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Creating a quality blend Scott Wilson Railways' focus on its staff has paid dividends.

Scott Wilson Railways managing director Martin Nielsen says that one of the biggest managerial challenges the company faced when it acquired two of the British Rail design offices was dealing with 200 staff on 11 different sets of terms and conditions of employment, none of them anything like its own.

'We wanted the rail business to be a seamless match with the rest of Scott Wilson, so we sat down and dealt with the issues with the unions - something we were not used to doing. We had to be responsive and recognise some of the show stoppers, such as cut price rail travel, but we also found that some benefits could be traded. It took nine months, but we got everyone on to the same terms and conditions.'

Integrating the Swindon and Glasgow design units into the Scott Wilson fold was a prime objective when the businesses were purchased in April 1995 so they could take advantage of the parent company's national and international network. After initially adopting separate identities as Scott Wilson Mainline and Scott Wilson IDG, both companies now operate as Scott Wilson Railways. Nielsen heads the English end of the business, while Hugh Blackwood is managing director in Scotland. In two and a half years turnover has more than doubled to £10.1M, and 70 more staff have been taken on.

This is proof, if the consultant needed it, that it did the right thing in buying rail expertise. Both Nielsen and Blackwood were part of the Union Railways team for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, and it was there they came to understand how crucial hands-on experience of the rail network would be for anyone wanting to win work after privatisation.

'We came to value the immense technical knowledge among railway professionals,' Nielsen says. 'We realised that Railtrack would be reluctant to let us get seriously involved in the operational railway without that level of expertise. When the design units were being shaped up for privatisation, our senior partner Ken Innes was determined that we would buy at least one of the five to give us a head start. We were very happy when we acquired two.'

The businesses were bought as going concerns and came with existing contracts - such as Heathrow Express - but there were no guarantees of future work. All new business has had to be won. With 80% of turnover coming from one client - Railtrack - Nielsen and Blackwood have had to shape the business to line up with Railtrack's own aspirations.

'They have told us that what is most valuable is a company with multi- disciplinary design and construction management skills,' Nielsen says. 'There is a fear that a lot of the cost falls into the cracks between disciplines in more traditional ways of working, and they are looking to us to manage the interdisciplinary risk.'

With that in mind, SWRailways has recruited staff to make itself a truly multi-disciplinary operation. 'The staff we acquired were used to overseeing possessions and having direct control of safety. And our permanent way designers, we think, are the best in the business,' Blackwood says. 'But we needed people with skills in electrification, signalling, rail operations and telecoms - all the non-civils work - and we went out and found them.' SWRailways recruited in the rail towns of Swindon and Crewe, where it also established a new office. New entrants to the rail sector have also been recruited from the main Scott Wilson business, mainly for project management and rail transport economics.

'We have a genuine desire to work on projects where we can influence the whole scheme,' Nielsen explains. 'It means, for a bread and butter project like junction renewal, we can take it from feasibility to installation, dealing with everything from tender documentation to managing possessions.'

The multi-disciplinary approach requires teamwork rather than the inherited BR approach of distinct professional hierarchies with all decisions taken at the top. 'We've trained people to act as well as think across disciplines,' Nielsen says.

The firm is hot on the safety issue. 'We believe we spend more on safety training systems than most - our records show the most dangerous thing we do is drive to work,' says Nielsen. 'We are working on that as well by introducing advanced driver training.'

New areas of investment include: developing more professional skills in permanent way engineering ('always the Cinderella, but at the heart of railway engineering, and more people need to be professionally qualified in it,' Nielsen says); the same for rail systems engineering; and expanding the business, both overseas and - with the privatisation of London's Tube in mind - underground.

SWRailways is already working in Denmark on a maintenance performance report for Danish Railways which has privatisation on the agenda. Other new clients include the train operating companies and the infrastructure maintenance companies, which increasingly recognise the sense in working closely with multi-disciplinary designers.

Railtrack work includes the Chiltern Line (see box), Luton Airport station and an imminent bid for some of the West Coast Main Line work.

The biggest issue facing all the private companies working on the railways is how to keep replenishing the priceless knowledge that the former BR staff have at their fingertips. 'These people were born into the railways, it is almost a vocation - you need the flying hours - understanding the network,' says Blackwood. 'That is one of the reasons our normal competitors are not catching up with us quite as quickly as we would have expected. It is difficult to create these people from scratch. That is our main management challenge now.'

Jackie Whitelaw

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