LNER: The challenge of change on the East Coast line

LNER has now replaced Virgin East Coast, National Express and GNER, to run the arterial line that is the East Coast line.

And the second of the ‘big four’, created by the Eric Geddes’ ‘Grouping’ Act of 1921, is being re-birthed.

The Department of Transport through an ‘Operator of Last Resort’ has picked up the keys and will now drive the line forward. That operator actually being a partnership of engineer, accountant and rail operating specialist. This last resort operator has done it all before of course, twice,for both the East and West Coasts of the country.

So it has form but does it have substance?

The re-naming of the line as LNER is a bold step, perhaps as portentous as it is contentious. Bringing back one of the big 4 brands into the world might suggest some charismatic confidence around this ‘new’ line and a new start post the Virgin/Stagecoach combo?

Chris Grayling is preoccupied just trying to steady employee, customer, government and other stakeholders’ nerves at a difficulty time, claiming it will be a case of all change, but no change

‘this will not impact on the railway’s day to day operations. The business will continue to operate as usual with no impact on services or staff on the East Coast’

LNER but with the same employees, same trains, same timetable (perhaps wisely) and even the same ‘high standards of customer service’.

More of a continuation than change. A continuation story is positive, when people have encountered too much negative change on the rails.

But change of ‘ownership’ of a company should necessitate a fundamental review of the direction and reality of that business, beyond the operational basics.

Even in demanding situations like a franchise hand-back. Ownership changes. Culture changes. Things change.

What’s the big picture employees are now part and parcel of? Apart from saved jobs (good), continued service (excellent)…?

What’s going to be brilliant about LNER?

How will a new structure of business and day to day sub-cultures shape what is plausible and possible for the new brand to deliver?

This is a new start, even if retaining all the assets of the past (from a few days ago). In an age of cynicism, transparency and empowerment, a simple ‘carry on as normal’ misses a massive trick by being neither compelling nor credible. Its no longer Virgin/ Stagecoach so how can it only be about what they were and did and planned? As most of us know by now, well run, energetic and high performance organsiations need their own distinctive point of view. A reason to exist, a why as well as a how and what.

But It seems that LNER might be content to just focus on the ‘what’ of Virgin’s unfinished business.


And so LNER is trundling along towards 2020 and private/public partnership with a purely operational mind-set towards the train-set. Under the cloak of a borrowed new name and ‘evolved’ design identity from its Virgin predecessor.

Working on the Great Western franchise with FirstGroup, we too appreciated the value and importance of bringing back a heroic railway name, that we might all take pride in again in Britain. And the first ‘big 4’ re-birth was planned and delivered.

But with a substantial, under the surface, depth and substance review of business and brand first;purpose, idea, culture and values…codified and made operational well-ahead of the re-introduction of the most iconic name in railways, GWR.

The name and design identity was the last thing addressed, not the first thing done on that journey back to the Great in GWR.

LNER first existed for 25 years. During which time, it gained a reputation for fast, comfortable and stylish travel.

Underpinned by its status as a leading freight operator, helping to drive British industry.

Now, at speed, the task and challenge must be to connect up this famous name with some distinctive and valued meaning beyond a historical and geographical name, acting as a ‘flag of convenience’, in the wake of Virgin and Stagecoach walking away.


And all that should really should mean all change for LNER, not just name change.