The rail sector has major challenges ahead, including skills shortages and the need to make efficiency improvements, as Turner & Townsend head of rail Patricia Moore explains to Margo Cole.
A tough regulatory regime has been the key to improving the performance of the UK’s rail sector, and has created the right environment for the industry to continue driving efficiency, according to Turner & Townsend head of rail Patricia Moore.
“The role of the regulator is quite fundamental in driving performance, and the ORR [Office of Rail Regulation] is stepping up to that now,” she says. “That has driven a new way of working within Network Rail - they have gone from simply transacting with the supply chain to a more relational model, in order to really galvanise and drive benefit from the capability of the whole supply chain.
“The regulator threw the gauntlet down, and Network Rail has grabbed it and is driving it forward,” she adds.
Moore says that harnessing the capability of the supply chain will be vital if the industry is to keep improving.
This is because it is the companies further down the chain that are developing innovative products that can make construction and maintenance processes easier, safer and more efficient. “There’s so much innovating capability that sits at the lower levels in the supply chain, but how do we get it, and how do we reward it?”
“Clients are hungry for innovation, but there needs to be an intelligent approach to facilitating it”
Patricia Moore, Turner & Townsend
She adds: “Clients are hungry for innovation, but there needs to be an intelligent approach to facilitating it, including a commercial model that protects and rewards contribution from the lower layers in the supply chain. Otherwise the Tier 1s are incentivised to deliver business as usual,” she says.
Moore wants to see industry associations and key industry clients playing their part in creating an environment that promotes innovation - be it through early engagement or through contract forms that make suppliers feel it is commercially safe to reveal their latest products or technologies.
“I don’t think it is insurmountable,” she says. “But people need to take the time to see where the real value is, and then pay for it.
“That’s the collaboration agenda: how do you maximise value at the front end?”
One reason the sector needs innovation is to minimise the impact of dwindling resources.
The rail industry has an ageing workforce that is leaving big capability gaps - particularly in specialist areas like signalling, electrification and tunnelling, but also in general construction skills.
Moore is concerned that this problem will only become more acute as the rest of the infrastructure sector picks up.
“For the bulk of the resource, they’re competing with every other client in the industry,” she says. “So it’s going to be about how we really join the dots up about the skills we need, and how to make [the industry] attractive.”
She does not foresee any difficulty in finding the resources to build High Speed 2 if it goes ahead, because of its scale and attractiveness to the global market. “It is high speed railway, so we have all the European capability on our doorstep,” she says. But she is concerned that other rail clients and projects may suffer - including Network Rail and Transport for London’s ongoing programmes - if resources are limited.
The combination of lost skills and competition for limited resources is putting pressure on clients to develop their own skills.
Patricia Moore CV
Title: Director, head of rail, Turner & Townsend
Qualifications: BSc Quantity Surveying, MSc Construction Law and Arbitration
Member: Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors
Associate: Chartered Institute of Arbitrators
Moore praises Crossrail for launching the Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy, describing it as a “real piece of insight”, but says it was done “almost in the absence of anything else in the industry”.
“What businesses need in order to invest is long term security,” Moore adds.
“We all felt that so much in the downturn, when we got forced into short term planning. And investing in training people is a high risk venture.”
She says that Turner & Townsend decided to continue with its graduate recruitment programme throughout the recession, and as a result saw the quality of applicants go “through the roof”, as many competitors stopped recruiting.
“I was sickened that the industry went so reactive so quickly,” Moore says.
“Now, as work starts to come back, people say they can’t get graduates, but they have a responsibility.”
The company has an apprenticeship scheme, taking on school leavers through the Chartered Surveyors Training Trust, and putting them through a degree.
According to Moore, these young people are highly valuable once they get their degree, because of the knowledge and practical ability they have gained during their apprenticeship - making them far more capable in many ways than those who have been at university full time.
But she says the issue of employing school leavers is not specific to the rail or construction industries; it is an issue for society as a whole.
“As work starts to come back, people say they can’t get graduates, but they have a responsibility”
Patricia Moore, Turner & Townsend
“How do we engage that level of person - who doesn’t quite make it to university, or doesn’t have the social resources to go? There is almost nothing for them,” she says.
While Moore sees it as incumbent on the industry as a whole to invest in apprenticeships, she feels the responsibility goes wider than individual companies, taking in industry associations and government. For decades the industry has been lobbying successive governments to take infrastructure out of the traditional five year political cycle and come up with a long term policy for major road, rail, water and energy projects.
Olympic Delivery Authority chairman Sir John Armitt last year published proposals for an independent Infrastructure Commission whose role would be to produce a 30 year assessment of infrastructure needs across the key sectors.
Meeting long term needs
The commission’s conclusions would be enshrined in an act of parliament, and then individual government departments would produce plans to show how they would meet those long term needs through specific projects, and how the projects would be financed, delivered and operated.
The whole process would be repeated every 10 years, so everyone working in the infrastructure sector would always have a long term view of potential forward workload.
Moore is broadly supportive of Armitt’s recommendations. “If you have a long term strategy you can do long term planning - and then UK plc becomes a more attractive long term prospect in international domains,” she says.
“So you can fix the internal issues - infrastructure for growth, meeting needs of the community, improving social balance - and also create a very exportable commodity.”
As Moore says: “The brands of our consultancies are very strong internationally - and the brands of our clients as well.
“We just need to realise what the key enablers are to get us to the next level up, and I think a lot of that comes back to government.”