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Interview | East West Rail chair Rob Brighouse on overseeing job he started

Rob brighouse crop

Rob Brighouse is returning to finish off the job.

As managing director of Chiltern Railways from 2011 to December 2015, he was in charge of the first phase of what will become the new railway line between Oxford and Cambridge, which runs between Oxford and Bicester Village.

Now he back as chair of the government backed, arms-length body tasked with overseeing construction of the second and third phases and delivering the new, multi-billion pound project, known as the Varsity Line, in its totality.

New vision

As a founding member of the East West Railway Company, Brighouse has wasted no time setting out its vision: “big bureaucratic, stuffy organisations” are out, being “bold, open and trustworthy” is in.

These traits, he says, will allow the East West Railway Company to make difficult decisions, let it “share hard truths” with government officials and have a culture of openness and dialogue.

“To my mind, that’s key to running successful projects,” says Brighouse.

One of the challenges we face is breaking with tradition 

This ethos comes from decades of applying his infectious, enthusiasm to make a difference to the rail industry. He says two experiences in particular stand out. The first was being project director of a £100M upgrade of the Kowloon-Canton Railway in Hong Kong, where he says the successful use of track possessions of no more than four hours made him believe UK rail projects could be more efficient. In the UK, a possession is typically eight hours, with half of that time for setting up at the beginning and clearing up after a job was complete. The second experience was working on the first phase of the Oxford to Cambridge line where engineers prioritised minimal customer disruption.

It is a laser focus and thinking differently which underpin the project, he says.

Bicester village station and train credit geof sheppard via wikimedia commons

Bicester village station and train credit geof sheppard via wikimedia commons

The line will run from Oxford to Cambridge via Bicester

“We are a single focus company,” he says. “The reason why [transport secretary Chris] Grayling asked us to do this is two-fold: one is to bring that absolute focus to get this built and the other is to look at innovative and new ways of getting things built in the UK.

“He has asked us to challenge the industry norms in terms of financing, maintenance, construction and operations and look at what is the most appropriate degree of vertical integration, but all with the objective of delivering the best possible customer service.”

Being an arms-length body, he says, gives the East West Railway Company the autonomy to do things differently. It allows the organisation to set up its own processes and take procurement decisions based on what is best for customers. To capitalise on this, he wants to see the supply chain coming forward with ideas for more efficient delivery with minimal customer impact during the work.

Changing thinking

“One of the challenges we face is breaking with tradition and getting the market to think in a different way, not being hide bound or constrained in the normal way,” he says.

“I want the market to come to me and say: ‘this is what stops me from doing a good efficient and quick job’”.

This includes its approach to technology. Brighouse wants to fall inline with the digital railway agenda. He also sees the line as something of a guinea pig for the recommendations that will likley come out of the current Williams rail review. This is aimed at prioritising passengers’ needs and financial stability while minimising disruption.

The project is split into two sections: western (Oxford to Bedford) and central (Bedford to Cambridge). The western section is being constructed in two phases, one of which has already been completed. The second phase is being built by a joint venture of Network Rail, Atkins, Laing O’Rourke and Volker Rail. This work is being funded by Network Rail.

The initial remit of the East West Railway Company was to build and maintain the central section, but in a bid to tie the line together, it is now overseeing construction of the western section as well. The extent of the body’s management of the line post-delivery has yet to be decided. Cost estimates for this construction phase vary from £2bn to £3.4bn depending on the final route. It could be partially or fully funded by the private sector.

What I’m saying to the market is come and talk to us about anything that is constraining from putting forward your ideas 

 A decision on funding is expected to be announced in the chancellor’s Comprehensive Spending Review this Autumn. If the chancellor chooses the private finance option, Brighouse says this will shape the remit for a development partner to take the project forward.

“I see no reason why this can’t be privately financed, but should the government choose to finance it in a traditional way then that’s fine too,” he says. “That will affect the structuring of a development partner, as if we are looking for a development partner to help us with private finance, that will be a very different development partner from the one if it’s government funded.”

However, ripples of discontent about the government’s efforts to bring private sector funding into the railway have appeared across the supply chain.

Reassuring investors

To reassure third parties looking to invest, Brighouse says he is looking at the blockers, one of which he describes as an “understandable resistance to sharing good IP [intellectual property]”, to try to find a structure which will work for the supply chain. Again, because of its autonomy and distance from government policy, he believes this is possible.

“What I’m saying to the market is come and talk to us about anything that is constraining from putting forward your ideas because I want to find a mechanism to embrace what you want to bring without giving away your IP, and it’s challenging it really is,” he says.

If it is privately funded, it will also look at the right time to bring contractors on board. Too soon and they have to inherit planning risk and so the project doesn’t get an optimum solution, he says.

If they are brought on too late when everything has been “nailed down”, he says innovation will be stifled. “As a company, one of our biggest challenges is to engage the private sector to bring their innovation to a point where government risk has been minimised, and I question whether the current market-led proposals are achieving that balance.”

The next steps for phase three will involve bringing on an engineering partner to help with selecting the preferred route option from the five which were published earlier this year.  

A Development Consent Order (DCO) will then follow in 2021 with the aim of starting construction in early to mid 2020s.

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