Meet the man who kept Wales’ railways commercially on track

In his latest book, John Davies, a veteran of Wales’ railways, reflects on his long commercial career selling rail travel for everything from regular passenger to pedigree corgis and flowers for London markets. Here he shares some of his memories.

If you’re fascinated by railways, the latest book by John Davies is a must-read. John, who started his career in Swansea District Office, spent his whole career in the railways, and has some fascinating anecdotes and insights gathered in a huge variety of different roles.

John started out as an operations clerk, became a station master aged just 20 (at a time when most station masters were grey-haired and bespectacled) and then progressed to the commercial side of Britain’s railways, where he fulfilled multiple roles over the following decades before retiring in 1994.

You can read the whole story in Commercial: It’s not railway work! which is out now. The book’s title is a reference to what he was told when he first expressed an interest in working on the commercial side of the railways.

“I always knew I wanted to become a commercial person,” he says, “but when I started out in operations and asked to have a look at the commercial side, they said, ‘Don’t worry about them. They don’t do real work – they just do publicity and that’s not important. The trains didn’t run because of them.’ It’s daft but I think the attitude still exists with some people.”

It took 10 years before he had an opportunity to take a commercial, job, but when it arose, he went for it and didn’t look back.

One of his early roles was as a sales executive for the South West Wales Region. This saw him selling freight transport to a huge range of customers.

“There was somebody in Cardiganshire who was breeding corgis and sending them all over the country by putting them on trains, because it was quick transit, and in those days we used to provide food and water for livestock.

“I did a lot with flowers too: flowers sold in London market used to come from West Wales, and I’d take spring flowers home for my girlfriend – daffodils and chrysanthemums. I also used to deal with fish from Milford Haven, which was very busy in those days.”

Other customers included two big toy manufacturers in Swansea, who kept the trains very busy in the three months leading up to Christmas, and – at the other end of the scale – major oil companies. John’s job was to “keep them sweet and deal with their problems.”

He also dealt with shipping agents at Swansea docks, competing with road transport to offer the best deal for the cargoes that arrived each day.

“At one point I was approached by a cotton importer from Liverpool who wanted a quote to carry cotton from Swansea up to Liverpool because there were constant strikes at the Seaforth docks in Liverpool,” he recalls.

While most of his career was spent in Wales, he also had stints in Leeds and in Norwich, as well as time in the West Country doing his management training.

In Norwich, he handled passenger sales and marketing, including the sale of tickets through third parties including all the major travel agents.

After that he returned to Wales, becoming divisional passenger manager in Cardiff.

“I had a baptism of fire there because things were really bad,” he says. “Business was on the floor – I was quite surprised to find how unprofitable it was. The trains in West Wales were costing four times as much as the income they were bringing in.

“I had to get that sorted out. I’ve always believed that if you just cut your costs, you’re on a hiding to nothing: business will crash as the sales will get worse. So it was a matter of promoting services to get more business and then cutting costs where it was not going to hurt. We had far too many carriages and the productivity of the rolling stock was dreadful, so we cut the fleet, carrying more passengers and running more miles with a smaller fleet.

“We also cut the fares dramatically at the top of the valleys, which was a deprived area. For autumn half term we decided to cut them by a further 50%, and that shock treatment got people coming in their droves.”

He went on to become the first all-Wales railway manager in history, where he once again worked to improve productivity while cutting costs, managing to almost double the service without using any more carriages.

After that he worked as regional railways manager for Wales until his retirement in 1994 – but his involvement with the railways did not stop there. He and two former railway colleagues formed a consultancy and advised on a bid to run train services in Wales. 

When that company disbanded, John took on the marketing and promotion of the Gower Explorer bus service, and then launched Swansea Bay Without a Car – the definitive website for anyone wanting to explore the area by train, bus, bike or on foot.

On top of that, he’s penned three books prior to the latest: From Hell to Paradise, documenting his international rail travels; From Achill Island to Zennor, covering his journeys around the UK, and Valley Lines: the People’s Railway, written in 1997 jointly with journalist Rhodri Clark, about railways in the Welsh Valleys.

Commercial: It’s not railway work! is a great addition and gives a fascinating insight into the commercial side of the UK’s railways during the last century. It also reflects on a job very well done, thanks to innovative and energetic marketing.

“I’m pleased that I’ve been able to transform what I’ve been promoting for the better,” says John. “I haven’t been afraid to try new things and to work hard to sell them – it’s been a blast.”

You can buy copies of Commercial: It’s not railway work! from: 

Platform 5 Mail Order 

120 pages, over 100 colour illustrations £14.99

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