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Special relationship?

Last September US programme managers saddled up and rode into Railtrack's major projects in an exercise NCE dubbed 'saving private rail'. Twelve months on we ask how much impact have they made, and how many are actually American?

'WE COULD NOT run the major projects without the programme managers' is the verdict of Simon Murray, Railtrack director of major projects and investment, on the performance of Bechtel, Parsons Brinckerhoff and Fluor Daniel. His assessment comes a year after he brought them on board to help deliver Railtrack's major projects programme.

Murray joined Railtrack to run its £40bn investment programme 18 months ago. Six months into the job his assessment was that unaided, the UK industry lacked the ability to deliver Railtrack's major renewal schemes.

The West Coast route modernisation, Thameslink and the East Coast Main Line upgrade were all in danger of running off the rails, he believed. British construction firms had no experience of delivering an entire, working, transportation scheme with the integration of civil engineering, signalling and electrification that it requires.

Murray acted swiftly, adding Parsons to the already revamped WCRM team, Fluor Daniel - with Mott Macdonald to beef up the technical expertise - to ECML and latterly Bechtel on Thameslink (NCE 16 September 1999).

'Our choice of partners has been spot on, ' he says. 'I don't think we could have delivered without acquiring people of the calibre we have by going to big international companies.'

Railtrack's clients have certainly noticed a difference. Virgin chief executive Chris Green has said the West Coast shake up has saved that particular project (NCE 9 March).

The positive reaction does not mean there have been no difficulties, however.

'We have had trouble developing the quality and balance of railway and programme management experience, ' says Murray.

'And we did not move quickly enough to put in place arrangements to ensure consistency across the major projects on things like possession planning.'

He is now talking with the programme managers about the possibility of setting up a jointly funded programme management MSc course to provide new recruits. Groups in fields like safety, possessions and track access are making sure the best approach is being used consistently across all the infrastructure projects.

But do you necessarily have to have an American accent to be a good programme manager?

Clearly not, as the proportion of US nationals working with Railtrack is not high. On Thameslink for instance seven of the 80 project staff are from the States. It is more to do with the way engineers working for US firms are valued.

'The raw material of the engineers is no better than in Britain, ' Murray says 'but they are developed in a different way.

'You can reach the very top by running projects (in America) and you can't in Britain. Here you are syphoned off into running organisations.'

The effect of having top project people put into one of the biggest investment programmes in the world has been significant, Murray maintains. And he is getting the cross project co-ordination he needs, particulary on the big, critical items like signalling.

But to ensure that carries on, Railtrack has been making sure it gets the best staff available from its American programme managers. 'If it's not really hurting them to release good people, they are not good enough for Railtrack, ' Murray says.

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