Richard Fenney was a bit of a surprise entry to the railway industry. The 49-yearold chemical engineer had spent his career in contracting with companies like Fluor, moving all around the world. 'When the headhunter contacted me at the end of 2000 I'd never thought of rail - I was hardly even a user, ' he says.
'But I became very attracted by the idea. There was a signifi cant job to be done and I felt I would be one of a small number who fi e years later, would be able to say we'd achieved something important.' Just over four years on, he can pretty much claim to have done that. Fenney started with the company as director of commercial services (managing relations with the train operators), then took the job of running the London North East region before taking on the role of maintenance director early last year.
Fenney was part of the team which made the decision to take maintenance work away from private sector contractors and do it in house, with a directly employed workforce that overnight doubled the company's employees from 15,500 to 31,000.
A year into the new way of working, maintenance is costing much less than expected and performance is above expectation. Maintenance costs are down £130M - 12% against budget; delay minutes caused by faults in the track are down, suggesting maintenance is more efficient; and to prove that, incidence of signal failures and broken rails have also reduced dramatically.
Now that he can manage maintenance nationally from the centre rather than regionally through contractors, Fenney is setting up framework deals direct with suppliers: these are cutting up to 30% off the prices the company had previously been paying (NCE last week).
Fenney is far from complacent, however. 'The infrastructure maintenance contractors were using a lot of contingent (casual) labour and there were all those horror stories around about chefs and fire fi ghters doing the work. They were just scares but there was an underlying truth, in that there were vacancy gaps, especially around London.
'Network Rail should be an attractive employer. We have long term work to offer, good training and we've spent £15M upgrading drying rooms and messing facilities so working conditions have improved. The maintenance contractors just couldn't make that investment because they were on limited contracts, so I'm not pointing the finger.
'Even so, we still have gaps in London and on the front line, ' he admits.
There are also a whole host of productivity issues to deal with. 'The planning and logistics of maintenance have been poor, and there have been problems with the interface between renewals and maintenance, ' Fenney says.
The latter is much easier to deal with now, he adds, because the company is organising the maintenance plans in house and can link directly with renewals. 'But there is still a long way to go.' The big focus this year is on safety. It is the area where maintenance did not hit its target for the year to March 2004.
'We've put in place a series of training programmes reminding people of the things they have forgotten. A lot of injuries are caused by not handling heavy equipment properly, for instance. And we are improving access down embankments, putting in steps and handrails so people can stop having to slide down slippery wooden sleepers to reach the track.'