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Growing pains The buyers of the infrastructure maintenance and track renewal companies are fighting their corner in a very competitive market. NCE reports first on Balfour Beatty.

Balfour Beatty Rail managing director David Fison takes a pragmatic view of one of UK civils' few (supposed) boom markets. 'People often make the mistake of thinking about the rail sector as a growth market,' he says. 'Really, it's a changing market - which, of course, brings opportunity. But if you study Railtrack's Network Management Statement, you'll see that in five years time investment is due to start declining. Our goal is to find the most efficient way of working by the time the market quietens down'.

The view is partly shaped by Fison's insistence that the UK rail infrastructure and maintenance sector is 'a young market - only two to four years old, depending on where you measure it from'. The increase in workload following Railtrack's privatisation in 1994 has, unsurprisingly, received most attention and has raised (again, perhaps not unexpectedly) expectations that rail alone would provide a ready replacement for the fast disappearing roads workload.

The reality was and is different. The rail market quickly became highly competitive with, in Fison's words, 'Railtrack shaking the industry' to get the best prices. The Balfour MD has been 'quite impressed' with the way Railtrack has realised that a more co-operative approach is the way to achieve best value.

Then there were the inefficiencies deeply embedded within the former BR infrastructure service companies. Many have been tackled, but Fison says the newly privatised firms must become a lot more flexible to deal with the range of work Railtrack now demands be done in a single possession. And there is a new bugbear to deal with: New Labour's review of the rail regulatory regime, which Fison believes could well result in Railtrack's profits - and, therefore, its investment plans - being restricted.

On paper, BB Rail seems better equipped than most to deal with these challenges. It is the largest rail infrastructure company in the UK with an annual turnover of £400M. However, Fison sees no particular merit in this. What he does point to as clear advantages are the company's 75 years of experience and the scope of its operations.

BB Rail is divided into six divisions. They were created by identifying the expertise inherited from the infrastructure maintenance companies and blending this with Balfour's existing project management and manufacturing skills.

BB Rail Maintenance and BB Infrastructure Renewals tackle the bread and butter work. BB Rail Projects provides project management services aimed at securing work on major schemes throughout the world.

BB Railway Engineering is the division's trackwork manufacturing arm, while BB Rail Plant operates a fleet of machines that carry out trackwork, electrification and general railway works. Finally, the Strategic Development Group, helps clients plan how better to cope with future demands.

Fison claims the number one spot for Balfour in electrification, signalling and major projects.

Looking to the future, he believes that rail infrastructure companies will have to give more attention to interface management, that is, the relationship between capital work and the train services that rely on it. This, according to Fison, means improving the quality of information guiding both Railtrack and its contractors' actions.

Asset Management 2000 is a database being created by BB which allows work carried out on railway assets to be broken down by activity. This, says Fison, will give a better guide to the cost of maintaining an asset and when or not to replace it.

'We have to move away from a time-related maintenance system to one based on reliability,' he says.

Alastair McLellan

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