“It’s been hard on us”: Keolis on the pandemic and sustainability plans
Clément Michel – Keolis Group Director, Human Resources and Transformation, speaks to Intelligent Transport’s Josh Minchin, about Keolis’ response to the pandemic and future plans for the group as travel resumes.
Pictured: Keolis operates a range of buses in Sweden.
What is the mood among Keolis employees at the moment?
Clément Michel: The pandemic and its lockdowns have been a real challenge for everyone, all over the world. Ensuring the well-being, safety and security of our 68,500 employees has been our top priority during the entire period. Let’s not kid ourselves: it’s been hard on us.
With this in mind, we organised our first edition of “Health, Security & Safety week”, from 14 to 18 June. All employees were able to attend a series of events, webinars and training sessions held by Keolis, some virtual, some face-to-face, covering such topics as well-being, mental health, cybersecurity, security in public transport and road safety. We had an amazing participation rate and I was astounded by employee engagement on this critical subject.
Additionally, each subsidiary launched their own programme to support their staff. Over 400 initiatives have been launched in 90 subsidiaries, in the UK, US, France, Australia and India. The initiatives are as diverse as yoga classes for all Hyderabad employees in India, safety visits around depots and the Dockland Light Railway network in London, and social events at Keolis Denmark to prevent employee loneliness, and innovation for the prevention of road accidents.
All these initiatives have featured external guests such as yoga teachers, psychologists and psychiatrists, and of course our internal experts.
To wrap up this special week, we presented awards to congratulate the teams that have implemented the most remarkable Health, Safety and Security initiatives in their networks.
Regarding mental health for instance, our KeolisAmey teams in Manchester, where we operate a tram network, were distinguished for their efforts in providing mental health support by the implementation of an awareness training programme to 120 Customer Service front line staff in Autumn 2020. This initiative was so successful that subsequent training was provided to 60 managers in May 2021 to durably support fellow colleagues.
Keolis Canada was also rewarded for their efforts in workplace improvement and employee well-being. By joining the “Bell” programme which gathers hundreds of companies, they aim to make the workplace inclusive, safe and healthy places for each and every one, with tailored measures depending on our various locations in the country.
As new Director of Human Resources and Transformation, what will be your priorities over the coming weeks, months and years?
CM: I am lucky to have been given a wonderful updated portfolio with a lot of energy, drive and talent on a global scale: the Transformation Programme, the Keolis Way, Health & Safety, Sustainable Development and Human Resources.
Building on our Health & Safety fundamentals, we will be focusing on sustainable development, our impact on the planet, and on the communities we serve.
Regarding Human Resources, my focus will be on implementing talent identification and training measures, on enhancing leadership, and on Diversity, Equality and Inclusion.
Our employees and the communities we serve merit the best possible leadership and we, as employers, need to consider the characteristics of the communities we serve.
How important is sustainability to Keolis?
CM: Sustainability is our absolute priority. Collectively giving our best to fight climate change and protecting both citizens’ health and the environment are the key challenges of this century. International players like Keolis have a duty to pave the way for implementing change in society and to lead by way of example. In this regard, sustainability is rooted in Keolis’ Corporate Purpose, which was unveiled earlier this year: enhancing everyday life in cities and communities by imagining and operating safe, smart, and sustainable mobility solutions accessible to each and every one.
Throughout the years, we have earned the recognition of our partners, public transport authorities, for our expertise in operating sustainable transport solutions. We have been operating sustainable modes of transport for over 40 years, with electrified mobility solutions such as metros and trams.
Converting diesel-powered bus fleets to alternative energy sources is one of our key priorities. Worldwide, we operate and maintain more than 4,000 buses running on a variety of alternative energy sources – electricity, natural gas, biogas, and hydrogen. Together, they account for about 20 per cent of the total bus fleet and this figure is still rising.
Back-to-back in the last six months, we have launched two large electric bus fleets in Europe: over 100 vehicles in Bergen, Norway, and over 250 buses in the Netherlands. We have also secured a large bus contract in Sydney, Australia, to convert 125 buses to electric by 2030.
Our ambition is clearly to become the reference operator when it comes to energy transition.
Do you see a future in traditionally-powered transport (ie diesel buses)?
CM: First and foremost is the need for effective shared mobility: a diesel bus with 100 passengers is definitely better for the environment than 10 people in a diesel bus and 50 privately-owned cars each with 1.1 people inside. So, making our own network systems more effective is critical and boosting ridership in the post-COVID period is our number one priority.
Of course, Keolis Group is fully committed to meeting the energy transition challenge. Adopting cleaner, healthier, and quieter mobility solutions in all our networks is our ultimate goal for more liveable and breathable cities. To achieve this target, diesel vehicles are set to be gradually replaced by more eco-friendly vehicles. As a matter of fact, cities, regions and countries throughout the world are setting their own carbon neutrality targets. In Sydney, Australia, all city buses will be zero-emission by 2030. Meanwhile, in Europe, the EU set a 2030 target through its Green Deal, which aims to achieve the same goal on the scale of the continent.
The urgent need to fight climate change is imposing a gradual conversion of bus fleets and the sense that we must collectively change our mobility habits by taking public transport, using soft and active mobility solutions (i.e. on foot or bike) and reducing the use of private cars to reduce congestion and considerably cut CO2 emissions.
Do you think the onus is on operators like yourself, or on authorities and governments to drive sustainable change within the transport industry?
CM: Meeting the energy transition challenge in public transport can only be achieved if we all work together hand-in-hand: governments, investors, public transport authorities, public transport operators, communities, etc. We all have a role to play in driving a real change in the industry.
As a public transport operator, our role lies in providing mobility solutions that are credible alternatives to the private car and in advising our public transport authority partners.
We support our partners in their goals to convert fossil-fuelled bus fleets to alternative energy sources, through our international expertise and experience in operating and maintaining a number of alternatives to diesel: biodiesel, bioethanol, GNV, Diester, electric, hydrogen, GPL and hybrid.
In order to fulfil our role as a trusted advisor to the communities we serve, offering the best mobility solutions (and their energy sources) for the region, we study a range of criteria, including geographical location and landscape, budget, existing infrastructure, size of the network, available resources, etc. Many factors must be taken into consideration to best meet our partners’ expectations and offer the right mobility solutions adapted to their local needs.
Have you used the last 18 months to reflect on your transport business and, if so, what improvements are you planning to roll out as public transport begins its comeback?
CM: The health crisis has clearly changed the way people live and travel. To assess the pandemic’s impact and adapt our service offer, we set up a global monitoring and survey system. The overall results show that the most obvious trends are:
- Acceptance of remote working
- An increase in local consumption, with people tending to consume more in their neighbourhoods and favouring activities close to their homes
- A call for electronic payment, to reduce physical contact, for cleaner transport, and for real-time information on the number of people on board buses and trains
- The rise of active mobility: the use of bicycles has significantly increased in large cities – up by 67 per cent in Paris – as has the use of e-scooters and walking.
These trends have led us to:
- strengthen local transport services, which are more flexible and closer to our community needs
- step up cleaning and disinfection of our vehicles and networks
- increase digital ticketing in our networks. In France, for example, our networks with digital ticketing have increased from 18 to 70 in one year
- develop real-time passenger-counting technology to provide information that will avoid crowding on public transport
- increase alternative mobility options into our transport solutions, with more bicycles available in our networks.
At Keolis, we are committed to keeping public transport as safe, secure, and clean as possible.
With a drop in ridership and the restrictions imposed by governments due to COVID, has Keolis activity slowed down?
CM: COVID-19 showed us the essential character of public transport: over 50,000 of our employees were on the frontline during lockdown, providing mobility solutions to carry essential workers who had no other option than using shared transport to get to work.
In each of our networks, we adapted our schedules to match the new demand trends. In Boston, for example, our subsidiary Keolis Commuter Service devised new schedules for the various stages of the pandemic. Rather than slowing down, our activities diversified. The Group’s capacity for adaptation during the pandemic was evident in the mobility solutions we provided to communities. For example, we adapted our network itineraries to provide easy access to hospitals. In Belgium, we began operating vaccination shuttles. And in Boston, we are pleased to be part of Vax Express, a programme to increase access to vaccination by allowing people living in areas with low vaccination rates to get vaccinated at train stations.
With the progressive lifting of government restrictions, public transport passenger numbers are on the rise. In China, where we operate trams and automated metros in Shanghai, ridership has returned to pre-pandemic levels. Elsewhere, it is growing every day. In France, ridership is currently at 70 per cent. In Australia, ridership on our bus networks is between 70 per cent and 93 per cent, while on the Gold Coast tram it is currently 65 per cent.
With proper management of health, safety and comfort, I am convinced that ridership will return to former levels very soon.
Clément Michel has 22 years’ experience in passenger transport and the management of public transport networks. He has been president and CEO of Keolis North America (US and Canada). He is currently the Group Director Human Resources and Transformation.
Clement joined SNCF in 1999, where he held several operational positions in Paris and in Montpellier. In 2005, he became Executive Director of Gare de Lyon station in Paris. In 2009, he joined Yarra Trams operated by Keolis Downer in Melbourne as Chief Operating Officer before being appointed CEO of Yarra Trams in 2013, a role in which he remained until moving to Keolis North America.