A week after the 'We're getting there' slogan from long-defunct British Rail entered the Oxford Dictionary of Catchphrases, Network Rail tells Mark Hansford how it will finally arrive.
We will get there, ' says Peter Henderson, projects and engineering director at Network Rail, the not-for-profit company now in charge of Britain's railways. 'Yes we're still getting there, but the difference now is that we will, and this is not negotiable.'
Less than a month after paying Railtrack Group £500M to take charge of infrastructure operator Railtrack plc (NCE 10 October), Network Rail is already making changes - starting from the top.
'We are a new company with a new board, ' says Henderson.
This is a key change early on and is a really good message for engineering.'
Of 11 new board appointments, seven are engineers, and six have substantial railways experience. 'These are people who have been around railways for a long time. They have seen the good and the bad and will make sure that we get informed debates, ' says Henderson.
Henderson himself has a mass of railways experience stretching back 20 years to working on the Tyne & Wear Metro. After that he spent 16 years with the Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway Corporation, latterly as head of major projects, before spending two years with Bechtel as projects director for Tubelines, a preferred bidder for London Underground's Public-Private Partnership.
With that much experience, Henderson is under no illusions as to how long it will take to turn around Britain's long neglected rail infrastructure.
'To get to a steady state, where we are doing preventative maintenance not corrective maintenance, we are probably looking at a 10 year horizon, ' he says. 'What I can bring is that I can see what a good railway will look like in 10 years time and can paint that picture for the staff in here. It helps a lot in knowing that we will get there.'
Henderson has identified two clear priorities for Network Rail that go hand in hand: resources and competence.
'As a board we will be looking at the state of the railway, the work we have to carry out over the next 10 years, and the demands this will place on the supply market - for both our own and external staff, ' says Henderson.
'It is important that we grow the resource in critical areas - signalling and track engineering immediately comes to mind - both internally and externally, as we simply have to increase the capacity to do the work, ' he says.
Network Rail estimates that the rail industry as a whole needs a further 1,000 engineers, with 250 required in-house.
Network Rail will continue work begun by Railtrack to increase the supply of rail engineers, such as conversion courses for graduates from non-civils backgrounds.
Twenty six such engineers have already completed Railtrack's seven month track course and are now out on the network gaining valuable experience as assistant engineers.
More are on their way through the programme and signal engineering courses are also about to start to train people with backgrounds in electronics. Network Rail estimates that in the next few years the courses will create about 200 rail engineers.
But Network Rail will also be working with suppliers to help train people to work on the railway, and this leads directly to the second priority of improving the competence of the firms and the individuals in the rail industry.
Even before the takeover, Railtrack had announced plans to renegotiate its five year maintenance contracts in order to take more direct control of work on the network (NCE 26 September). This plan is now being developed by Network Rail with the first new contract due to come into force on Balfour Beatty's Eastern Region early in the new year. The remainder will be introduced by April 2004.
'The new maintenance contracts will demand a higher percentage of permanently employed staff and will make sure that they are part of a suppliers' system to raise and maintain standards to the level that we require, ' says Henderson. 'And we will be checking.'
The contracts will see 85% of the track workforce as direct employees of Network Rail's maintenance contractors and will include a range of defined competencies necessary for all those working on the railway.
Contract details are still being finalised, but the principles of the new arrangements will feature Network Rail becoming more prescriptive in determining inspection processes and being directly involved in certain key inspections. Network Rail will assess with contractors the output of inspections and will take responsibility for the decisions as to what is to be done and when. It will also be directly involved in the verification of completed work.
If maintenance contractors are in any way concerned about the increased supervision, they should at least be pleased with Network Rail's commitment to a new approach to planning, from long-term strategic level right down to possessions.
'Under Railtrack, possessions tended to be planned on a regional level, ' says Henderson.
'By taking a national approach you can achieve greater efficiency and maximise the use of longer possessions, while also planning alternative routes.'
Under the plan, Network Rail aims to take on 250 staff by the end of the year to take charge of organising and planning possessions. Under Railtrack possessions were organised by the contractor.
The current policy of having a number of smaller possessions on any one stretch of track will be scrapped in favour of one longer possession to allow more contractors on to do more work.
This is seen as an improvement on the current situation where a contractor organising a possession for itself has no incentive to let others work in it as well.
Longer duration possessions are also now seen as more cost effective, with the saving in mobilisation and labour costs outweighing any increase in the cost of compensating the train operator.
Ideas such as these are not new. The key is in putting them into practice, something that Railtrack was notably reluctant to do, says Henderson.
'With Network Rail there will be increased focus on making decisions, something that has not been seen before, ' says Henderson. 'What I've seen in the last three weeks is an enormous amount of good ideas. The challenge is taking the ideas and implementing them.'
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