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England's dream

Jerry England's reputation as a tough taskmaster is legendary. But Network Rail's new director of civils says it is just that - legend.

A story circulates about Jerry England from his six-month stint as major projects director at the Highways Agency.

He is reputed to have summoned all the Agency's major contractors, and read each one the riot act individually – you are our worst contractor. Shape up or get out.

England says the reality is different. "Like many stories, it isn't true," he says.

England has been at the helm of three giants - The Highways Agency, Thames Water, and now Network Rail. Contractors are understandably on tenterhooks, waiting to see which way this industry hard-man will turn.

So how did England's reputation emerge? "It faintly amuses me," he says. "I put it down to journalistic licence. A number of people have said positive and negative things about me, but drawing together some of the more negative things you might draw that picture. But that picture is not really the truth.

"I don't think I said to any contractor, 'you're our worst', but they were clamouring at my door to come and see me.

"What I did say to them is two things – one is there is a lot of pressure on costs, and you have got to do better, and we have got to get costs down. I felt that the Highways Agency road programme costs incurred were too high. I do not think anyone argued with me. They might have argued as to why, but that was a fact or at least my opinion.

"The other thing I felt was we were still building roads in the same way the Romans had. So why is it that these contractors are working in all manner of industries, doing all manner of things, but doing no real innovation, or taking new ways of thinking about things into the highways?"

England is now asking the same question but for a new master – Network Rail. He holds the purse strings for the maintenance and renewal budget, which comes to an eye-watering £650M to £700M per year.

His job is in two parts. "I work with colleagues in the infrastructure investment part of the business, working in project management and delivery. It is their job to get the projects delivered and spend the money on our behalf, and get the best value.

"The other – for me and my team – is how can we make sure that they deliver the best solution, which is a whole life cost solution, which might not be the cheapest solution, but is cheaper over the whole life cost."

This second part is what is pushing the Network Rail's innovation drive – how to do more with less (NCE 8 November). Network Rail is expected to cut spending by 31% by 2009, and then increase efficiency by 18% by 2014. In real terms it will need to make every £1 spent go twice as far between 2004 and 2014.

While England's reputation would have fitted perfectly with Network Rail's policy of screwing the contractor, the rail industry now needs a new approach.

"One of the areas we can help contractors is to be a lot clearer on what it is we want.

"Not just the specific design or specific problem, but a programme of work."

England says that the next two years are well planned out, and also much of the two subsequent years, although these rely on certain assumptions that will not be finalised until the current round of horse-trading with the Rail Regulator about Network Rail's business plan is complete.

"This is one area Network Rail is quite far ahead on," he says. "Other places I have worked did not have this kind of forward-looking plan."

Contractors will be expected to ramp-up efficiency, and over the course of a package of work, become increasingly capable. "The expectation is for them to become tighter – that is the whole name of the game – we have to drive costs down, day by day, year by year."

England wants his contractors to bring work practices from other industries, and adapt them to the railway. "What I want the supply chain to do is not just what we are doing, but look at what they are doing in other areas , and say 'look, this is a similar problem, and this or that works', and we can apply that to rail, and all other things being equal we can give it a go."

However, he is aware that the risks for contractors are high, and Network Rail may have to take some of the risk to encourage innovation approaches (News last week). "If we want to try something new – a new material or way of doing things, then if it goes wrong we will have to take it on the chin."

England has been at the centre of change before – his role at the Highways Agency was to drive through changes following the damming Nichols report into the Agency's work.

But England says that some of the criticisms made by the Nichols report came from false perceptions.

"The Agency fell into the trap of every year or couple of years revising its costs, which gave the impression that costs were increasing and were out of control, when in reality it was a difficult problem that everyone was trying to solve.

"Fifty per cent was inflation, but the rest was justifiable growth within a project."

He says the way Network Rail works has its advantage over the Highways Agency's system. "In-sourcing the maintenance activities puts more control in our hands, but compared to the Highways Agency, it is a different game."

He acknowledges that the coming years will be crucial.

"The vision of Network Rail becoming world class is going to take a few years yet to realise, but we have started from a good place."

According to England, there is far less resistance to change from the old-school British Rail "cardigans" than might be expected. And he already has ideas he has taken from the oil, gas and water industries that could be adapted to rail.

"At Thames we did a lot of work to get intelligent pigs down pipes to understand their condition. It is not a huge stretch of imagination to use something similar on a train to check the condition of a tunnel," he says.

England will now immerse himself in Network Rail's world until the New Year, when he will emerge and start taking calls from contractors again.

"We want to move away from the adversarial relationships we have had in the past. I want contractors to bring the expertise I feel they have got. I understand the reluctance. Some of them feel that is their commercial edge. What I want them to do, in fairness, is to share their edge with everybody.

"There is enough work for a large proportion to do pretty well out of it. I'm happy for contractors to make a good margin, but I want a good return for that.

"Contractors need to think of it as a programme of work, not a set of individual projects worth a few millions of pounds, and each will make a margin. As a percentage, that percentage might not be huge, but it is a small percentage of a large number."

England rates his own record as, "pretty good", and says he wants to lay the foundations for the railway of the future. Perhaps the perceived reluctance of the "cardigans" comes not from stubbornness but comprehension, because the railway of the future will simply not be managed in the same way it is now.

"I think Network Rail is trying to get its head around that. We have to be smarter in trying to manage what we have."

England's CV

-Born Colombo, Sri Lanka
-School St John's, Leatherhead, Surrey
-University Birmingham, BSc (Hons) in Chemical Engineering
-Oct 2007 to date Network Rail Director, Civil Engineering
-2007 Highways Agency Interim Major Projects Director
-1999 - 2006 Thames Water Utilities rising to Director of Water Services in 2004
-1986 - 1999 Parsons Group rising to project manager
-1985 - 1986 Matthew Hall Senior Process Engineer
-1978 - 1985 MW Kellogg, rising to systems project engineer

Married with two daughters, 18 and 21, both at university.

England on:

Nuclear "I know the anti-nuclear lobby say nuclear will destroy the planet. But not if you control it."
Himself "I am quite demanding. But I am not totally unreasonable. We all have a duty and we get paid to do the work."
Expanding London "A kind of TGV triangle from London to Birmingham to Manchester to Leeds could create a larger virtual capital, taking some of the stuff that gravitates to London away to these places."
Road charging "There has to come a point where market forces have to come onto what is basically an open road network. This would have a knock on effect on railways, where we would then have to build more."

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