Trials and Tribulations (2)

March 20, 2010

This one was bad. Very bad . . .

After a couple of years of hard work a major European car manufacturer agreed to use international rail services and wanted to run some trial trains even before the opening of the Channel Tunnel. We could do this using the wonderful Nord Pas De Calais train ferry.

The trial was arranged by a company specialising in moving cars on trains. I was British Rails’ business development manager, so my interest was commercial, leaving our operational guys (including the very capable Andrew Fulluck) to run the trial. We all agreed not to attend the loading of the cars onto the trains because the rail operator and local railway would look after that. Big mistake.

On the day of the trial I travelled with a posse of colleagues down to Dover and onto the train ferry. We had a lovely crossing as usual, because the catering on the NPDC was aimed at truckers (the ferry carried both trucks and rail wagons) and so was extremely good.

At Dunkerque I went down into the hold to see the train loaded. There is something incredibly impressive about a car train – 750 metres long carrying up to 300 cars. It was even more impressive as it was being efficiently shunted onto the train deck of the ferry. While my colleagues sorted out things with the French, I admired the wagons and cars, feeling a bit like a loose end being the commercial guy amongst so many operators.

The sides of the wagons were interesting. Lots of labels and instructions in French. In particular, between each set of wagons on the upper deck there is a ramp which has two settings: “Gabarit GB” and “Gabarit Europe”. Even more interesting, all of the wagons were set at “Gabarit Europe”. Hmm, I’m only a commercial guy, but that looks odd to me. As the ferry doors closed I asked Andy if that looked right to him. immediate chaos, with lots of men in macs running around swearing.

“Gabarit Europe” meant that each ramp was slightly raised, to give more room on the lower deck and maximise the space within the European loading gauge. Being raised meant that some cars might be too high to fit under the tighter bridges and tunnels in the UK.

As the ship sailed for Dover we had a meeting. We knew that the customer and various other dignitaries would be waiting in Bristol to see their precious cars arrive. We could not afford to fail. The solution was easy: the ramps could be hand cranked down. It would be physically hard work as this should only be done when the wagons are empty – not with cars sitting on the ramps. But we had a good four hours to do it.  Guess what? There were no crank handles on the train – they had been removed for security.

Second solution was to unload them in the UK and sort it out in our sidings in Dover. As we docked at Dover on a cold dawn more men in macs strode down the gangway to help us in our hour of need. They went into a huddle and decided it could not be done. One of the tightest structures in the UK was between the ship and the sidings, would you believe. Nobody would take the risk of our train knocking down a bit of the Port of Dover.

So the cars were sent back to France. That night the train was taken off the ferry and the cars were all unloaded somewhere in Northern France, the wagons were set correctly, and the cars were reloaded.

A couple of days later Andy travelled to France to see the train reloaded onto the ferry. He stayed with the cars all the way to Bristol and I drove along the M4 stopping in a couple of places to photograph our lovely train as it passed.

The client was not unduly annoyed, and we got some good publicity out of the first train of cars to use the ferry. If only people had known the true story they might not have been so impressed!

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Trials and Tribulations (1)

March 7, 2010

This was a bad one. I had been trying for over a year to get a contract to carry starch from Corby to Aberdeen – its an ingredient of paper. I knew the client well and got on with him well. Eventually I persuaded him to do a trial with us.

The starch was in “big bags” weighing a tonne each, so handling was easy and a VDA wagon would do the job on rail. I cannot remember which terminal we used to load the starch down south, but I arranged for it to be unloaded in Aberdeen by our own terminal and collected by a truck on contract to the final customer up there. We could achieve a 24 hour transit, but the client said we had two days. But the load was important and so at all costs it mustn’t take more than two days. I was to call him if there was any problem.

It is an important rule for me always to be present at both the loading and the unloading of a trial load. But Aberdeen was a long way, and this was only a load of starch. What could possibly go wrong?

The day of the trial arrived and I watched the big bags being fork lifted across to the VDA. all very smooth and off went the wagon. I rang the terminal in Aberdeen and warned them of the important trial coming their way. I even contacted the local loads inspector to ask him to take a look when it arrived. I kept a close eye on the transit using TOPS – our highly advanced computerised tracking system (this was 1984 – 15 years before sat nav!).

On the day that arrival was scheduled I saw on TOPS that the wagon was in Aberdeen and its status had changed from “loaded” to “empty”. Great! Just to be sure I rang the terminal and the foreman there confirmed having seen the wagon unloaded with no damage. Brilliant!

I am not sure if I tried to ring the client or if I was expecting him to call me, but basically we did not make contact.

Two weeks passed by, and I was plucking up courage to call him and ask for another load. Then I got a phone call. From Great Yarmouth. “Mate, we’ve got a VDA full of starch here, and we think it might be yours.” My blood ran cold? What? How? Surely it can’t be . . . .

It turns out that the nice people in Aberdeen had wrongly entered “empty” for my wagon. Since then it had been wandering around the network, full of starch, and waiting for another load. The man I rang and asked about the trial had seen a different wagon unloaded – of calcium carbonate, not starch.

I had to ring the client who promptly hit the roof. End of another bright prospect.

Message to anyone involved in rail freight: always watch your trial being loaded AND unloaded. Don’t trust anyone else!


I Was A Speedlink Sales Executive!

February 24, 2010

From 1985 to 1988 I did one of the most unusual and interesting jobs in the railway industry. I was a Speedlink Sales Executive.

About a dozen of us covered the country, working from home but supported from regional offices. We were provided with a company car (would you believe my first was a yellow Vauxhall Chevette), and were given a considerable degree of freedom. Essentially we were sales men and women – reps on the road. My patch stretched from the Thames to Northamptonshire, across to Bedfordshire and Oxfordshire.

The support we were given was excellent. British Rail was very keen to make a success of Speedlink, and we were given external sales training and were properly managed by sales managers who set and monitored targets.

I think what was unique about our job was that we didn’t really have a product to sell. Every customer needed a bespoke product. The only thing in common was that we were offering freight transport using rail as the main mode.

For example, my patch had virtually no manufacturers or distribution centres with rail connections. To get goods from A to B I had to include collection by road, transfer to a rail wagon somewhere, the rail haul using mainly Speedlink’s wagonload network,  and then delivery by road at the other end. None of this was “off the shelf”. There was no brochure, no price list.

VGA vans in 'Railfreight' era  liveries

Our approach was this:

  1. Find a customer. BR employed some market research techniques, but our main approach was excellent local knowledge, searches of directories, and a lot of soul destroying cold calling by telephone.
  2. Persuade the customer to see you. Not easy. They were normally busy and very happy with the service they got from road hauliers.
  3. Meet the customer and find out about his or her business. What did they make, what did they move, from and to where? In what quantities? How is it being moved currently?
  4. Decide on the spot whether rail could potentially play a role in their supply chain. This really meant having a thorough understanding of both the road haulage market and the capabilities of rail. Price was obviously key, and only rarely would customers tell us what they were paying. So we had to estimate the road price and decide whether rail would be likely to compete.
  5. Sell the concept of rail to the customer – presenting the range of services available and the benefits of changing mode.
  6. If rail could play a role and the customer was interested, we would go away and pull together a package of services including finding a road haulier for collection, getting a quote from them, similarly for a rail terminal, similarly at the other end. We would decide on the best wagon to use, and find a suitable Speedlink service from our timetables. Hopefully there would be enough money left to get some revenue for the rail operation plus, ideally, a discount for the customer over his existing prices.
  7. Go back to the customer with a proposal / offer. Negotiate!
  8. Generally we would offer a trial run, often for free. For the trial the sales exec. would be on site to see the wagon loaded, and would travel to the other end over night to see that unloading went smoothly too.

The packages we offered were a unique combination, often involving five or six different companies (collection haulier, loading terminal, wagon provider, unloading terminal, delivery haulier). For that reason, while many of our colleagues in British Rail could spend their entire career and not deal with any company outside the organisation, we were adept at dealing not only with our private sector customers but also our private sector partners in the terminals, haulage, and wagon leasing industries. The partnerships formed were very open: any company could front the operation. So a haulier or a terminal operator could be the prime mover, and simply come to us for a rail haulage price. As sales execs our job was as much to provide support for terminals and wagons operators as it was to sell direct. At the same time we needed a good feel for rail operations and services, materials handling techniques, and logistics in its wider sense so that we could identify and home in on any opportunities to add value.

I will definitely come back to my time as a Speedlink Sales Executive in later blogs – stores about the terminals on my patch, and why most of my trial runs went disastrously wrong!


Speedlink Nostalgia

February 16, 2010

I was researching a future blog post about Speedlink when I came across this wonderful promotional video that Speedlink commissioned back in 1984. Enjoy!


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