From shop floor to c-suite, Robert Tatton-Jones brings a lifetime of rail experience to the management of Adelaide’s rail services.
Robert Tatton-Jones began his rail career with the grease-covered hands of a locomotive maintainer.
“I started in the railway industry in 1992 at 16, straight from school as an apprentice, dual trained locomotive maintainer.”
Tatton-Jones was based out of one of the largest rail depots in the UK in Toton, working for what was then British Rail and subsequently English, Welsh & Scottish Railway (EWS). After completing his apprenticeship, Tatton-Jones progressed through a management training scheme to become a project manager while at the same time obtaining a Bachelor of Science in mechatronics. All the while, Tatton-Jones continued to be hands-on in the freight rail sector.
“During that time, I was still on the shopfloor maintaining locomotives and after becoming a fully-fledged trained maintainer I moved from the shop floor into an office environment.”
This experience of being hands-on with the machinery and equipment that make up the rail industry has remained with him as Tatton-Jones moved up through various roles in maintaining rollingstock in the UK.
“In my management roles, my early experience enabled me to understand the applications and implications of the decisions that were being made, and I’ve carried that through to today. I think it’s very important that any senior manager, in fact any manager in a rail environment, remembers that after 5 o’clock the railway doesn’t stop, and the activities that are from 5pm to 9am the following day are the most critical to make sure that we can provide the services that we need to the next day.”
To make sure that the railways can continue to operate 24/7, a focus for Tatton-Jones has been to always ensure that those working outside of business hours have the support needed.
“Starting on the shop floor really gave me an insight into how important it is for the people doing those activities to have the right tools, training, processes, and people in place, because at 3am in the morning, if there’s an incident, and something needs to be repaired, you’ve not got access to all the people that you may have at 9am in the morning.”
In 2007, Tatton-Jones made the move to Australia with his wife and two young children moving between consulting and operators before ending up as chief operating officer at Yarra Trams in early 2020. In late October this year, following Keolis Downer winning the contract to operate Adelaide’s heavy rail services, Tatton-Jones began his new role as managing director of Keolis Downer Adelaide. Speaking with Rail Express in his first interview since taking up the role, Tatton-Jones notes that over the course of his career, the way in which rail services have been delivered has undergone a significant shift.
“When I started it was very much focused on delivering services on time that were reliable, and now that is expected and the focus has now gone more into that passenger experience, whether around communication or cleanliness. The technology advancement that we’ve seen has ensured that the service will be there, it’s the quality of that service that matters now.”
Behind these customer-facing changes are changes internally that have enabled rail operators to consistently meet demand.
“There’s been a shift in relation to making sure that more assets are available when they’re required,” said Tatton-Jones. “So very specific maintenance activities occur in the middle of the night, as opposed to occurring in the middle of the day when people need to travel.”
Tying these two changes together has been a step up in the commitment to safety.
“There’s been a real drive to making sure that everything that we do is as safe as we possibly can be. That’s been a definite change since I started nearly 30 years ago and a lot of projects that I’ve undertaken have been around implementing physical safety improvements as opposed to procedural safety improvement.”
PUTTING SERVICE TO THE TEST
Perhaps no event has put all of these changes to the test as much as the COVID-19 pandemic, and as chief operating officer of Yarra Trams during both waves in Melbourne, Tatton-Jones dealt with the pandemic from the front lines.
“I started as the COO on the 4th of April, and within three or four weeks, the first phase of the initial Melbourne lock downs clicked in,”
While some changes to night services were made as movement was restricted in the second wave, Yarra Trams largely ran a regular timetable throughout the COVID-19 period. This meant that those imperatives of maintaining a consistent and reliable service, whether through operations, maintenance, or even network upgrades, had to be done under stringent safety requirements. To do this, effective collaboration between stakeholders was key, said Tatton-Jones.
“We worked very closely with the Victorian state government to make sure that we provided the right services at the right time. We did a lot of work as you could imagine making sure that we assessed all the safety risks and we put protocols in place to make sure that both our staff and customers were as safe as they possibly could be. That included barriers, additional cleaning, and a whole host of other things that were implemented by Yarra Trams and the state government.”
As ways of working were disrupted with back-office staff working from home and front- line staff limited from having physical contact, communication within the team and externally was essential.
“One of the most important things was we kept communicating at all levels across the entire business. Any concerns that came from anywhere were addressed and we dealt with them as a team,” said Tatton-Jones.
“From a lessons-learned point of view, it’s about keeping the communication channels open and be as flexible as you can be.”
DELIVERING A NEW CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE
Now, Tatton-Jones is bringing all of these experiences together to operate heavy rail services throughout Adelaide. Currently consisting of six lines and 89 stations across 125km of track, the network is also being expanded and electrified in parts, with new rollingstock to meet growing demand.
For Tatton-Jones, the task is to build on this by providing a world-class customer experience.
“Not very often are you given the opportunity to work on a rail environment where you can play a pivotal role in improving customer service and safety and really making a difference to the day-to- day lives of people who live in a city like Adelaide,” he said.
Transitioning to the new contract, which is the first heavy rail contract for the joint venture, will be informed by Keolis Downer’s experience in managing operator transitions in Australia, and Keolis’s heavy-rail operations in countries such as the US, UK, and Germany.
“Keolis Downer do a transition exceptionally well and we’ve got a big team currently working here in Adelaide to assist in that transition process,” said Tatton-Jones. “We’ve also started building the team that is going to be here for the remainder of the contract, and we are in a position where that’s nearly complete.”
While everything is now focused on being ready for day one of operations on January 31, 2021, Tatton-Jones highlighted that passengers will soon see improvements to their experience of travelling on the network.
“One of the things that we will implement fairly soon after commencing will be to improve the real-time service information that we provide to customers. We’re also going to provide our staff with devices which will enable them to better inform our passengers in a live capacity. Also on the rare occasion that we do have issues or disruptions, we’ll be able to provide them support.”
Once operations are underway, Tatton-Jones is looking towards the future of operations on the network, particularly as customers are encouraged back onto public transport as the COVID-19 risk reduces.
“It’s about making it as seamless as possible – that door-to-door experience. We need to try and focus on making it a pleasant experience for the passenger, a reliable experience, a clean experience and a well- informed experience so if something does go wrong, they’re aware very early on so they can make alternative arrangements, catch the next train, or whatever that might be.”