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Talking Point with Ben Magee

Focusing on geotechnical firms facing a number of challenges because of changes to plant operator licensing

Network Rail’s new Plant Operator Scheme (POS), which came into effect in June this year, is changing the way specialist contractors, including geotechnical firms, work on the railway, and will have implications for the entire rail industry.

The new legislation relates to the provision and licensing of On Track Plant. In the past, companies supplying plant and staff worked as a subcontractor to the Plant Operator Licence (POL) holder. However, last year Network Rail decided to replace the POL scheme with the POS, with the intention of improving the safety of work using On Track Plant.

Under the new scheme, the Plant Operator is defined as “the organisation undertaking the provision and operation of On Track Plant”. In other words, a company that owns, manages and uses the plant. In the past, the Plant Operator could be the company that hired the plant – it did not have to own the plant.

Geotechnical contractors, as “Plant Hire” companies, now have two choices: to become a POS holder or to wait and see what demand remains for their services, via a reduced number of POS holders.

Becoming a POS licence holder means an increased risk profile – and the insurance costs to match. Along with more stringent auditing, there is also a requirement to employ an On Track Plant engineering specialist: a competent person with experience in the design, manufacture, maintenance and engineering change aspects of On Track Plant.

Companies holding a POS are also responsible for the planning of the possession and supplying all the staff for that possession. They will also need to have a POS representative on every job to oversee the works.

“The Plant Operator Scheme has implications for the entire rail industry”

Of course, many geotechnical contractors only provide specialist services that can be used on the railway. Those of us that work on the railway accept there are implications in terms of the time and cost of training; the need to develop rail-specific plant and procedures; and the associated licensing and auditing.

But what we cannot do is take on the further responsibility of POS, particularly if rail work is not a core company activity. Small geotechnical firms often do not employ enough professional rail staff; nor can they afford higher insurance premiums or spend more management time, based upon the value of their rail work.

Taking a “wait and see” approach may not be the answer either. Lankelma, for example, has seen the number of rail projects fall since June, as principal contractors experience difficulty in addressing requirements of the new regulations.

A particular problem is that our usual POL holders have not been able to obtain a POS as they do not own any On Track Plant. As I do not believe it is viable for small specialist “Plant Hire” companies to hold their own POS, and based on our experience, the future of small specialist companies working on the railway hangs in the balance.

Geotechnical companies need to be aware of the changes and be prepared to work with their rail advisers, Network Rail and principal contractors to investigate how they can trade under the POS scheme.

If a solution is not found, not only will the geotechnical fraternity suffer but the rail industry as a whole is likely to feel the effect of a reduction in specialists, as a direct result of the new regulations.

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