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Corus Rail goes the distance

INTERVIEW

With the catchline 'much more than rail' Corus Rail aims to offer a 'total solution' to the rail industry.

Emma Forrest talks to the steel firm's chief, md Jon Bolton

CORUS RAIL managing director Jon Bolton likes interviews to go at a cracking pace. In this interview, squeezed in at the end of a long day of meetings, he covers the past, present and future of the company in less than 45 minutes.

This breathtaking pace makes more sense when one learns about Mr Bolton's schedule. For a start, he seldom seems to spend more than one night a time in the same place. Corus Rail's Paris headquarters, manufacturing facilities in Workington in Cumbria and offices in London combine to make him a regular sight on Eurostar and Manchester to Paris flights.

It is a lifestyle that would wear out most of us. But as the man charged with leading Corus Rail's move into providing a range of rail services, Mr Bolton seems utterly focused on the task at hand.

'Corus as a whole is trying to move downstream from carbon steel into metal-related businesses. And Corus Rail is one of the businesses it wants to develop, ' he says.

Traditionally known as a producer of rail products, Mr Bolton's intention is that the firm should become a provider of core rail skills, or what its website dubs 'a total solutions provider to the international rail industry'.

Traditional component divisions - rails, sleepers and a recently launched range of modular units, produced at the 125-year-old Workington plant - are now part of a much larger package. This includes Corus Rail Consultancy, a former division of British Rail based in York, which carries out services such as feasibility studies and failure analysis.

Things have certainly changed since Mr Bolton was last with Corus. His previous history with Corus Rail before returning in late 200 included a spell as chief engineer before joining Corus Engineering Steels as managing director.

'Rails and sleepers were about all we had last time I was in the business, ' he says.

Joint ventures with Cogifer, the world's second largest supplier of switch crossings, and with a Dutch infrastructure company to form GrantRail cover further sectors of the industry.

'The strength of Corus Rail, which is as yet unrealised, is that we can offer everything from the design of a system, to installation, to after-sales service.

Our competitive edge, our untapped value is in offering a range, ' says Mr Bolton.

'In rail products we have around 60 per cent market share. There are imported rails from other countries, such as Italy and Austria. What is now needed is the need for a greater focus on the management of assets in the UK.'

The whole service approach is key to Mr Bolton's intention to grow the business 'considerably' over the next 10 years. Although reluctant to be drawn on the cash available for such an approach he says the group will invest 'what it takes'.

Investment will follow what is already an industry with substantial opportunities for growth. The mass maintenance programme that took place on UK tracks after Hatfield practically doubled the firm's contract with Railtrack for rail and rail welding services. The terrible October 2000 accident caused by gauge corner cracking that focused attention on the way tracks are laid and maintained. Mr Bolton asserts that though the immediate need for track checking is now over, it is still a source of steady work.

'After Hatfield there was a dramatic increase in demand. At the peak of the work we were delivering over 50 miles of long-welded rail a week. The replacement rate is much higher than it was before Hatfield at around two to three per cent, ' he says.

The Hatfield crash shone the spotlight on the poor management of Britain's railways. As a non-rail man (never easily accepted by this most traditional of industries), Mr Bolton accepts that it can be a difficult nut to crack. But he is loyal to the industry that Corus serves.

'It is a demanding business to supply, in the way it is structured if anything. But there is a lot of change going on at the moment. There are a lot of very good people in this industry, who get tarnished with bad press.

'There is a huge opportunity to improve the railways, ' he continues. 'A lot of new rolling stock has been introduced and passenger utilisation has increased, but maintenance and renewal have not kept pace. The industry is realising it needs to catch up and adopt a different approach. The effect of the new rolling stock is an example of this.'

UK markets aside, in an increasingly global marketplace Mr Bolton is keen to point out the firm's activities in other markets. Unsurprising, considering Corus is itself the result of an Anglo-Dutch merger.

While 'very small' volumes of sleepers are exported to North Africa and the Middle East, Europe remains a key sector. 'We are not a UK business. We play a part in mainland Europe, mainly France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Ireland. We expect and do have a strong position there, ' says Mr Bolton.

What's coming down the line?

IN ITS traditional sector of rail products, Corus Rail is keen to promote steel sleepers as an alternative to timber or concrete.

'This has been a success in our sleepers business in the UK, after the advantages had been realised. We want to influence engineers to replicate this success everywhere else, ' says Mr Bolton.

Other new products include a head hardened steel or long welded rail as an alternative to the typical carbon head hardened rail.

'A welded rail is closer to the customer's needs and a factory weld is better quality. Our contribution is to offer just in time delivery - we are very capable of doing that.'

Silent track is another new product.

Developed in Holland, a key market is metro-style urban transport applications.

'European rules on noise levels mean this will become more and more important, ' says Mr Bolton.