Colin Whittle: Nexus

Nexus is in the middle of perhaps its biggest challenge yet – the £500m Tyne & Wear Metro upgrade – and its wrangling is keeping the in-house team busy. By Jon Parker

The oldest British light rail network outside of London, the Tyne & Wear Metro boasts 60 stations, 75km of track and 36 million passengers a year.

Nexus, the company that runs the Metro, also operates Newcastle’s cross-Tyne ferry, many of its bus networks and the ambitious ‘Project Orpheus’, a plan for a cross-city tram system. In other words, Nexus has become crucial to the economy of the North East, and running its legal function is a lean team headed by Colin Whittle, who has been at the company for a decade.

Perched in his office overlooking Newcastle United’s St James’ Park stadium, the head of legal services says that the most demanding point of his career at Nexus has been his part in choosing the law firms for the £500m upgrade of the entire Metro network.

An invitation to tender was placed across the EU and the team received more than 30 expressions of interest. This was subsequently hacked down to a shortlist of just seven major players – an Ashurst and Ward Hadaway team, Bevan Brittan, Dickinson Dees, DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, Eversheds, Nabarro Nathanson and Lovells
Three of the seven – Bevan Brittan, DLA Piper and Dickinson Dees – made it through to the subsequent interview stage, with local giant Dickinson Dees emerging as the victor. Head of projects Tim Care will lead the firm’s team, assisted by partners David Rewcastle and Paul Coleman.

“It’s not just because they’re local,” Whittle says, heading off responses from cynics. “Dickinson Dees is well up there with the nationals and we felt it was number one for the job.”

Whittle adds that the Tyneside law firm also advised Nexus in its extension of the Metro line to Sunderland, which opened in 2002, and boasts relevant experience advising Southern Railways, Thameslink and Thames Trains.

Having said that, the in-house legal team at Nexus usually “try to stay local” when external counsel are called for, using Dickinson Dees, Ward Hadaway and the Newcastle arm of Eversheds for the vast majority of work.

Working alongside Whittle within the in-house team are three solicitors – one working full time and two part time – plus a legal executive handling personal injury (PI) investigation and defence, and three legal administrators.

The administrators handle prosecutions exclusively, which, as well general crime on the company’s trains, such as vandalism, includes 4,000 prosecutions annually for fraud – otherwise known as ticketless travel.

Whittle has been at Nexus for 10 years, joining as a solicitor in 1996 and replacing his former boss, Geoff Brindle, as head of legal services in 2001.

Before joining, he spent nine years as an associate at Peter Dunn & Co, which, according to Whittle, is “a small local firm that covered a wide range of areas”. He adds: “I’ve always liked the challenge of handling a diverse caseload.”

Discounting the upgrade project, Whittle says that undramatic arbitration as well as PI and tribunal work were the highlights of last year. He predicts “more of the same” for the next 12 months.

However, for all his modesty, Whittle admits that his 10 years at Nexus have seen the legal function evolve from simply fulfilling an advisory role to one of shaping strategy and policy.

“There’s only so many slips, trips and falls you can do before getting bored,” he concludes.

Recent months also saw changes following the introduction of the Freedom of Information and Data Protection Acts. Since then the team has been working hard on approving applications for information and on setting up permanent plans to facilitate easy public access to information in the future. “We’re not a secretive organisation,” he says.

Whittle describes Nexus’ relationship with the unions as an “amicable” one, saying that he prefers to work with them rather than against them. But he concedes that “from time to time it does break down”.

Though, he says that generally disputes are small and battling the unions occupies very little of his time. When disputes do end up in court, local rail unions usually use York firms Thompsons and Pattinson & Brewer.

Whittle says he enjoys his job and that after 10 years out of the private sector, he is unlikely to ever go back. “I like the variety of my role here,” he concludes. “And there’s also that great view of St James’ Park.”
Colin Whittle
Head of legal services and monitoring office

Organisation Nexus
Sector Transport
Turnover £100m+
Legal spend £100,000 (excluding the redevelopment)
Employees 1,009
Legal capability Three lawyers, one legal executive
External lawyers Dickinson Dees, Eversheds, Ward Hadaway
Head of legal services Colin Whittle
Education St Josephs RC Comprehensive; University of Newcastle Upon Tyne
Work history 1986 – articled clerk, Sunderland City Council; 1987 – associate, Peter Dunn & Co; 1996 – solicitor, Nexus; 2001 – head of legal services, Nexus