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Episode 041: Transit Unplugged Podcast - Nicolas Gindt
Nicolas Gindt – Keolis Downer and Yarra Trams

“What makes a fantastic difference for Yarra Trams, is its brand and its incredible value in every Melburnian’s heart. And I realized that every time I’m meeting new people.”

Transit Unplugged continues its adventure in Australia with Nicolas Gindt, CEO of Keolis Downer Victoria and operator of Yarra Trams. Yarra Trams is the largest tram network in the world. It has a diverse fleet of ~480 trams with 250 kilometers of track (times two as Nicolas likes to say), with 2300 employees.

On this episode, Nicolas discusses the challenges of operating a diverse trams system – with some trams being weeks old compared to some that have run for 60 years. Sometimes it’s because they must create parts in-house or that the manufacturer no longer exists, and it’s the challenge of integrating the different technologies between all the different trams.

Nicolas highlights how about 75% of the network shares its service with the road and other vehicles. Finally, he elaborates on the challenges of building additional infrastructure for a tram network and trying to make the system more accessible for people with disabilities.

If you want to know more about Yarra Trams, 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 a special edition of Transit Unplugged. On this edition, we continue our seven-part series visiting and interviewing transit CEOs from Australia, the land Down Under and on today's edition we spend some time with Nicolas Gindt who is the CEO of Yarra Trams run by Keolis Downer in Melbourne, Australia. This is the world's largest light rail or tram network run right there in Melbourne, and I spent quite a bit of time riding it. There's a free downtown area that's heavily used. And then outside of the inner core of the city, it's still a very heavily used transit system packed with people and is considered an integral part of the transit system there and runs under the public transport Victoria overall system. You'll find out all kinds of interesting insights into what it takes to run a massive light rail system from Nicolas Gindt, the CEO of Yarra Trams in Melbourne, Australia. 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: Welcome to Transit Unplugged. I'm your host, Paul Comfort, and today I'm excited to be with Nicolas Gindt, who is CEO of Keolis Downer, who operates Yarra Trams here in Melbourne, Australia. We're in the land Down Under, and we're sitting in his office today, and it's exciting time to be here with you, Nicolas, the operator of the largest light rail tram system in the world.

Nicolas Gindt: Hello. That's very true. It is the largest tram network in the world. We like to say it's 250 kilometers of tracks times two, of course, built it in 1906 - a long, long time ago. You know, more than 110 years ago. And it's actually never been taken away. So, unlike a lot of networks across Europe or USA or even Sydney. Sydney used to have a bigger tram network at the time, and they actually removed all the tracks and overheads from the city, which is a pity because now they are trying to put them back. It's not that easy, by the way. Definitely, in Melbourne, we had visionary people who understood that tram was a solution for the future. And so we have these fantastic tram network in the city.

Paul Comfort: As I was mentioning to you, we rode it all over yesterday, and it's phenomenal how the central business district is free of charge to people. And I guess the government subsidizes that. Is that right?

Nicolas Gindt: Exactly. That's a decision, a very important decision that was made back in 2015 by the government to enable people to move freely in the CBD. And that was also looking at our many international visitors, making them comfortable in the city, not being obliged to buy a ticket - my key card was to move in the city. That's a success in terms of the overall benefit for users.

That's a challenge from an operational point of view because, that added plus 25% passenger patronage in the CBD. So quite a big increase. And, of course, that puts a kind of pressure on us to make sure that we could still meet our operational KPIs. You know, punctuality and reliability despite this phenomenal increase in patronage.

Paul Comfort: And how many passengers a day do ride the service?

Nicolas Gindt: So, overall, we move 207 million trips a year. So that's half a million a day, let's say. 207, to compare, that's always interesting when we look at Metro MTM, that runs metropolitan trains, that do great work in on a heavy rail network, they moved 40 million trips. So that means that trams are not only iconic here, everybody loves trams in Melbourne. That's fantastic. But it's not only, you know, the effects and the iconic thing, it is also a heavy lifter. I strongly believe that the city couldn't do it without each tram. We move a lot of people.

Paul Comfort: Before we get too deep into your operational statistics, which I want to get into, I want to find out a little bit more about you and let our listeners hear about you, Nicolas. So, tell us a little about yourself and how you ended up here in the land Down Under.

Nicolas Gindt: That's very interesting. I turned 50 two weeks ago, so still very fresh for me, and that's my first expatriation experience - my first job overseas. I'm French, you can't miss my accent, of course. And I've always worked for the SNCF group, and I'm talking about the group. The SNCF is mainly heavy rail operations in France. You know, the TGV, you know, these kinds of activities, but it's not only by the way TGV. It's also regional trains, and it's also commuter trains in Paris or freight activities. So, I did my career starting in 1922 with SNCF.

Paul Comfort: Not 1922?

Nicolas Gindt: 1922? What did I say?

Paul Comfort: You're not that old, you said you just turned 50.

Both: [Laughter]

Nicolas Gindt: So, 1992 with SNCF, that's the right number, the right date, and started working on operations in heavy rail. That was probably 15 years of my career. It was mainly in the countryside, which we call the région in France. I started in Normandy. Then Brittany. Then I went to Paris. Then I moved to Champagne. Then back to Paris and then stayed in Paris for a few years before moving to Australia.

So, in this period of, in Normandy or Brittany or Champagne, my job was to run operations in those different regions. Both trains, passenger trains or freight trains. And in 2009, I went to Paris to run the SNCF subsidiary called VFLI - you can look on the internet - it's an operator, a freight train operator that is the third operator in France, now. Very interesting. It is a subsidiary of SNCF, 100% owned by SNCF, but very interesting because people working for VFLI - a different TBA than SNCF people. You know, it's a more private-like entity at a time when the market was opened to the competition.

You probably know that in France for years and years and years, SNCF had a monopoly and was the only one to be able to operate trains, whatever they were (passengers, freight), on the network. One operator, one network, one operator only. And then the distillation changed. And in the early 2000s, legislation was changed to enable competition to come in the freight business or heavy rail nosiness. It was small at the beginning but grew bigger and bigger year after year. Small companies went into this new market to or compete with the SNCF, and then SNCF decided to create an internal competitor because of this difference. You know, the small thing versus the bigger, but of course with some complexities because of the size.

That was very interesting for me to run this small company because it was a booming market, recently open to the competition and that was very, very exciting. So, I ran this operation and this business as a CEO between 2009 and 2014. I had an 18-month period that was very interesting with GEODIS, which is a logistics company in France. In France, by the way, they are a subsidiary of SNCF as well. And then in early 2015 I, by chance, discussed with a few people telling me how there is a fantastic job available in Melbourne, etc., etc. And that was fantastic to me because back in 2009 when I applied to take the VFLI CEO role, there was another guy who did the same as me who applied for this role and this guy's name was Clément Michel.

Paul Comfort: My buddy, Clément.

Nicolas Gindt: Exactly. But in 2009, Clément and I applied for both the VFLI role and the CEO of Yarra Trams role. So, finally, he got the Melbourne one, I got the Paris one. We have both fantastic experiences. And then six years after or seven years after, I got this new opportunity.

Paul Comfort: Well that's wonderful. So, you've been CEO here now for how many years?

Nicolas Gindt: So, three years. I took over in January 2016.

Paul Comfort: Married? With your family? Did you bring them all here?

Nicolas Gindt: So actually, I'm married, I have four kids. They are almost grown up, studying in France. Only one came with us in 2016. She spent three years here in Melbourne. That was a fantastic experience. And now she's moving back to Europe to study for university there.

Paul Comfort: So how do you like it here? Have you enjoyed your time?

Nicolas Gindt: It's great. It's a fantastic experience. Not only because of the job but because of the city. It's a fantastic city. The economists awarded the title of most livable city in the world tour to Melbourne six years in a row. The contenders we're always Melbourne, Vienna, and Vancouver. Those three cities, you know, not too big, but fantastic cities competed to get this award. Melbourne made it six years ago in a row. We lost the last one, but I'm pretty sure we'll get it back.

Paul Comfort: Who won the last one?

Nicolas Gindt: The last one went to Vienna.

Paul Comfort: I don't know much about Vienna, but I knew that here and in Vancouver, they have great transit systems, great rail systems. I've ridden one in Vancouver as well. And I'm sure that part of the reason why this city won so many years is because you have such a great integrated system. You've got the MTM running the heavy rail. You’ve got you running the light rail, and then you've got the other line, the commuter rail coming in, plus the bus service. It's heavily used.

Nicolas Gindt: That's heavily used. You know, every year we move, all together with our colleagues in heavy rail and bus, we move roughly 800 million trips every year. And that's amazing because we are in a country where car culture is still very strong. So that means that's very interesting because Melbourne is forward thinking in that regard, acknowledging that yes, of course, we need a strong public transport system in Melbourne.

Paul Comfort: And the day that I'm here interviewing you, you're Prime Minister is here in Melbourne talking about more investment in public transit. It's a very strong culture of investing, seeing public transit as an investment, and not just an expense.

Nicolas Gindt: Oh, of course. And a lot is happening at the moment. A lot is happening in terms of, in Euros, $6B went to remove level crossings in the city. A massive project to build two tunnels under the CBD to increase rail capacity. I'm pretty sure that you discussed that with Raymond, my counterpart in MTM. So that's fantastic because that's a lot of investment for us. There is an impact, an immediate impact in terms of work happening everywhere in the city, which means that we have to deal with that and to explain to the community that possibly, you know, trams will be slightly impacted by some works here and there. So, we have a lot to do to make sure that these disruptions are understood by the community.

Paul Comfort: Let's talk a little bit about the structure of how transit is operated here through contracts with private companies. So, as you know, my 30 years has been in North America. And in North America, private companies like Keolis and other competitors normally operate the paratransit - the vans for people with disabilities. Bigger companies like Bombardier or Amtrak might operate the heavy rail - the commuter rail - but the light rail systems and the subway systems are normally operated directly by the government agency. But here and other countries like France and across Europe, they have found cost efficiencies by outsourcing. Is that right?

Nicolas Gindt: I'm pretty sure. And here it's definitely right. What has been decided in Melbourne is actually to split the overall system between different operators. You have two operators for trains. One is private - it's MTM and TR Group. One is public - it's V/Line for regional trains. Tram, you have one operator and bus you have probably 10ish operators in Melbourne. And ticketing is another operator entity. So that means that there is a separation, I think, for two reasons. One is to get the best value for money because by awarding separate contracts. This way, you probably optimize the return you can get from those operators awarding to the best in class. And possibly, you know, the best in class for this business wouldn't be the best in class for the other business. So, that's interesting in the approach.

The other thing is, and the other reason to do it this way is to make sure that you bring international knowledge into this. You know, having operations from Hong Kong which delivers incredible things in Hong Kong. Having Keolis, that delivers incredible things in Bordeaux, in Lyon, in Rennes that enables Melbourne and Victorian state to have the best of these international innovations and ideas from everywhere.

Paul Comfort: One of the innovations that Keolis has brought to the marketplace is what you were showing me before we walked in here. And that's your room there. Tell us about the room that you have in all of your contracts.

Nicolas Gindt: Yes. That's the V-room - we call it the V-room. A fantastic visualization room. It is fantastic to align the team on where we are at. What did well last week, last month, last year because we have these difference horizons. What are the alerts because sometimes, not everything goes well. So, we need to be aware of the alerts and what are the priorities for the period ahead.

Anybody can enter the room to understand the business and to understand how we are going. And that's a fantastic tool. That's a fantastic tool, not only to share information but also to track actions, KPIs, performance against our plan, but also against the contract. We have quite a big contract with the state. It's important to make sure at any time that we are okay to deliver short-term things, numbers and not more than the 5% mark that we have negotiated with the state. You will find all that V-room.

Paul Comfort: And you told me that’s where you do your meetings with the customer. And who is your customer?

Nicolas Gindt: PTV, our franchise manager.

Paul Comfort: You meet right in that room, and you're open with your key performance indicators and how you been doing. I mean, I think that's phenomenal.

Nicolas Gindt: But you know, Paul, in our industry, we all know that public transport can't be self-sufficient from a financial perspective. So, we need, and we work with our PTAs. And, of course, there is a service to deliver. It's our accountability, and there is a subsidy that is paid by the PTA because we use and we spend the taxpayer's money. We have an obligation of transparency, and this room is this image of a fully transparent organization that can bring anybody from the client side in the room at any time. We have nothing to hide. And we want our PTA to understand what we do and how we spend the taxpayers' money.

Paul Comfort: And it keeps your managers focused on their numbers. That keeps everyone focused on what the goal is, which is to provide safe, efficient, reliable transit with world class customer service. Right?

Nicolas Gindt: Exactly.

Paul Comfort: So tell us a little bit more about your service itself. How many vehicles, how many employees, those kinds of things.

Nicolas Gindt: So, I said 250 kilometers of tracks, we have 1700 stops, which makes probably this network quite specific. It's a stop every 200 meters, which is quite close. You know, when you look at other networks, go to Europe, all networks that will be more in the order of 400 meters between two stops. Brand new tram/light rail networks like Gold Coast, for example, in Australia, even 800 meters between stops. We have a lot of stops.

We have 2300 people working for Yarra Trams. We operate the network at night, two days a week - Friday, Saturday. We keep six routes open overnight. That's a fantastic decision by the government back in 2016 to say we want Melbourne being a 24-hour city and to do so we need a big transport, which made them decide that we needed six lines operated at night for trams, a few lines for trains, a few lines for bus. And that enables us to have a 24-hour city in Melbourne. So, we operate that 24 hours a day on Friday and Saturday. Probably the big thing in Melbourne because it's very, very specific to us, is the size of the fleet - 480 trams. That's a big number. And what makes it really specific is the fact that it's a diverse fleet.

Paul Comfort: Yeah. You've got some older cars that have been refurbished. They're really cool looking. And the brand-new ones look like they're from outer space.

Nicolas Gindt: So, some of them come straight from Dandenong where they are manufactured, and they are one week old. Some of those have been manufactured in Dandenong 60 years ago. And you know, this makes it incredibly complex and challenging. We need people who know the latest technology to maintain our brand-new trams. But we also need people who know much more of the old way of maintaining the 60- year old trams. You look at who will supply me with a part, you know, maybe the OEM closed its doors 40 years ago. So, we make them ourselves. We have no choice to bring inside some capabilities that normally would be outside of the operator.

Paul Comfort: And how is that attracting such a diverse workforce and keeping them? Tell me about that.

Nicolas Gindt: What makes a fantastic difference for Yarra Trams, is its brand and its incredible value in every Melburnian's heart. And I realized that every time I'm meeting new people. You know, in a professional environment or friends, I'm the CEO of Yarra Trams and then everybody has a fantastic smile and say, "That's fantastic. Tell me more. Explain to me. I'm born and raised in Melbourne. Etc." Can you believe that? On Sunday I was discussing with someone I had a drink with and this guy told me, he was 35-years old and then said to me, "Yes, I'm born and raised here, and you know, I have a tattoo of a W-class . You want me to show you?"

Paul Comfort: So, it's part of their lives?

Nicolas Gindt: Definitely. So that helps a lot to bring the best people to work for us. The average tenure in this company is quite high compared to other businesses because people are liking this idea of working for this fantastic service.

Paul Comfort: Yeah. It's a job that has meaning.

Nicolas Gindt: Exactly. Yeah, exactly.

Paul Comfort: Tell me about the role of technology because you got older vehicles, these brand-new vehicles, and you're covering such a large area. What's the role of technology in making all this kind of pull together? Plus, you have to interact with all the other systems?

Nicolas Gindt: Of course. Yeah. I think technology, you know, that's something that we want to bring more and more. Someone was explaining to me how the latest technology will come onto the new Qatar light rail system. Of course, you can't say anything but, "Wow. That's incredible." And I won't tell you that we have the same level of technology in Melbourne, but there are a few things coming together. We and the state decided to fund a fantastic trial to bring traffic light priority to our trams. That was three weeks ago we launched this trial in partnership with VicRoads, the owner of the network.

The important thing, I didn't say, the very specific and particular thing of this network is that it is mainly shared with the roads - 75% of the network is shared with the road. Shared with other vehicles, be they cars or trucks or whatever. So that means that we have to address this performance issue because when you have 100,000 more cars on the roads every year that can impact you. And the risk is that we have a performance that could be [inaudible] after a year. So that's fantastic to have this a new traffic light priority technology coming into Melbourne.

The idea is to have (with VicRoads, the owner and the manager of the roads, with the government, with La Trobe University, with PTV) this trial help us coordinate trams approaching the traffic lights, giving them the green light or the white tea, as we call it here, to make sure that the trams will have the priority over cars. Which, generally, only have a rate to 1.2 people. Whereas of course, our trams move 200 plus people. That is a big change in terms of technology. And that's coming now. We are launching the trial for a few months, and we'll see how we can roll that out on the network.

But there are other innovations in ticketing, for example, that's led by PTV. But that's very interesting having my key card, as we call it, that's the ticketing system on your phone.

Paul Comfort: I downloaded it yesterday.

Nicolas Gindt: Fantastic. Did it work?

Paul Comfort: I didn't try it yet.

Nicolas Gindt: I'm sure you will see that it works. What government is also trying at the moment is putting the mighty card, which is the ticket, on the phone, which didn't exist until now. We only had physical cards, plastic cards, and that's an improvement in the future to enable people who don't want to buy a plastic card to have them on their phone.

Paul Comfort: Do they scan it when they come in. Is that how it works?

Nicolas Gindt: Exactly. They put it in front of the reader, and that works as if it was a physical card.

Paul Comfort: I was in at TfL and London a couple of years ago and Shashi Verma, who is the CTO there, showed me, at the time, he had gotten at this contactless card. Do you all have that here?

Nicolas Gindt: Not yet, but I'm pretty sure that will come.

Paul Comfort: Well, to be honest with you, you can almost skip that technology because you're going to the phone. Like some countries have skipped over not having the telephone wires in the ground because they didn't need them, and they would go to cellular service.

Nicolas Gindt: I think that's the beauty of technology.

Paul Comfort: Speaking of that, what do you see coming next for Yarra Trams? What's the next cool big thing you got going on?

Nicolas Gindt: I like to present a few changes that I'm pretty sure will come in the future. And of course, as you can imagine, most of them are in terms of the vision and the leadership led by the government because it's a strategic thing happening. One is, in a city that is developing so fast, we need more capacity.

We move already 207 million people a year. In the future, look at what it will be in 20 years, we will need more capacity. More capacity is all about having bigger trams or big trams. When you look at the fleet we have at the moment, the biggest trams, the new ones, are 33-meters long and can accommodate 200-plus people. The smaller ones, what we call the Z-class are 20-meters and with a capacity of 80 people. And bringing the new ones to replace the old ones will help bring capacity.

Then there is a question for the next generation of trams. The government is looking at how should that look like? Will it be the same size as the biggest ones, the 33 meters? Should they be bigger or smaller but flexible to be able to put together two models to run bigger services? So capacity is probably one of the biggest challenges that we, collectively in the city, have to address in the future.

Also, because it goes, not only with trams but also with the related infrastructure. You can't have big trams in the future if you don't have the necessary substations. You need power, you need people to establish the trams. So, you need this, which of course in an urban environment is more complicated to build them. Heavy rail can build the depot 50 kilometers from the CBD. Yarra Trams can't do that. Our business is not that far from the CBD. So, the capacity thing, which is probably one of the big things that we are going to work on in the next few years, trams, substations, depo to make sure that we can run a bigger offer for the Melburnians.

Another challenge that we are working on is, what I said before, performance. Making sure that our service, because we have more and more people because there are more and more cars in the city, making sure that the speed of the service doesn't degrade progressively. So, what are the solutions for that? We talked about traffic-light priority. Of course, that is a solution. Separation - a better road space allocation has to be implemented in the city. We need to, as much as possible, dedicate lines to trams and other lines to other vehicles. Of course, that means removing the on-street parking and put it off the street if you want to dedicate one line to one. You also have to look at the way we manage the traffic. Is it reasonable to a to have a right turn of every 50 meters? I'm pretty sure that if we optimize this and other right turns every second or third previous right turn, you can bring efficiency and a quicker operation in Melbourne.

I don't know if you had the chance to look at what we call here, the hook turns . Have you seen that? The hook turns? They are a fantastic way of telling you when you drive your car on the left side to turn right, which is a little bit counter-intuitive. That works pretty well. You have to be used to that so when you drive for the first time, be careful. But, that’s something that we can look at to have more. At the moment, they are mainly in the CBD. We can have them outside of the CBD that will bring performance into the operation of the tram.

I could also mention, you know, having a very modern, which is not the case at the moment, AVM (automatic vehicle monitoring) system that, for Yarra Trams, still dates back to the 80s. So that looks like, you know, a Commodore 64.

Paul Comfort: You're not alone. A lot of transit systems are operating technology from the 80s.

Nicolas Gindt: And that's a shame. That's a shame because you can bring performance. And, let's be clear, performance equates capacity. If you run your tram operations quicker, that will realize additional capacity, and that closes the loop with my first challenge.

The third challenge to me is accessibility. Bluntly, we are not good enough. We are lagging behind the best on that overseas. Look at what exists in Europe. Look at what exists in some places in the USA. And you know, we realize because the population is aging, we realize that it's not only for people in a wheelchair. It can be people who are visually impaired. It can be, simply, old people. You know, the elderly take a bit longer and could struggle to jump on a tram that is a high flow tram. So, accessibility, we need to do things. And that goes with low-floor trams. That goes with raised platforms so that you can go from the platform into the trams like this [snaps fingers] very, very easily.

I was in Brussels in November last year, and in Brussels their tram network is 150-years old. What they decided to do and work on is an on-demand service that will take people with disabilities from door to door, which means that it gives them some time to build the actual full accessibility. Because of course, it's big money. We're talking probably about a billion, couple of billion of dollars. So that's big money, and you can't do that overnight. But at least, you know, waiting until we have done this plan, is it 10, 20 years? I don't know. Definitively that has to be looked at, but waiting until we've done that, at least we have an offer for people with a disability that can be an on-demand solution.

So, I talked about capacity, performance, and accessibility. And of course, there are a lot of new projects coming. The government as a lot of ideas to extend the network and to have new lines between Caulfield and Rowville, for example, that could add to this already big network, to add a few new services to get along with the natural expansion of the city.

Paul Comfort: Very good. Well, you've got for the largest operation in the world for tram service. Your system is well woven into the fabric of the community. And you've got a great vision for improving your capacity, your performance, and your accessibility. It's just been wonderful sharing this time with you today. And I know our listeners across the world have learned something about how to operate maximum capacity when you've got these big operations that are really moving the whole city every day.

Nicolas Gindt: That's the point. That's definitely it. We are part of the social fabric of this city. We bring incredible value. I'm talking about Yarra Trams and Keolis Downer trying to do its best. We are an essential part of this fantastic city of Melbourne.

We like to say that, you know, this big stadium as we call it, the Melbourne cricket ground is iconic. Yarra Trams is iconic as well. And that's a pride to be in these operations for me as a leader, but of course for Keolis as well. Back in Paris, the board room is named the Melbourne Room. That shows the pride of Keolis to operate the network.

Paul Comfort: Well, I would say based on what I've heard today, what I've seen, the city of Melbourne is blessed to have you as the CEO of their Yarra Trams service, and I look forward to hearing even more great things coming out of here. Thank you so much for being our guest today on Transit Unplugged.

Nicolas Gindt: Thank you, Paul. Thank you so much. That was a great opportunity.

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