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Supply chain hits out at Network Rail’s attitude

Members of Network Rail’s supply chain have this week slammed the rail infrastructure manager’s claims that it fosters innovation, instead describing the client as inefficient and bureaucratic.

The claims were led by supplier Screwfast’s technical director Duncan McGregor, who has taken extreme exception to Network Rail chief executive Iain Coucher’s recent call for more innovation (NCE 3 September).

“We want suppliers to innovate so we can lower unit cost and cause less disruption to passengers. Those who can do that will get more work,” Coucher said.

But the comments infuriated Screwfast’s McGregor, who said the reality of working for Network Rail is very different from Coucher’s vision.

McGregor’s chief complaint is Network Rail’s barriers to getting products to market. Screwfast has won a Queen’s Award for Innovation for its products, but still cannot get them used routinely on the rail network.

Lack of appreciation

“I am sticking my neck out in an appeal for assistance as a supplier of innovation good enough for Her Majesty the Queen to recognise, but not Network Rail,” he said.

“I don’t think Coucher really appreciates the fundamental difficulties faced by supply chain members, especially the smaller companies who have to deal through main contractors.

“While we may be small individually, we represent a very large proportion of what finally gets delivered.

“I don’t think Coucher really appreciates the fundamental difficulties faced by supply chain members, especially the smaller companies.”

Duncan McGregor, Screwfast

“Vendors of innovative solutions to Network Rail are generally faced with repeating the same explanations and answering the same old concerns to an endless entourage of new faces,” he said. He added that Network Rail gave insufficient guidance for innovative products.

The Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) said it understood the concerns of the supply chain but that Network Rail’s approach was improving.

“As one of the industry’s leading clients it is vital that there is a positive working relationship between Network Rail and its suppliers,” said CECA national director Rosemary Beales.

“Network Rail has shown significant improvement in its engagement with the industry, taking on board concerns expressed to it and changing its approach where appropriate.”

Highly critical

Consultants and contractors have previously been highly critical of Network Rail’s approach to innovation (NCE 10 May 2007), and as recently as June consultant Mouchel decided to quit the rail sector citing diminishing industry margins and a low win-rate.

Other consultants this week confirmed the difficulties of working with Network Rail and its framework contractors.

“There is a perception that Network Rail would not be in anyone’s top 10 client list, unless you are in the clique of its top four suppliers,” said one director of a major consultancy.

“Network Rail has shown improvement in its engagement with the industry.”

Rosemary Beales, CECA

Network Rail said: “We continue to work ever more closely with our suppliers with a shared aim of delivering the vital improvements the railway needs.

“Safety is a paramount concern for Network Rail, and any new equipment or technology needs to undergo rigorous checks before it can be used on the railway.

“We have improved the way we work with our suppliers, giving contractors a dedicated contact at Network Rail so that they are kept informed of the overall procurement process.”

Readers' comments (6)

  • Last time substantive innovation occurred in UK rail, Brunel was still building! Now it all is bought in from oveseas.

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  • Don't sit on the fence Duncan, come out and say what you really think of Network Rail.

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  • NR: "We have improved the way we work with our suppliers, giving contractors a dedicated contact at Network Rail so that they are kept informed of the overall procurement process". How do we make contact with this seemingly etherial being?

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  • Every supplier wants to create a monopoly product. Every Administration wants a product which can be purchased in an open market at the lowest best price. The right thing to do is to have an arrangement by which the innovator supplier gets preferential treatment for a specific period, not a monopoly.

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  • Network Rail are Useless; no common sense whatsoever and too many people getting involved in things they know nothing about!

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  • CECA's neutral comments show what real value they are to the majority of all medium to small contractors and suppliers.
    If we as contractors spend all our time telling Network Rail how great they are why are we surprised when they start to believe it.

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