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Episode 046: Transit Unplugged Podcast - Steve Butcher
Steve Butcher – John Holland

“We don’t build railways just for the sake of building a railway. We do it because we are going to transform people’s lives.”

Steve Butcher started his career 38 years ago with British Rail by sweeping platforms. Now, he is the Executive General Manager at John Holland. In this episode, Butcher discusses the design, build, operate, and maintain model, and what it’s like to be part of billion-dollar projects within the rail space.

He also goes into how important detail is for these massive projects. These projects are setting the agenda for generations to come, and what they look like from day one will be different from year seven. And as Butcher says, it’s about making “railways as easy as going to the pub or the chip shop… [it’s making] public transport so easy that people don’t even think of any other mode of transport.”

If you want to know more about John Holland, 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 today's edition, we continue our seven-part series on transit in Australia, the land Down Under, and we have as our special guest Steve Butcher, who is the executive general manager for rail for the massive P3 company called John Holland. John Holland does these big design, build, operate, finance, and maintain projects for transportation and infrastructure throughout Australia, Asia, and around the world.

Steve heads up the rail division there in Sydney, Australia and today we talk to him about what it takes to build a massive transit project, how you motivate people to get projects done on time and under budget, what it means to really deliver on these massive projects, which really alter the landscape of a whole city and region.

I think you'll find this a fascinating look inside the mind of Steve Butcher, but also inside the psyche of what it takes to run a massive organization that is responsible for building multi-billion-dollar projects.

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. Welcome to another edition of Transit Unplugged, and this is part of our special Australia series, Transit Down Under, and today I'm excited to be with Steve Butcher, who's the executive general manager, or in American parlance, the CEO of John Holland, which is one of the world's largest transportation, construction and operation entities.

And he'll tell us all about that in just a minute. Happy to be in his office here in Sydney, Australia. Steve, thanks for being with us on the show.

Steve Butcher : A pleasure. Absolutely.

Paul Comfort : I guess as we get started, you play your unique role, not only here in Australia, but around the world, your company does. Tell us a little bit about what you do and how you work in concert with transit agencies to make their dreams come true?

Steve Butcher : Okay. John Holland primarily started as a construction business, and I guess in the early days we were about building railways and building railways throughout Australia. As we've moved forward, clearly working with the transit agencies and the authorities, because actually in recent years, it's moved from just the separation of design and build and operations and maintenance into having a fully integrated model that's a full end-to-end service.

John Holland in the rail division currently, what we will do, we design and we build the railway. We overlay with the track and the signals, and the signal integration, the testing and commissioning, but also the conduit then is that we would put skin in the game that actually then goes, we are then going to be responsible for operating and maintaining it for however long the concession is. Sometimes that maybe five years. Sometimes the longest might be even 30 years. What it does is it gives our clients, and it gives the transit agencies, and reacting to their feedback, it gives them security that they've got a continuum all the way from designing a railway through to you're going to you're going to build it in the best possible way because, to be honest, you're going to then have the responsibility of then going forward and operating and maintaining it.

Whereas. in the past. there have been some elements of somebody going and designing and building the railway, and then the operators come along towards the end of the process, and then there is a doubt then as to whether that railway would perform or improve under continuous improvement on the performance mechanisms for that design. A lot of clients throughout the world now, and the model is growing, is that on a greenfield site, where they then get somebody to design and build the railway. They will then get you to do all the way through to the end, and that is to then go and operate and maintain it in the consortium that you're in.

Paul Comfort : Very good. You're not just here in Australia, your company has a big footprint throughout Asia, right?

Steve Butcher : Absolutely. Primarily most of our business is in Australia and New Zealand. We have an office in Singapore. I'm one of the divisions in John Holland, so John Holland has an infrastructure division and that is around, we build roads, and we build lots of other infrastructure. It has a building division as well, so some of the buildings both in Sydney and Melbourne we've built, and we maintain those as well. The one that is clearly close to all our hearts is the rail division, and that's the one I lead.

I guess, from that point of view, primarily, it's been probably the leading rail provider in Australia. We have an international strategy, and we're exercising that international strategy. We're currently working on a project in Toronto, Canada to bid for the RER, the Regional Express Rail. That's in Toronto. That's a 30-year concession, a 30-year ... we're in partnership on that. We're in a partnership with a DNC partner because there's an element of line extensions and some rebuild of a number of stations. But there's also a concession to then go and operate and maintain that. We're in a consortium in Toronto.

We're also looking at our international strategy about where else in the world we can add value because we don't just want to be in locations just for global spread, we only want to do projects where we actually add the value, and we can live by the true values that we have. That is how can we not only add value for money for the clients, how can we serve the communities, and how can we then transform people's lives.

Paul Comfort : I love your personal story and how you came from as an operator, right? A rail operator in England to now heading up this big consortium here. Tell us a little about your personal story and how you ended up as the CEO of this company?

Steve Butcher : Oh, well, I joined British Rail 38 years ago, back in the UK, and I think most people know from my accent where I'm from. I joined British Rail pretty much straight from school, not quite but pretty much straight from school. Being in a construction business was not even in my mindset, not only then, but probably even five years ago because most of my career has either been in the train crew, i.e., guards, drivers, control center. I then was an operation's director. I've then been a chief operating officer and managing director of a railway.

Prior to joining John Holland, I was the managing director of global transport in Serco, which is a global international services business. So actually, I have probably come from a less conventional or conventional route is that I actually did start right at the bottom. I started my career sweeping the platforms and cleaning the toilets. Rail has constantly been in my blood. That's all I've ever really wanted to do. It's actually all I've, I could say, all I've ever been good at really. And then I've been very fortunate in my life. I've worked for some very, very good bosses, some very good businesses.

I've had some good opportunities that I've lived and worked around the world. I've lived in America, in Reston in Virginia when I was with Serco. I've lived in Dubai. I've lived in India, clearly now living in Australia and what a fantastic time it's to be. I genuinely feel that there is no better time to ever be in the rail industry than now, whether it be anywhere in the world and certainly Australia with new mega projects coming up such as Sydney Metro West, projects in the Middle East, projects in North America and in Canada. But certainly, over here in Australia inland rail.

If I look at the new airport lines, projects that we're currently on in terms of Melbourne, the Melbourne Metro Project. We're partners in two big consortiums there in terms of tunnel boring machines and stations, and doing work with Melbourne trains. That's a good relationship because we are in a partnership that is operating and maintaining Melbourne trains. But we're also doing some of the hardcore D and C type work, design and construction on Melbourne Metro in a number of packages there. I guess, if somebody had said to me 38 years ago, you'd be sat in this boardroom in the middle of Sydney leading a two and a half billion-dollar business and certainly sweeping platforms, I would have laughed at you to be quite frank.

Paul Comfort : But it's a great example of ... I've got a chapter in my book called Full Throttle called Do Not Despise the Day of Small Beginnings, because when you start at the bottom, you learn it, right? And then when you're at the top you have integrity, you have authenticity that other people who maybe didn't come that way don't have.

Steve Butcher : I think so, I don't think he's just about that. I think you've got to be very conscious of ... last week I've put this on LinkedIn recently, but last week I was out in the middle of the Pilbara with 30 guys that were building a railway and installing signals. Next week I'm out on Canberra Metro with a group of brand-new train drivers that we've taken on. I think the one thing I would say is by being in the rail industry all your life, and I guess starting where I started, it makes me really realize and really understand what it takes to work in a rail environment. And not only what it takes to work in around environment, the work is not done around this room, the work is done at three in the morning on a train depot or in a control center, etc.

I've always been very conscious, I've always had in my own mind, whatever you do in life, you've just gotta be very grounded and you've got to be very honest with yourself and you've not got to start letting things take over, thinking that you are something that you're not. I think that's always been good.

The other part is as well, and I genuinely believe this, I still get out of bed with as much energy about this industry 38 years ago as when I did it on my first day starting at Nottingham Station, 38 years ago. I think if you don't, the energy and drive, and we owe it, not only to our clients (i.e., the transport authorities), we owe it to the people that are getting on the trains every single day, or we owe it to the people that we're building the railway for. And most importantly, we owe it to the communities that we serve, because we don't build railways just for the sake of building a railway. We do it because we are going to transform people's lives, and by transforming people's lives, that's not the business community just per se. And yes, it has a massive impact on the economic growth of cities around the world. But it's also about Mrs. Smith going to see her grandchildren every day.

I think we have to keep a real big perspective on what we do in the transit industry. We have to keep a perspective that it's, yes, okay, it's ground-breaking for major cities, but it's also transforming people's lives, allowing people to go and see grandparents and grandchildren, moms, dads, aunties, uncles, of where their lives would be much more difficult to live if that railway or transit system wasn't there. And I think that's important. I think the one area that we do have to be more innovative on is this fully first-mile, last-mile complete transport mechanism that makes life very simple.

I used to have a saying when I was the chief operating officer in Northern Rail, "I want to make railways as easy as it is to go to the pub or the chip shop." You just don't have to think about it. It's what you do. It's how you live your life. I think that's really important to me. And that's important in my moral set as well. Whether we're sticking a piling machine into the ground, or we've put in a tunnel boring machine through Sydney Harbour Bridge, or whether we are a customer host or customer operator on Canberra Metro or any other railway, that those principles about what we are on this earth to do are still first and foremost in our values.

Paul Comfort : That's wonderful. It reminds me of the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Stephen Covey says, "Start with the end in mind."

Steve Butcher : Absolutely.

Paul Comfort : Tell us about that, because you are overseeing the construction of some of the biggest public works projects in Australia right now and around the world. You have to begin with the end in mind, and you've got the end customer in mind, and you know what you're going to be doing, what it's supposed to look like at the end.

Tell us about the process of accomplishing that. How do you motivate the men and women who are on the job to get the job done on time? How do you make this project come in on time, under budget, those kinds of things? That's why you're sitting in the boss' seat because you know how to do that, so tell the rest of the people how to make that happen.

Steve Butcher : Wow. What a question. I think you're right. Some of these are generation changing, life-changing projects. Now, if I look at the growth of Melbourne, the growth of Sydney, or the growth of any major city around the world, we are doing things that are going to be still in place and applicable in 20, 30, 40 years time. The growth of population in these cities without some of these mega projects, being very blunt with you, some of the major cities around the world would be struggling on mobility. And I guess of course it would also struggle in terms of economic reasoning because of that struggle to get people around etc.

But I think it's a really interesting point because most of our megaprojects, we do anything from projects that are going to last five to 10 years, all the way through to some that are going to last six months. But if I then talk about what you've been talking about is some of the major projects and some of the biggest projects in the world or in Australia. We're very fortunate in John Holland, is that we're part of them and we're right in the center of them. I can't tell you how privileged I am to be part of that. In the center and driving, and actually not just, working with a team that is very visionary - and so our clients, because if I take Melbourne, and I take Sydney, transport for New South Wales, if I look at Transport Victoria and projects in Victoria, the vision of driving that innovation, the vision of driving investment going forward. These are projects that vary between six and $10 billion, Australian dollars, over five to seven years. Now you name anywhere that's got that vision or any other industry that's got that type of vision.

But to answer your question about how do we motivate people, I think the first thing is we have to make people realize what they're part of. When I say what they're part of, I was out at Northwest Rail Link, not so long back and I actually went on a station where two of the guys that I work with, they were doing some work on platform slab leveling. I've used this before, I actually said to them, "Do you actually understand what you're doing?" And they said, "Yeah, yeah, of course, Steve." What you are actually doing is setting the agenda for generations to come, and your children, your grandchildren, and their children and their grandchildren. This is going to be a legacy that you're leaving behind, and I think that's really important.

Paul Comfort : You're imparting vision to them.

Steve Butcher : Absolutely. I think that's really important, and not only imparting vision, but I think these projects, I think the beauty of some of these is what the project looks like on day one is very different to what it looks like in year seven. I think to answer your question, how do you keep on budget on time and motivation? You've got to be in the level of detail, you've got to sweat the detail, you've got to sweat the detail with your stakeholders and your partners.

We have a fantastic way that we want to partner. We want to partner in a very open, transparent ... the success of our partners is John Holland's success, success at John Holland is our partner's success. I think really, to answer your question, you've got to, one, stick to the program. You've got to keep to the vision. You've got to really drive the individuals and make it known how these projects are going to change the cities and change the lives of people. I've got to be honest; I can't think of anyone that wouldn't want to be part of that. If somebody said to you, "The opportunity is there to change the face of Melbourne, or change the face of Sydney, or change the face of Toronto, or anywhere in the world and I'm going to be part of the biggest gig in town," you're going to want to be part of that.

Paul Comfort : Absolutely. I think that's wonderful. To me, what you're talking about is something that's lacking in the public transit industry. I was with a group of enterprise asset managers yesterday, where you were there to, and I talked about the key to doing a big project is communication, communication, communication. I said, normally people are communicating to their stakeholders. They're also communicating to the public. What they fail to do a lot of times is communicate with their employees.

Steve Butcher : Absolutely.

Paul Comfort : So that their employees are bought into what's happening. What you're saying is as a CEO of this large corporation that is transforming the face of Australia, is that you personally are going out and instilling the vision, so they get the bigger picture. They're not just a mechanic turning the screw. They understand how it fits into the big picture. Is that what you're saying?

Steve Butcher : I guess, as the exec general manager or rail CEO, you've got to live and breathe it. Okay. So generally, you've got to be well connected to the business. You can't run a business, in my experience and bearing in mind I've come from both a train operations background and now a full end-to-end opportunity that I do now, you've actually got to live and breathe it, but you've also got to be connected to the business.

That vision and that drive, that's why it's important when you go to the site, you spend time with the people. When you go to the projects, you spend time with the people, and you understand what they're going through. Because that's the only way you can keep, one, yourself motivated, and I would recommend to anyone that when they're sat in an office the best motivator of anything is to get out and go and see where it happens.

Paul Comfort : That's right, yeah.

Steve Butcher : I used to do that in the train operations world. You know I used to go and travel with the drivers. If ever you want to see how a railway performs, go and travel with a train driver and see it firsthand.

It's the best office in the world. And, certainly, in this job if ever I want to see how a project or a railway is being built, you can show me videos, you can go through the diagrams all you like. The best way is to get on the site talk to the guys, live what they're living in, and you will get a true picture then.

Paul Comfort : You can't manage and motivate through emails.

Steve Butcher : No.

Paul Comfort : Emails are for the details afterwards, right? You've got to be there in person with them, face-to-face, at least on the phone.

Steve Butcher : Yeah. I think one of the things in society, it's not just an industry thing, I think we are all a slave to the email. But I am still, call it old fashioned, I'm still getting out there, still having breakfasts with the guys and girls on the ground, still doing whatever you need to do is important to me, and it's an important personal moral set, mainly because that's where I've come from.

But how can you keep control of your business, and how can you understand your business unless you're actually out there living and breathing it every day? It's great. I know that it all sounds very textbook, but you've got to do it.

Paul Comfort : That's good. Well, that's good. That was a nice deep dive into your motivation and what it takes to run a large company like this.

Let's pull back up a little bit and get the macro view. Tell us about a few of the big projects you're working on now in Australia, the scope of them and what it is you're doing?

Steve Butcher : Okay. I guess we've got the full end-to-end really. We've got anything from, I guess, the work that we're doing currently on Sydney Metro.

Paul Comfort : Okay. What are you doing there?

Steve Butcher : We're doing a whole range of works on Sydney Metro with our partners. We've got tunnel boring machines going on the Sydney Harbour Bridge at this moment in time for City & Southwest. We're working with our partners, MTR and UGL, we're out, live testing on Sydney Metro. That project, even in phase one, was $8.3 billion. I think the government has just committed to Sydney, the augmentation in terms of driving City & Southwest, take that further out into the suburbs of Sydney. These are the size and scale of projects that we deal, and we tend to deal with not only the construction but in many ways we're part of a consortium or part of the conduit all the way through.

Melbourne, as you know, as we've talked about, we're in Cross Yarra Partnerships, we're a principal partner in that. That is for Melbourne Metro in terms of some of the portals coming together. We've got a lot of work going off there, a lot of work that we're personally involved in, not only in building that but also my team are integrally involved in some of the systems and systems integration. We've got the Rail Infrastructure Alliance, the RIA project.

These are in the billions. These are not small by any stretch. We're doing quite a lot of work on the rail infrastructure. And that's anything from new rail lines to structuring some of the portals, to getting infrastructure in place (looking at the future of Melbourne) all the way through to some of the smaller but just as important roles in terms of Mount Victoria. We're doing some work on behalf of Sydney Trains in terms of doing quite a lot of signaling reconfiguration.

Paul Comfort : For Howard?

Steve Butcher : For Howard, yeah, absolutely. I know you spoke to Howard. Howard is a fantastic person. His organization is great to work with.

Paul Comfort : What about in Canberra? We met with the CEO of the capital city's transit system yesterday, and you told me you're doing that light rail project?

Steve Butcher : Yeah, absolutely. Emma Thomas, who is the director-general, I speak to Emma virtually weekly. John Holland is both in the DNC, in terms of design and construction, with our partners who built the Canberra Metro.

But we're also in, and I'm a board member of the Canberra Metro Operations Ltd. We've got the concession to certainly operate and maintain, and that was a really exciting project, but one that is very new. Canberra has never had a railway before.

Paul Comfort : Right. She said it was all bus until now.

Steve Butcher : Absolutely, absolutely.

Paul Comfort : It's going live in the next few months, right?

Steve Butcher : Absolutely. It's going live certainly in the next few months. We're out testing at this minute in time. We've got, on a regular basis, ten light-rail vehicles going up and down the alignment. We're doing operational tests into-

Paul Comfort : Who built your light-rail vehicles? Who'd you get?

Steve Butcher : CAF. We were in partnership with CAF.

Paul Comfort : That's who we're using at the Purple Line too, CAF.

Steve Butcher : Oh, absolutely, yeah. There will be quite a lot of similarities. What we've tried to do there, and this is where, we are doing a lot of work, we've tried to employ local, so people I'm sure that working in some of the local industry, or their local environment in Canberra never expected to either be driving these trams or being a customer service host on these trams.

We always try wherever we are, and that is to be, one, local. I guess two, we try and involve the community in everything we do there. We're very, very respectful of that local community and the traditions that are within the local community. I think Canberra is really exciting. It's so exciting that of course, I guess we saw it from machines going into the ground that absolutely look spectacular now when you're at the depot, and you're in the control center, and you go and ride out.

Paul Comfort : I've got to go see that sometime.

Steve Butcher : Absolutely, absolutely. And then you ride the vehicles. I think Emma and the ACT and the transport team out there have been absolutely a dream to do business with, with a shared vision of how we change the face of Canberra and the transport within Canberra.

Paul Comfort : I love how you keep the vision in mind, even though you're in the weeds of making it happen. You always have at the end mind what you're shooting for.

Let's talk about now, as we wrap this up, what is the future of public transportation and rail look like for you? You've been in this for 38 years, one of the top industry leaders in the world. Put yourself out ten years from now. What's it going to look like? Is the Hyperloop going to be the new thing? Are there electric vehicles, autonomous shuttle, the first- and last-mile solution?

From your personal vision, not necessarily speaking for your company, but from someone who's at the top of the pile, so to speak, what do you see over the mountain top? What do you see coming for public transport? Because this is such an exciting time with technology affecting things more than I think almost any other industry other than medicine. We are at the cutting edge.

Steve Butcher : I'm really interested to see. I certainly think automation is ... if I look at many years ago when I started, if somebody had said I could be stood on a train, that a computer acted in milliseconds of what the human brain can do etc., and of course I was fortunate in Serco to be part of the start-up of Dubai Metro.

Paul Comfort : Oh, wow.

Steve Butcher : You ride on that and of course-

Paul Comfort : And the precision.

Steve Butcher : Absolutely precision. We did some tests, and the way the computer and the systems on the trains work now is quicker than me and you can even think about. That's got to be the future, but not also just of the trains of the processes. I look at some of my crews that go out doing sleeper resurfacing or relaying, doing signal integration. I look at what the future holds, and a lot of that mechanism will be autonomous, and even increase the precision.

I don't think we should ever be afraid of that. I think we should never be afraid of the change. But, I think where we're really moving to, and I think we have got a lot more work to do on this, full end-to-end transport plan and integration. Because, I still feel as though we, as transport leaders, whatever mode you are in, as the transport community around the world, I still think we give some of the complete end-to-end journey and the process that people use to get from one end to the other, I still don't think we're joined up enough. I still don't think we're visionary enough. Of course, if we talk ten years, Hyperloop, we've got lots of other mechanisms, high-speed rail, where will that go? But we shouldn't also forget not just high-speed rail, but higher speed rail and how we increase the speeds and journey times, etc.

But I think where it will come to is it's just this ease of walking out your front door, getting back into your front door and making it seamless, making it easier, making it automated in some ways, not all, but making it easy. That's what the crux of this is to me, is how do we make transport so easy that people don't even think of any other mode of transport?

Paul Comfort : What role do you think John Holland and companies like yours will play in making that happen?

Steve Butcher : Oh well, I think to some extent we have to take some of the lead on it. We are, certainly in Australia when I look at, as we said, John Holland is fairly unique for me that we're not the only ones, but we're certainly, in this part of the world, one of the leaders in the full end-to end-offer. I think from when you start to think about designing something, to when you then start to think about operating, you've got to take the lead on it because we are the ones in the box seat from designing it, to then operating and maintaining it. If we don't start to think about that innovation, and we don't start to think about what we can do to change that, and of course with the end game of making a real difference to people, then I think no one else is.

I think our part in John Holland is probably being that center pinion because we are involved in each of the parts. Now if I look at a train operating company, they're probably involved in just the train and the running of the trains. If I look at a typical construction company, they're involved in the construction. If I look at a typical railway provider of systems and track, they're just looking at the middle part. Whereas I think the unique bit and the really exciting bit for me is that John Holland is involved in all of that. I think by John Holland being involved in all of that, we have to play a much bigger part in how we then look at that going forward as a collective, not as individual components.

Paul Comfort : Well, thank you so much for sharing with us today about, not only your company but about how major construction projects actually get done.

So many transportation agencies around the world, especially here in Australia where there are tens of billions of dollars being invested, we have to make sure that money is spent wisely, and the end of the project gets done on time, under budget and safely, right?

Steve Butcher : Absolutely. There is nothing more important to me than, customers are entrusting us to spend theirs and taxpayers' money. We have an ultimate responsibility in my mind to make sure that that money is, one, spent wisely but adds real value to the business case on what that means to them.

I think that is an ultimate responsibility that I think of every day I get out of bed, is that I am actually, and John Holland, not just me, but everyone in John Holland, every single person in John Holland, whatever they do, we are entrusted with people's money day in, day out. We have to act and be responsible, and we have to act and be good citizens to go, "We are going to protect that money and get the best value for the customer concerned."

Paul Comfort : Very good. Thanks so much for being our guest today.

Steve Butcher : No worries. Thank you.

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