Nicholas Owen meets the man responsible for many of Surrey's trains, Keith Ludeman
As the chief executive of the Go-Ahead group, Keith Ludeman is the man responsible for many of Surrey’s trains. Nicholas Owen got to do what most commuters would like to do, and spent an hour putting a few questions to him…
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine April 2011
Photos by Andy Newbold
For a man who runs a huge private organisation valued at around three quarters of a billion pounds, with vast numbers of customers every day, Keith Ludeman doesn’t exactly travel to and from his work in style. Most evenings, he is among those having to stand on a crowded train as he heads home to Surrey.
Not that he’s complaining, mind. As the chief executive of the Go-Ahead group, which is in charge of three rail companies in the UK, trains are a major part of his life. This coming summer, however, after 40 years of working in public transport, he will be retiring.
“I am looking forward to retirement, to ‘independence day’,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. “I shall be moving out of the fast lane. It’s important not to hang on too long. I’ve known too many people who say they will stay on just one more year. Not a good idea.”
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Offices at Victoria That said, it’s hard to imagine him slackening off much, and for now, he is a phenomenally busy man. We have been given just one precious hour to talk to him and get some pictures at his office, which is located in a block just around the corner from London’s Victoria station. He can’t actually see any trains from it, unlike when we last met a couple of years ago and the headquarters were in East Croydon. Across a few rooftops was the large railway depot at Selhurst. “I can literally keep an eye on things,” he told me then.
The trains may now be out of sight, but there are plenty of reminders of them in his Victoria office. There is a large model of the most modern one, the so-called Javelin, which runs on the Southeastern company controlled by Go-Ahead. The group’s other interests include Southern, carrying thousands of passengers each day in Surrey, serving places like Croydon, Redhill, Sutton and Epsom.
Go-Ahead also operates many bus routes up and down the UK. In fact, it was thanks to buses that the young Ludeman got his start in his chosen career. “I had taken a degree in geography, pretty useless, at the university in Newcastle,” he says. “I was 21 and needed a job. There were only a couple of big employers up there. I was out walking one day, and there was a bus depot. I went in, and became a conductor.”
Recalling an old television series that was very popular in its day, he goes on: “It was a lot like Reg Varney in On the Buses. I loved every minute of it. You grew up quick. You learned to swear properly. The passengers? You met the good and the bad. If they gave trouble, I would just sort of lean into ’em.” At six foot three inches, Keith is an imposing man, and you can’t imagine much bad behaviour going on.
As he patrolled his buses with his heavy ticket machine on a chain round his neck, and a big bag for the money, was he not tempted to get behind the wheel? “No, I never wanted to be a driver. You earned more as a conductor because of overtime.”
It may have been fun, but Keith Ludeman wanted more out of life, and went to Salford University to take an MSc in transport engineering and planning. Progressing on to transport management, he worked in Manchester, Hong Kong and then back in Burnley in Lancashire, before spending the late 1980s running buses in London. In 1990, he switched to Thameslink and Thames Trains, before joining the empire that is Go-Ahead, where he got the top job in 2006.
At home in Shere The group’s financial performance has been mirrored by Keith’s own success. He lives in a five-bedroom house close to the village of Shere, and swims for at least half an hour every day in his own pool. He relishes the countryside round about, and the atmosphere of a small and close community. It has echoes, he thinks, of a gentler and nicer time.
“I look back on the 1950s and the 1960s as better in some ways than today. We have some feeling of it even now in the Surrey Hills where I live. We have a village store, an amateur dramatic society, things like that. Another lovely thing is, you can leave the house and walk through beautiful country for miles.”
He and his wife Diane have two grown-up daughters who have married and moved to the United States and Australia. Diane is very involved with local life, but she does not completely share her husband’s passion for his hobby: sailing. “Diane is a reluctant sailor. I have always loved the sea and being in the sea. When I worked in Hong Kong, I started serious sailing. It was the only way to get away from the rest of the population because it’s so crowded there.” Nowadays, the 61-year-old shares ownership of a boat moored at Chichester Harbour.
“Sailing,” he says, “can be hours of tedium, interspersed with moments of sheer terror.” It is also a great way to escape the extreme stresses of being the head of a very big business. Even so, there are reminders of work wherever he goes. He and his boat often cross the Solent to the Isle of Wight where the bus services are operated by his Go-Ahead group.
In Surrey, by contrast, Go-Ahead is not a big provider of buses. One route, however, is often spotted by the chief executive when out shopping in Dorking. “I always give it a thumbs-up when I see one of our 465s in Dorking High Street!”
Reigate signal box It is trains, though, that really get Keith going. He adores all the history involved. He smiles as he talks of the old but still working signal box at Reigate level crossing. It must be said the love is not shared quite so much by motorists. They often sit in long tailbacks when the crossing gates come down.
He may appreciate the history, yet he is fiercely proud of the modern railway, too, especially in Surrey and Sussex. “The Southern franchise,” Keith says, “is very dear to my heart. I take enormous pride in Southern. When we got the franchise, I was involved in every detail of it. The name itself, and the livery, and so on.” To railway enthusiasts like me, the colour scheme of the trains is very satisfying: the splendid green, blending so well with the countryside.
At the same time, Keith is well aware that the railways in the south east can be a trial for commuters. He experiences the reality every day. He travels to London from Clandon station, using the rival South West service. Coming back, he usually has to squeeze on to a train and stand for at least the first part of the journey.
Even though his Southern company generally scores good marks for punctuality – except when the severe weather we have seen this winter ices the system up – he knows that overcrowding plus higher and higher fares infuriate his passengers.
“The other day, I was watching one of those old black and white British Transport films from the 1950s. They talked to passengers at Waterloo station who complained that the trains were too crowded, dirty, and expensive. Well, they’re still busy, but they’re no longer dirty.
With Southern, we are getting 82 per cent of customers saying they are satisfied with the performance. Modern trains are so much better than the old ones.”
But what about value for money? Close to his retirement, Keith sighs, clasps his hands behind his head – and speaks his mind. “I think it’s a shame the railways are as expensive as they are. It comes from Government policy. They believe passengers should pay more of the costs. After all, across the country, only seven per cent of journeys are by rail.”
Looking to the future If only a small minority of travel is by train when you look at the whole of the UK, the picture is very different in our crowded corner of the south east. Here, the numbers going by rail have shot up in recent years. That growth is very satisfying for Keith Ludeman as he prepares to step away from his fast lane of a job.
“It’s been a wonderful life,” he says. “I’m leaving something I absolutely adore. I have a passion for it all, and that comes a lot from the people who work for us. Good, common sense people doing an important, practical job.”
The departing boss is bound to find other part-time challenges in his chosen industry when he finishes with Go-Ahead in July. At least they are unlikely to involve a daily commute, and all that standing on the way home to Clandon station.
HAVE YOUR SAY: What do you think about the county’s rail network? A good service and clean trains, or overcrowded and over-priced? Have your say
Did you know?
Go-Ahead is one of the UK’s leading providers of passenger transport services, operating primarily in the bus and rail sectors. Over one billion passengers travel on their buses and trains each year. The company employs around 22,000 people. One of the UK’s largest bus operators, they have a fleet of around 3,800 vehicles and carry an average of 1.7 million passengers every day. Their rail operation is the busiest in the UK, responsible for nearly 30 per cent of all UK passenger rail journeys through its three rail franchises: Southern (which includes the Gatwick Express), Southeastern and London Midland. Southern provides train services across South London, connecting central London to Surrey, the South Coast, East and West Sussex, and parts of Kent and Hampshire. They employ approximately 4,065 staff. In total, Southern manages 157 stations, carrying thousands of passengers each day in Surrey, serving places including Croydon, Redhill, Sutton, and Epsom. The two principal stations it serves in London are London Victoria and London Bridge. Southern has a fleet of 320 trains, which according to their official website, score 90.7 per cent on punctuality and 84 per cent on customer satisfaction. For more information, see their website at www.go-ahead.com