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Network Rail boss hits out at rail industry's 'macho' culture

Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne has hit out at the safety culture within the rail industry, dubbing it “macho” and in drastic need of change.

Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne has hit out at the safety culture within the rail industry, dubbing it “macho” and in drastic need of change.

Carne said getting more women into the rail infrastructure organisation was critical to instilling the performance and safety culture he wants.

He was speaking at the ICE on the first anniversary of becoming chief executive of the track operator.

Carne said it was unacceptable that about 600 railway workers every year were injured to an extent that they could not return to work the next day.

“If I were back in oil and gas, a comparable figure for the same amount of hours worked would be fewer than 60 people - the difference is that stark,” he said.

“That means that over 500 of our people are getting hurt every year, well over one a day, because our work practices have not kept pace with comparable heavy engineering industries.

“This is a huge opportunity to improve safety - and with it, to improve performance.”

Carne spent years in a variety of roles with Shell - including taking responsibility for Shell’s oil and gas platforms in the North Sea. He said that boosting diversity in the oil and gas industry had made a “profound” difference.

“To take an example I know well: when women started becoming a much more visible presence on the oil and gas platforms in the North Sea 20 years ago, the difference they brought was profound,” he said.

“The extreme macho, and frankly unsafe, culture that was a hallmark of the industry in the 1970s and 1980s changed dramatically and forever.

“Today, women make up only 14% of the Network Rail workforce. It is hardly surprising that under such circumstances we still have what many would describe as a macho culture within the company,” he said.

“And to make matters worse, at the current rate the numbers of women in our business are increasing, it will take another 65 years before we achieve 30% - a level which is seen as a tipping point for organisations looking to benefit from gender diversity.”

Carne reiterated his belief that positive action and recruitment targets were vital to accelerating the diversity agenda (NCE 15 November 2014).

“We have to encourage more women to want to pursue technical careers so that the application rates change.

“But I am also a strong advocate of positive action to help compensate for the inherent bias that can occur in male dominated societies. They [women] should be shortlisted if they have the qualifications,” he said.

“This is not the same as positive discrimination,” he stated. “But it does recognise that if you do not take some action to compensate for the inherent biases that must exist, the bad habits that have persisted in the past will carry on in the future.”

Carne added that diversity was a broader agenda than simply gender - and that it was “more than political correctness”.

“There is now a proven correlation, across multiple sectors and geographies, between diversity and inclusion on the one hand, and innovation and high performance on the other.”

Carne added that the rail industry’s absolute focus on punctuality may be inadvertently sending messages that unsafe working was acceptable.

“Culturally, I would argue that today, for many of the workforce in the railway, punctuality is what really matters. It is what we - the leaders in the industry - measure and what defines success.

“I know that if we focus on what it takes to do things safely, performance will follow.

“After all, to do a job safely, it must be well planned, be carried out by competent, motivated people, be well‐led must use the right equipment in the right way. All the ingredients of high performance - right first time,” he added.

 

What he could have said instead

Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne said he could have used his speech at the ICE to talk about the doubling of passenger numbers over the last 20 years or, perhaps, to talk through some of the £25bn worth of projects Network Rail will be delivering in the next five years. Perhaps the tremendous electrification programmes, like Great Western; or the amazing station projects, like Birmingham New Street.

He said that perhaps if I had been giving his speech two months ago, he would have wanted to talk about the digital railway. “I’m a passionate believer in the opportunity we have to lay out the blueprint for a technological transformation of rail in this country; a railway where in just 15 years or so we could lead the world in digital train control, delivering more capacity, reliability, speed and safety all at lower cost and with a smaller environmental footprint,” he said.

But, he, said, he wanted to talk about people and culture. “Because there is nothing more important to the future success of the railway.”

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