BTWT rescue plan for PKP IC

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An open letter to the new PKP InterCity chairman.

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Pendolino trainset prepares to reverse out of its platform at Krakow Glowny having formed the first ever Polish Pendolino public service train to Krakow: the 06:35 from Warszawa Centralna on 14.12.14. Photo BTWT.

Dear Jacek,

I hope that you don’t mind me addressing you as ‘Jacek’ rather than ‘Mr Leonkiewicz’. As you have worked in London for two years, I am sure that you are used to the English custom of business colleagues addressing each by their first names, and – although you have only worked in the railway industry for two years – I wanted to recognize you as a fellow railway professional. In fact I think that the brevity of your sojourn in PKP will work to your advantage – you will not yet have been infected by the cynicism that eventually saps the will of most senior PKP people.

Before I get started, I would like to congratulate you on your appointment to the position of CEO of PKP InterCity. By now you will have found out that the job is something of a poisoned chalice – you are the 9th PKP IC CEO in the space of the last ten years. You may be wondering why so few of your predecessors lasted any length of time. Were they really ALL so incompetent? Of course not, and my reason for writing to you is to offer you a few pointers so that you avoid the rapid career change that befell most of them.

Seriously, all joking aside, one of the things you should consider is talking to your predecessors – those who are prepared talk. Some have become bitter and are rusting in sidings like Poland’s historic steam locomotives, others have coped better and are developing their careers elsewhere. The latter will tell you that not all the key variables that affect PKP IC’s profitability can be managed the IC board or even the main PKP SA board. There are systemic factors which were outwith their control. Some of the strategies of your predecessors were actually quite good, but they were not given the time to make them work.

Here are thumbnail sketches of some of those you should talk to. Jacek Przesluga pointed out that the overall image of railways in Poland depended not just on the quality of the trains, but also on the standard of the stations. He wanted to set up a separate company to manage PKP’s main stations, but was dismissed before he could implement his plan. Janusz Malinowski was popular with staff and drew attention to the environmental benefits of travelling by train. He was sacked for making senior appointments without consulting his boss, a mistake that I am sure you will not want to repeat. Marcin Celejewski’s mission was to bring in airline style marketing and ticketing methods and to ensure the trouble free launch of the Pendolino. He succeeded – but only partially – in both, however a 5 million plus drop in passenger numbers made his position untenable.

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EIC buffet car and WiFi carriage at Warszawa Centralna. Photo BTWT.

Steering the flagship company of the PKP group is a bit like steering a giant oil tanker – there is a considerable delay before any course corrections instituted by the captain are seen to have any effect. The captain has the benefit of training on simulators before he finds himself on the bridge of a real tanker. There is no similar training package for PKP IC CEOs and, being realistic, your ‘on-the-job training’ will take a year. Forgive me for being so blunt, but with PKP IC haemorrhaging cash and Parliamentary elections due no later than November, I do not believe that you have got a year before you have to be seen to have turned your ship around.

So to help you get your tenure off to a flying start I have prepared the following 10-point crib sheet. If you manage to implement all these recommendations you should – given a fair wind – outlast your predecessors.

  1. Listen to your customers

    Set up a focus group. Run customer satisfaction surveys. Ride your trains and talk to passengers. If you need inspiration talk to Anthony Smith at Passenger Focus. By the way, did you know that the seats in the 2nd class section of your expensive new Pendolino trains do not fit the standard Polish male derrière?

  2. Listen to your employees

    Another excellent way of discovering what your customers think of PKP is to talk to customer-facing employees like train managers and ticketing staff. They hear an enormous amount of complaints at first hand. Actually it is quite a good idea to set up a way of getting feedback from all your employees. Most of the PKP group’s internal culture is still firmly rooted in ‘Command and Control’ mode, a left over from the days when Poland’s railways were an integral part of the Warsaw Pact’s military machine. Instigating a ‘reverse channel’ so information can flow upwards from staff to their managers, regional directors and main board members should be one of your main priorities.

  3. Improve ticketing

    In spite of Celejewski’s attempt to introduce low-cost airline discount pricing, the PKP IC ticketing system is still a shambles. Passengers travelling, say from Lodz to Zakopany and changing at Krakow Plaszow from one TLK train to another, should NOT have to buy two separate tickets (thus loosing the through journey discount) when purchasing their tickets through the Internet. Trying to find a bargain discount fare by ‘hunting’ between different days (a painless process on the discount airline portals) involves having to re-key in all the journey data for each day ‘tested’. It is only possible to buy tickets four weeks in advance. Why? This is something you should be able to sort out quite quickly. Setting up a ‘fair’ single fare for journeys involving more than one train operating company will take longer, but this is also a goal worth pursuing.

  4. Improve the customer experience at stations

    In the last few years major stations have undergone complete rebuilds or makeovers – a process partly accelerated by Euro 2012 championship (though relatively few football fans actually travelled around Poland by rail). But there are still major deficiencies in the quality of the station experience: lack of decent waiting rooms with comfortable seats, incomplete information on destination boards, poor integration between commercial retail and station facilities. I could go on and on about my pet gripes, but rather than pay attention to me, why don’t you… ?

  5. Make your managers and directors travel by train!

    I have always been amazed how much – bearing in mind that they work for a national public transport network – senior railway people in Poland travel about on duty by plane, or are chauffeured around in luxury cars. What a missed opportunity for senior people to see what is really happening on the railway! You should ban this practice immediately in PKP IC, and – should a suitable occasion arise – suggest gently to your boss, PKP SA CEO Jakub Karnowski, that he consider implementing such a ban throughout the whole PKP group.

  6. Introduce a staff suggestion scheme

    Have you read Deming’s Quality Productivity and Competitive Position, Out of the Crisis and The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education ? If not, please order these two seminal books for yourself and for all your fellow board members. Deming proved that it is possible to increase quality and reduce costs simultaneously. His work had a profound effect on the competitiveness of Japanese industry post WW II. It takes time to change a company’s culture based on the ideas taught by Deming, but as a small step in the right direction, you should encourage staff (individuals or teams of co-workers) to submit ideas for improving processes and reducing costs by offering appropriate rewards.

  7. Improve access for less-abled passengers

    To give PKP credit where credit is due, major stations around the PKP network are being fitted out with escalators and/or lifts. But due to a blind spot (no pun intended) PKP’s architects are failing to provide integrated solutions – complete routes that can easily be navigated without encountering a flight of steps. In the recently modernised station at Katowice, one of two pedestrian tunnels has been fitted with escalators leading to the platforms. Access to this subway is via a flight of steps. Further along the concourse an escalator and wheelchair ramp leads to another subway, but this tunnel has only stairs leading to the platforms. Similar barriers exist at the brand new station at Krakow Glowny. One can – for a time at least – excuse such problems at legacy buildings like Warszawa Centralna, but for brand new facilities this is inexcusable!

  8. Empower staff to deal with certain problems on the spot

    When things go wrong (such as a broken down train) one of the most infuriating things that can happen to a passenger is to be told by the train manager that one has to buy a brand new ticket, and that a refund for the old ticket can only be obtained via a Kafkaesque complaints system. Please, please, empower train staff to deal with such minor problems on the spot, by granting them powers to revalidate old tickets, or issue new replacement tickets, without charging the customer a second time. You would not believe how much anger will be saved, and goodwill generated, by such a simple step.

  9. Appoint an ombudsman

    Appoint a customer champion and show customers that InterCity is really on their side!

  10. Re-enthuse staff and passengers with the ideal of safe, ecologically sound, rail transport

    Rail travel was once seen as the premium travel mode; in many parts of Europe it is being viewed as such again. PKP should be involving its passengers and staff in a campaign to promote the benefits of safe, ecologically sound, rail transport!

My sincere best wishes for your success

Dyspozytor 1

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