by Mark Chillingworth

Eurostar CIO Christophe Lemaire focused on tunnel vision

Nov 22, 201214 mins
Cloud ComputingIT LeadershipIT Strategy

“There is a lot of ambition to connect the rail services in Europe,” says Christophe Lemaire, CIO of the rail operator that originally connected London to the rest of Europe – Eurostar. Europe’s currency and community is having a tough time at present. This is creating hyperbole of currency and community collapse, but a discussion with Lemaire reminds me how integrated our European lives have become and how the business community has hardly left the platform of European possibilities.

I meet Lemaire in a room at the London headquarters of Eurostar, just the other side of King’s Cross station and within easy walking distance of the Eurostar’s stunning new London terminus at St Pancras International. Each meeting room is named after a Eurostar destination and decorated accordingly, and ours is adorned with stylish modern pictures of Paris. The modernity of it and the CIO I’m interviewing tell you a great deal about Europe today, its business leaders and bold vision. The meeting room is quiet, spacious, calm and organised, just like the travel experience aboard a Eurostar train. When the time comes to take the photos for the cover of this issue, the Eurostar staff – again like the CIO – are relaxed, helpful and efficient. This isn’t the place for jobsworths and impersonal service: we glide through security checks, through the terminal and onto the platform which soon, it is hoped, trains will depart for cities further afield than the established destinations in France and Belgium.

“The ambition of the rail industry is to grow and to take business from the airline business,” he admits. “So we need to organise clever connections for the customer, so that the experience is more comfortable for the customer,” he says of the challenge Eurostar and major rail operators such as SNCF and Thalys face.

In this regard, Lemaire says Eurostar has one major ace up its sleeve – Lille. The northern French city is increasingly acting as a major hub for Eurostar services connecting customers with rail routes into northern Europe, across France and of course over to the UK. Eurostar already offers a direct service to Avignon in Provence in the summer from London and Lemaire says the company wants to get to the point where it offers more single-ticket journeys beyond Paris and Brussels.

“Some of our customers are managing the connections themselves, so we know that there is a market for us,” he says. “A lot of integration will be needed from all of us. It will take years to harmonise the systems. But what we feel is that the wind is blowing in our direction.

“The airline industry has been international from its early days, and has been growing around international standards. The rail industry background has always been a lot more ‘domestic’ with everyone finding their own solutions which were the best adapted to their context and their strategy. No one is right or wrong, but when you start connecting services, things necessarily become complex. Think that in France you must book your seat before travelling on a TGV, when in Germany most of the tickets are open. The airline industry is in a way lucky not to have to manage this heterogeneity and complexity.”

Open platforms

Eurostarwon’t have carte blanche over this new connected Europe. With greater connectivity of Europe’s rail networks will come greater competition in the marketplace and a greater variety of rail liveries on the platforms of St Pancras and Paris’s Gare du Nord.

“Competition is something we know about. We are successful at the London-to-Paris route and we have 75 per cent of the market share in competition against the airlines, the tunnel and ferry services.,” says Lemaire.

“We are the only rail operator between Paris and London. Do we bet it will always be the case? No,” he says directly. “Some of our competitors such as Deutsche Bahn made it clear they wanted to compete and they bought their train to London. The question is: when will they start offering services? We are trying to guess the initial date. It was set for December 2013, but now they have pushed that back.”

But despite this delayed challenge, Lemaire is not complacent. He explains that while connecting the UK and Europe has become simpler with the tunnel, it is still a challenging new market for even well established firms to enter.

“It’s a complex business. There is a lot to organise and invest before you can run the first train as a competitor. In our case the need to run in the tunnel makes things even a bit more special. In all cases the competition will be governed by EU regulations which clearly define the rights and obligations of a new entrant and of the incumbent operator.

“Today we don’t want to be complacent,” he says of the need to not become overly focused on the future rivalry coming down the tracks. “We are in a strong position, but that also depends on the dynamics of the airline business.” Lemaire and the Eurostar management are clearly aware of the threat budget airlines pose to their business and of a consumer group that is so used to flying it treats air travel akin to flagging down a cab.

“One of the pillars of our future is to be a gateway to Europe and the UK and to offer a mix of travel solutions,” he says. I get the impression that like the airline industry, rail operators will compete for your ticket purchase, but will also have to collaborate closely to enable you to reach your destination by rail, rather than in the air or at the wheel of a car.

But competition isn’t just between the various travel providers: Lemaire is well aware of the presence of Google in the US airline ticketing search space and expects to see the technology industry challenge the ticketing business operated by Eurostar and their rivals in both rail and air travel. Lemaire welcomes the competition, and as a technologist he sees benefits for consumers and travellers who will, for example, be able to manage their travel needs through a smartphone.

“Eurostar is a carrier and our role is to carry passengers. Ticket distribution is of paramount importance to us and we need to be prepared to allow someone like Google to distribute our tickets. All of these are new ways of accessing our products. If it is simpler to buy our products in this way, I am happy with that. Our role is make sure people can make the right decisions with the best information presented in the best way.”

To face the future challenges and make the most of the opportunities on offer, the organisation has been through a series of changes, culminating in becoming a single company – Eurostar International Ltd – in September 2010.

“The brand is very well known. We are an Anglo-Franco-Belgo business with a headquarters in London. We have a call centre in Ashford, Kent and a maintenance depot in North East London, and these and our three stations are our big UK locations. We have offices in Paris near Gare du Nord and in Lille and in Brussels.” This pan-European effort is one part of the CIO role that appeals to Lemaire, who spent much of his career with French national rail operator SNCF.

“Eurostar is very international and it is wonderful for that. We learn from each other and we have learnt different ways of working,” he says of the organisation’s 1600 employees, 300 of who are based at the London HQ.

“We are a very lean business and it is rather small business for this sector compared to Deutsche Bahn and SNCF.”

That leanness isn’t just in terms of people power. The distinctive Alstom train fleet is also lean, Lemaire says, compared to the number of locomotives in the engine sheds of other operators.

“As our fleet is not huge we have to make the best use of it.”

Three into one

From its first journey from London to Paris, way back in 1994, the company had been a joint venture between British, French and Belgium railways, each providing the resources needed to offer a seamless service to the customers.

With the Channel Tunnel being opened up to competing rail companies under EU regulations in 2010, the organisation was deemed far too complex to cope with future challenges, and was replaced by the present integrated one.

“We became one normal business with a CEO and the standard structures of an organisation,” Lemaire says. For the CIO that meant blending technologies from each of the three previous owners.

“It worked well, but it can be difficult to synchronise and to take decisions was not always easy for a large investment for example,” Lemaire says of the time as a joint venture.

“Integrating the three partners into one company took many years to approve, but it has proved successful and has given us agility,” he says.

Lemaire’s first task was to integrate all the technology infrastructure into the new organisation.

“The transformation of Eurostar into a single entity was not quite an easy project,” he admits. The national French operator provided Eurostar with some of its initial technology, but as Lemaire points out, the scale difference between the two organisations is considerable and tools that were developed for the needs of SNCF are not necessarily adequate for Eurostar which is far smaller and does not operate under the same constraints. “As a consequence we are today working on moving to tools and systems that are better adapted to us, for example around train operations,” he explains.

“We want to move to something more fitting for Eurostar’s size.”

As Lemaire completes the integration of Eurostar into a single company, he is already timetabling the next major strategy journey.

“One of the main things is the importance of the data. Do we know what is the most important piece of information we have about you is? If we can say we know a lot about our customers, knowing people’s booking preferences, I am sure there are interesting thing we can do with it.

“We need to go further, use social media and see trending patterns. Customer information is the most important information we have. It’s a very positive project as it is an open field for Eurostar,” says Lemaire.

“The heart of my role now that this integration into a single company is behind us is to provide an information systems strategy for the next three to five years. That has to reflect the business strategy and the information systems are at the heart of it,” he says.

“We live in a world that goes fast, where surprises can arise every day, and where technology is at the same time everywhere and powerful. Things that were a dream five years ago are now available to the mass market. We do not know what the future will look like, but at least we can prepare ourselves by being as flexible, organised and open as possible.

“Our ambition beyond this three to five years strategy is to be where our customers are (think about mobility, social media…), do the best with all the information we have about them from all possible sources, react quickly to the market through efficient distribution tools, work on our website, and be as efficient as possible, doing the best of our resources, while being a great place to work for our staff.”

Direct connection

Lemaire reports directly to the CEO of Eurostar, Nicolas Petrovic, but doesn’t sit on the board.

“The board is very limited, but I’m part of the directorate of the company,” he says. Eurostar lists Lemaire on its Management Team web page, something many CIOs fail to appear on even when they are at board level.

Lemaire is enthusiastic about the next step. “The way we collaborate as a company is something that I have never seen before. The understanding of what can come next for the business and where we can help in IT is great.

“I think the way we are seen is of being capable of helping our colleagues and making their lives easier and lowering costs. We are in an ideal place to see how the business is working, identify where there are solutions and help illuminate them,” he says.

Lemaire admits IT as a trade has not always put itself into a first-class position: “We are not always seen as the people who can help with business solutions,” he says.

But he is confident that the new information strategy and bringing in greater business intelligence will further strengthen the role of IT in the organisation as a way of increasing revenues.

“The CIO role is one of the most challenging and we must make sure that everything is working fine and we are expected to provide new ideas and capabilities,” he says of the role. He has an IT budget of around two per cent of revenue of the company, which he says is common in the high-speed rail sector where infrastructure costs are high.

Eurostar’s fleet is currently undergoing a major overhaul involving refurbishing the present rolling stock and ordering brand new sets. A major change in the near future is that a part of the company’s information systems will be on board the trains, running at 300km/h, which is not exactly the case today. “This is going to be very new for us,” he says.

The IT team consists of 50 and as many contractors in the UK and India and he has five direct reports for distribution systems, operation and corporate systems, service delivery, IT infrastructure and security.

In July 2011 Eurostar struck its first major outsourcing deal in a five-year relationship with NIIT Technologies for infrastructure provision. Lemaire said their presence in the travel market helped them in the selection process.

“It was interesting to work with an Indian provider. There is a huge benefit for the business and I am happy with how they provide the service,” he says.

Lemaire’s team is in the process of providing a new ERP-like depot system to maintenance teams which will better co-ordinate when train sets are in maintenance and improve the management of spare parts. “This is balancing the availability of the trains and stock of parts we have, and providing tools for an increased efficiency of train maintenance,” he says.

Oracle provides a core financial system and at present a bespoke SNCF reservation system sits behind every booking. In a further reflection of Eurostar’s consortium past, a British Rail roster system is still in use for staff management.

Speed and agility

As Lemaire brings in systems more suited to the size and business of Eurostar, he hopes the organisation will become flexible and agile.

“Because we are small we are capable of going much faster than others in the rail industry. I want to use the fact that we are a small company to keep fresh.

“What takes us two years would take SNCF a decade,” he says, making an observation that could well be the golden ticket for Eurostar and the reason for the delays experienced by major national operators looking to compete.

Looking ahead, Lemaire expects a cloud implementation to follow the current virtualisation programme, consolidating the servers into one datacentre.

“For a business of our size, the cloud is a no-brainer,” he says.

Lemaire has rail running through his veins, and says he has done since his youth, but like the CIOs of ticketing firm and IT leaders at his rivals in the low-cost airline sector, Lemaire has that same enthusiasm for how technology can improve the process and the rail experience. It is people like this that are stoking the fires of the rail revolution currently taking place.

CV: Christophe Lemaire

July 2009-present: CIO, Eurostar 2005-2009: Operations Director, SNCF 2003-2005: IS Project Director, SNCF 1995-1997: TPF Coverage Manager, SNCF 1988-1991: Development Engineer, Apside Technologies