Every good debate needs a problem to solve, and this one was provided by Tarmac national commercial director Andy Rowley. He was hosting a round table debate on the topic of customer relations at this year’s UK Transport conference in London, hosted by New Civil Engineer.
Rowley’s question was: Is progress on meeting the UK government’s infrastructure targets, especially in roads, tracking well? Should we be worried?
“In the last few years we’ve seen the big challenge laid out, and a potential ramp-up in the roads programme, driving £1.2bn to £1.3bn in efficiencies,” says Rowley. “But we’ve seen the market stay flat. We haven’t seen increases in volumes.”
Tarmac commercial director, contracting Nick Shires added that big projects like High Speed 2, Crossrail2 and Hinkley Point C have yet to reach full swing, and contractors are nervous.
“How are we going to get the resources to enable us to deliver a successful outcome for construction in the UK?”
Rowley adds: “We don’t want to get to the stage in 2020 where all of a sudden it hits, all at once. And we get asked ‘Where are you guys?’ And we can’t cope.
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“We’re not going to deliver the efficiencies and the programme by doing things the way we’ve always done it.”
So what’s the solution? How do we boost capacity, while still improving customer journeys? How do we balance efficiency objectives with minimising public disruption?
One solution is the alliance, bringing all parties – client, contractor, designer – into the same space with similar objectives and open mindedness.
Transport Focus franchise programme manager Sharon Hedges, said she had recently been involved in alliances with Network Rail, where transport users were brought into the early planning stages of projects.
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“I sometimes think we’re in an interesting place, because it’s not our contract and it’s not our money,” says Hedges. “We can freely discuss the things that, for people in a contractual relationship, can be hard to talk about. Just talking sense – what’s being achieved here? What’s it all about?”
Meanwhile Kier Highways business development director Alan Dinsdale admits the industry can be “immature” when it comes to openness.
“We collaborate quite well with clients, and increasingly with the supply chain. But if you look at what needs to happen to increase productivity it’s collaborating with our peers as well. Using Tarmac as an example… do we get out there and say ‘what’s Tarmac’s programme for the rest of the year?’ We don’t.”
Clear workload pipelines needed
For collaboration, contracts must have clear pipelines of future work, says WSP director of public services Matthew Lugg.
“We need to get away from the dark days of short term contracts leaving sub-contractors feeling like they’re not part of the mission. I think there’s been progress, but there is still much left to be done.”
Bouygues Travaux Publics’ UK director Jean-Pierre Margolin says innovation has to be brought into the discussion. “Going for more flexibility in contracts would bring more innovation,” says Margolin.
“It’s always a struggle to differentiate yourself from others, bring more value, and fit into a process where stakeholders have already signed off on some of the design.”
Jackson Civil Engineering project director Keven Stobbs went further, claiming some procurement processes, from the likes of Highways England, show that some clients they do not understand the industry at all. “They’re trying to procure in a way that doesn’t fit with the way the industry operates,” he said.
Coming in to defend Highways England, Transport for the North’s strategic road network director Peter Molyneux points out that part of the issue is that highways’ budgets have moved from one year to five years. “To be fair… it’s challenging. They are learning, they’re trying to change.”
But Molyneux urged civil engineers, clients, designers, contractors, everyone, not to get lost in processes.
“It’s sometimes what happens – we focus on the details, get lost in the standards, technical jargon. Then when something goes wrong we close ranks and try to justify the decisions we’ve made. We are the customers as well: we’re all rail users, we’re all road users.”
Unfortunately, for rail users and road users stuck in congestion, efficiency objectives and construction targets are the last thing on their mind.
Focus on the users
Transport Focus’ Hedges provides the customers’ view, saying its recent research points towards improved quality of signage and lighting on projects which interact with live road or rail traffic as high on users’ priorities.
“Information is absolutely vital,” she says.
“Clearly if you shut the road or railway for longer you can do more and work more efficiently. But the impact of that on users is bigger. But it’s time I think for a live debate with users, and to actually set those challenges out. Because ultimately those people are paying for it, through rail fares or road licences or whatever.”
Morgan Sindall business development director Mark Jackson echoed these views, saying the public’s expectations had grown massively. “They used to just sit there in a traffic jam. Now they don’t want that, not when they can get answers in a second off their phones. And meanwhile we’re still just using the occasional road sign – we’ve really got to get up to date.”
Transport for the North’s strategic road network director Peter Molyneux quoted Transport for London figures claiming that 70% of public transport users check for disruptions before they travel, while less than a third of road users check.
“And I think the key reason for that is: when it comes to roads, where do you look? Personalised information is what we’re after. How do we make open data available for clever people to make use of it and distribute?”
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It was pointed out that TfL has done this job fairly well in recent years. Molyneux replies: “They’ve got more control, through transport sensors to give a more joined up approach. Meanwhile, we’ve got 650-plus companies in the North, how do we get that all together on one platform? Maybe if Google ran the transport network we might have a better chance, but then again they might charge us more…”
Colas Rail’s Iain Anderson says that at London Waterloo, where a quarter of the station will be closed for 20 or so days over August, public engagement has been a year-long process.
Spreading the word
“I’m sure there will be disruptions, but what we’re trying to do is tell people in advance – telling them last August: ‘please go on holiday if you can’. He added that having certainty was important for users, who would be more likely to embrace a disruption of fixed duration, rather than of an open-ended nature.
“But all this should be considered at a multi modal level – people rarely do a journey that involves one transport mode.”
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But what if customers were to be informed of long term benefits, to the economy, society, transport networks. Would appeals to altruism help or hinder progress?
“One of the things we have done is launch a 30 year plan. We say ‘this is what we’re doing, and this is the benefit for you, your children, your grandchildren’,” says Molyneux.
“We improve people’s lives, build the economy, but we never say that. Instead what we say is we’re doing some resurfacing and there will be some disruption.”
Molyneux says resilience was an issue in the north, with any impact on the network “almost catastrophic”. So building capacity is essential, he says, and yet so is public messaging.
“How you tell that story is important, including showing a long term plan that’s growing the economy. But we need to be conscious of the impact construction disruptions have on the economy. I think if we tell the story better, we can get better overall results.”
Around the table
Iain Anderson Executive development director, Colas Rail
Alan Dinsdale Business development director, Kier Highways
Tim Embley Group Innovation and knowledge manager, Costain
Jerome Furge Director, Bouygues Travaux Publics UK
Sharon Hedges Franchise programme manager, Transport Focus
Robert Henson Features editor, New Civil Engineer
Mark Jackson Business development director, Morgan Sindall
Matthew Lugg Director of public services, WSP
Jean-Pierre Margolin UK executive director, Bouygues Travaux Publics
Grant Mobbs Business development director, Ferrovial Agroman
Peter Molyneux Strategic road network director, Transport for the North
Andy Rowley National commercial director, Tarmac
Nick Shires Commercial director contracting, Tarmac
Alwyn Spencer Senior policy adviser, National Infrastructure Commission
Keven Stobbs Project director, Jackson Civil Engineering
Alexandra Wynne Deputy editor, New Civil Engineer
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