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Quakes, crashes and broken shafts – KiwiRail's Quinn on an eventful five years

He could have chosen earthquakes, storms, a broken ferry drive shaft or the Pike River coal mine disaster – any number of events outside his control.

But when asked about his most difficult moment at KiwiRail, former chief executive Jim Quinn – who finished up yesterday – picks the incident in which a young woman in a wheelchair was injured at a level crossing in Auckland’s Morningside Drive, in Kingsland.

“It’s the only incident we’ve had on the track that we were the problem, and we take our responsibility incredibly seriously,” he told NBR ONLINE earlier this month.

“It affected her in a deep way, and her family, and I think we had a lot to do to work with them and we did that.

“I found that personally a challenging thing.”

KiwiRail apologised over the incident and paid compensation to the family.

The woman has cerebral palsy, is deaf and hasn’t been able to speak since childhood. Her rescuers were given medals.

Mr Quinn went on to lament how often his 4200 staff are involved in fatalities and bad injuries – as bystanders, mainly, whose trains can’t stop in time to avoid an incident.

Only this week, there was another such incident – when a truck driver died when a truck collided with the Northern Explorer passenger train near Rangiriri, between Auckland and Huntly, on Thursday.

(On Friday, Mr Quinn says he hopped in the car and drove south so he could speak to the train driver and the trainee, who were in the cab and uninjured, as well as the four onboard crew and 108 passengers.)

“It’s just something that shouldn’t be part of your job but unfortunately it is – it’s not like emergency workers,” he said at KiwiRail’s Auckland headquarters on February 18.

“This is a people game and it’s the people things that matter.

“We obviously work very hard to make the assets good and do their job and it’s frustrating when we let ourselves down and when the assets let us down, but it’s about the people.

“It’s a business that people love and they care about and you don’t want to see them affected by that stuff.”

Man With The Plan
As noted in Friday’s National Business Review print edition, Mr Quinn was The Man With The Plan – the guy who successfully pitched a $750 million turnaround plan (with a $94 million top-up last year) for the state-owned rail, ferry and engineering business at a time when the National government coffers were bare (for spending increases) and the global recession had kicked in.

It hasn’t gone entirely to plan – for obvious reasons.

Last year, KiwiRail reckoned storms, earthquakes and Pike River cut $43 million off its earnings, which will push out its lofty goal of breaking even beyond its 2020 target.

As reported yesterday, the Aratere Interisland ferry incident last year – when its shaft broke and its propeller fell off – is eating into KiwiRail's earnings and it is in financial talks with the government.

Mr Quinn – the eternal optimist – doesn’t take a glass half-empty approach to his five years. He says his over-riding feeling is of being deeply proud of what team has achieved.

But he’s also realistic and knows how people think.

He refers to management speaker Tom Peters and his work on US giant Federal Express, saying about how people, including his customers, will most often define KiwiRail by the things that go wrong, rather than the millions of things that go right every day.

“There is a hell of a lot to be proud about in terms of what we’ve delivered but also the way we’ve responded. It’s a service business – good service businesses are defined by the way they respond to crises.”

His one caution, however, is the risk KiwiRail’s perception of how good it is, is ahead of the reality.

The message: there’s a long way to go and more to do. Service performance and serviceability need to keep lifting. You’ve got to earn your stripes.

“The moment you relax, you’re neutral and you just get lost,” he says.

Ownership structure
On KiwiRail's ownership structure, Mr Quinn says it has to be publicly-owned. If it were a purely commercial entity it would be "broke and closed." There’s just no logical shareholder, from a pure commercial perspective, to invest in the company.

And if money was no object?

“You’d renew the rolling stock in one go and you’d close the business for two years and you’d renew as much of the ground asset as you can, and open a business that was going really well and then you’d focus on growth from there.”

He’s thought a lot about what he would have done differently, if he had his time again – and there are no regrets uttered over controversial events like Dunedin’s Hillside workshops or the closure of the Napier-Gisborne line.

The Man With The Plan would have asked for contingency money from the government, which would have helped with broken ships and earthquake-warped lines. A More Costly Plan, then.
“I was really honest with the government [saying] we haven’t sandbagged this.

“This isn’t a negotiation, if we’re not going to do this plan we need to agree what it is we’re not going to do if we going to reduce the money.

“Layering a contingency in would have created a whole different debate.

“I’m not sure I could have sold it but it certainly would have made the last five years a lot easier.”

So, what next for Mr Quinn?

At some stage he’s likely to become a professional director but, while he’s talking to a few people, he says there no natural next step from KiwiRail.

He’d like to have something by July, but it wouldn’t faze him if it’s later.

“This has been a wonderful gig but it has also been reasonably testing – so a bit of a break after this isn’t a bad idea.

“I’ve loved everything I’ve done so far so to carelessly trip into something I hate would piss me off.”

More by David Williams

Comments and questions

Reading the Facebook tributes from his colleagues the biggest tribute to Jim would be that he is authentic and consistent; a fair and kind man, not afraid to make tough decisions. Declaration (proudly): he's my brother in law.