Fresh from his hour-long commute, squeezed in with thousands of Sydneysiders, Howard Collins plonks himself down at his desk, pulls out a diary heaving with appointments, and finds a little space to write down a number.
Today it’s 68,200. The number will grow before his head hits the pillow.
It’s his secret weapon, an indication of how personally he takes his formidable job, and emblematic of his unpretentious style of leadership.
The 68,200 are the kilometres of travel he has done on Sydney’s rail network since being lured from the plush job of running the London Underground to be chief executive of Sydney Trains a little over two years ago – the near-equivalent of two full loops around the globe.
Howard has been clocking the numbers and ticking off the 178 stations, one by one, until the station map on his wall is full of red crosses.
That distance buys you some street cred. It gives you empathy and unparalleled insight into the machinations of the business from the coalface. It cheers your workers and, apparently, wins you friends.
“See that lady over there?’’ Collins asks as he points down the Woolooware platform. “She volunteers at the zoo and only ever catches the train on Thursdays.’’
And that guy at the end of the platform? Rain hail or shine “he always wears his shorts. But then again, he is from Scotland. Lovely guy”.
Collins is pointing out his fellow commuters — the clutch of Shire folk he shares his mornings and evenings with, all now facing south across the railway tracks, heads bowed over smart phones, awaiting the 6.05am to Central. His fellow commuters, and his customers.
“The vast majority of people say that things have gotten better and that the place looks clean.”
This is his idea of pressing the flesh — just being a normal passenger on the vast network he runs, shunning the chauffeur-driven car that would be his right and riding his Dutch-made bike to the station, strapping his green helmet to his backpack and using his commute as an opportunity.
He is not seeking to be an anonymous observer, to spy on his staff, but a six-foot tall walking, talking complaints hotline, evident by the large name tag proudly pinned to his chest. Chief Executive, Sydney Trains.
By the time the 6.05am drags itself into Central, three passengers have taken an opportunity to talk to the boss with a mix of praise (“the trains have never looked so clean”) and queries (“why does this train wait an extra minute at Sutherland?”).
“The vast majority of people say that things have gotten better and that the place looks clean. Occasionally they will talk about a specific delay they experienced,’’ he tells The Saturday Telegraph.
Some days require him to delve into his backpack, digging around for his high-vis jacket to help clean up a platform spill or attend to an incident well below his pay grade, or to fill his ever-present garbage bag with stray rubbish. He carries two every day. Last month while attending an event in North Sydney, the boss heard a train seat had been “decorated” with syringes. So he donned the gloves and helped pull 100 needles out of the seat.
Six months into the job, one of the train cleaners mentioned they never see anyone in management. So Collins jumped on a train to Campbelltown in the dead of night, and spent the early hours cleaning trains.
This style of humble leadership, perhaps a little foreign in the gung-ho corporate realm of Sydney, is all geared around a culture that Collins has sought to bring to Sydney Trains, a culture he learned in 35 years with London Underground, including his leadership through the 2005 London bombings.
“We want to present the human side of the business, because we are public servants and that’s what we are trying to do,’’ he said.
He points to his policy of having stations staffed with the same people. People such as Brian at Woolooware, now leaning on his trusty broom and chatting to his CEO like a pal. “He’s the chief executive of the Woolooware Train Station,’’ Collins says.
“A familiar face at a time when people need it goes a long way. That’s what’s made a difference with customer satisfaction.”
But Collins also presents the human side of management.
“I’ve done most jobs in the railway, having started at 18. I swept platforms, I did admin, I learnt to drive trains, I was a signaller, a booking agent … the old days of military management are over. Some people who come from the ground floor, as soon as they get a white shirt on become the worst managers because they think this is the way to treat staff, that they can now talk down to them.’’
Collins stops talking to shake hands with the train driver who has just guided the train to Central.
“Now this guy,’’ he says pointing to the driver. “He has the most amazing Michael Jackson dance moves. Incredible.”
Howard Collins “the Tube man”, as London mayor Boris Johnson called him, counts himself a lucky man. After 35 years with London Transport, he is delighted to wake up each morning in his house overlooking the sea in the south Sydney suburb of Woolooware – bought in blithe defiance of the city’s postcode snobbery – and catch an early train to Central.
And neither union battles, nor early criticism of his $500,000-plus salary, nor the gargantuan challenge of dragging Sydney’s antiquated railways into the 21st century can spoil his enthusiasm. At that stage in a solid career, when some might begin ticking off the years to retirement, the chief executive of Sydney Trains is a man invigorated by a new adventure.