Paul Robinson has been managing director of Nottingham Trams – a subsidiary of Keolis UK – since 2012, overseeing the award-winning Nottingham Express Transit (NET) tram network. He brings over 35 years’ experience in the rail industry to his role and here he talks through his career to date, and the most exciting developments set to impact the railways in the future.
Tell us how you ended up working in the rail industry – when and why?
I grew up in Derby, and back in the day, when you left school to start your career, you had a choice between the city’s two biggest employers – Rolls Royce and British Railways. My father worked for Rolls Royce, so to be different my choice was British Rail!
I started out as an electrical engineer, specialising in rolling stock design. I’d work for six months at a time developing new trains, taking them through from specification and design all the way to manufacture, test and commissioning.
Since then, I’ve worked for eight railway organisations, holding several board positions and becoming MD of four, including RFS, the Babcock-Siemens joint venture, Alstom Transport UK and, of course, Nottingham Trams.
What does a typical day look like for you?
When you are the MD of a public transport provider, there’s no such thing as a typical day. There are always different challenges, but my role is to ensure that the tram network is operating safely and providing good customer service. In Nottingham, we regularly interact and work with other road users including bus operators, emergency services, local highways authority and, most importantly, the people of Nottingham. So every day is truly different – but that’s what I love about my job.
Ultimately, it’s about ensuring that we’re constantly achieving operational excellence, and moving our passengers around the city efficiently. We want our customers to have the best possible experience on our trams, so if issues do arise, it’s crucial we set to work tackling them as soon as possible.
I always compare my job to conducting an orchestra – I have to make sure that everyone is in tune and on the same page at all times, and always performing to the best of their ability.
What’s the best part of your job?
That’s easy – I love working with people. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to build relationships with so many different groups of people, from customers and staff to clients and stakeholders.
I also pride myself on having a high-performing team. There’s nothing better than helping someone to develop and empowering them to do their best work. It’s so rewarding to watch people grow in confidence and see them really excel.
If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?
I’d love for us to be a one stop shop for public transport in Nottingham. A big ambition of mine is to one day achieve an integrated transport solution for the city, so a passenger’s journey can be door-to-door. We’re not there yet, and it’s a big task – we’ll need to integrate buses, services, bikes, car schemes and trains. But my goal is for Keolis to be able to take you wherever you need to be and give you a great experience while you’re travelling.
What’s the proudest achievement of your career?
The first time I remember feeling I’d achieved something really special was playing a part in a management buyout of British Rail factories in the late 1980s. This was a long time before the privatisation of the UK railway happened, so was a pioneering move at the time and very exciting to be part of.
Another was the opportunity to contribute to the delivery of the Channel Tunnel. I was lucky enough to work on the design, styling and ergonomics of the original Eurostar locomotive, including multiple systems that needed to operate seamlessly regardless of which country it was travelling through. Seeing the Channel Tunnel become operational was a tremendous moment.
And last but not least, a very proud moment was becoming MD of RFS aged 30. It was a huge change for me, making the switch from engineering rolling stock to the world of business. What a learning curve!
What’s the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced?
When I worked at Babcock in the mid-90s, the board gave me a remit to either dispose of or grow its rail business. It was my recommendation to grow it through acquisition – so they challenged me to make it a reality.
Under the plans to privatise British Rail, I identified an opportunity to buy British Rail Maintenance Ltd. For us to be successful, I needed to bring on board a JV partner, and identified Siemens. Together, we negotiated a series of acquisitions of British Rail depots, integrated them into Babcock’s existing business, and ran them successfully for over five years.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the transport sector? And what do you think is needed to solve it?
For me, the most pertinent challenge is the Williams Review. It’s been 25 years since the railway was privatised, and since then it’s been a victim of its own success. We’ve witnessed tremendous growth, and more people use the railways than ever before. But now we’re faced with a situation where the UK’s infrastructure can’t cope with the level of demand.
That’s where the Williams Review comes in, helping us to understand how to make the railway more customer-centric and sustainable. The timing couldn’t be better – there is real appetite for change. But there is still a great deal of uncertainty over what the outcome will be. Whatever happens, this will be a pivotal year for the industry.
What’s been the most exciting development in the transport industry that you’ve seen during your career?
For me, it was the privatisation of the railway industry in the mid-90s. This was a massive structural change that led to an influx of new organisations, private companies with money to spend, and above all, new ideas.
Customer-centric concepts began to emerge for the first time in many years, and it sparked a wave of innovation and investment in technology.
It also helped to develop people. Rail workers were exposed to different ways of working from across multiple industries, opening up huge opportunities for personal development. In a way, it felt limitless – like the lid had well and truly been lifted.
I think we now find ourselves in a similar situation to where we were before privatisation – it’s time for another period of evolution.
What excites you most about the future of the industry?
I can’t wait to see how Keolis UK continues to evolve. When I first took on this role, Keolis was relatively modest in the UK market, only really having Nottingham as a majority business. But now we’re a major player, winning some incredible business in Docklands Light Railway, Manchester Metrolink and Wales & Borders.
Our work in Wales is particularly exciting. We’re pioneering a completely new model in partnership with Transport for Wales, not only operating the railway but delivering network improvements, electrification, new rolling stock and station development. The end result will be a significant boost to social mobility, productivity, employment opportunities and connectivity – all enabled by a modern and innovative transport system.
What advice would you leave your successor?
My advice would be three-pronged: lead by example, have ambition, and be positive. And if you always make sure to put customers at the heart of every decision you make, you’ll never go far wrong.