we're in the public sector, so we're competing with other people that also have a very good cause for asking for more money. But we know that we can do even more in the future and frankly at the rate that we're growing, we need to do even more. And up to now, we've got a lot of support from the people that need to support us the most. And we hope that that continues.

Paul Comfort : Yeah. Well, I can see why they've got a man like you in charge. You've got a good rational plan for accelerating growth but maintaining the quality of the service, focused on people, which is key for me as well as the processes and the financing. James Pinder, thank you so much for being with us today on Transit Unplugged.

James Pinder : Thanks a lot, Paul. Thanks a lot.

Outro : You've been listening to Transit Unplugged, powered by Trapeze Group. To stay up to date, subscribe on iTunes or Google Play, or join the conversation at Thanks for listening.

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