Two years after Network Rail took control of track maintenance by bringing it in house, maintenance director Richard Fenney believes it will become increasingly difficult to deliver the constant rate of year on year improvement demanded by the rail regulator.
This is not because having a direct hand on maintenance has failed to deliver the desired efficiencies, but because the reverse is true: 'If two years ago someone had predicted where we were going to be now, I would have bitten their hand off, ' Fenney says.
'We were given three performance indicators against which we are measured - delay minutes, asset stewardship and cost. We are better than target on all three.' As Fenney's maintenance teams become increasingly efficient he faces the ever tougher challenge of finding new ways to make sure trains run more punctually, reduce infrastructure failures and extend their operating life. All this while he seeks to satisfy the regulator's demand for 8% annual maintenance efficiency gains.
With huge improvements achieved in the last 20 months, decisions on how much to spend and how to target it are fast approaching the stage where they become philosophical, not merely practical.
'For example, broken rails are at a 40 year historic low, ' says Fenney .' People talk about the Hatfield crash in pivotal terms.
It revolutionised the industry's approach to rail breaks. The question now is what are we searching for? Are we expecting there will be no broken rails? The cost of achieving that might be huge, so the realistic analysis is no. Should punters pay higher fares to finance greater improvements? Should the Treasury put in more money?'
In terms of improved safety and performance, investment will become a game of diminishing returns. 'As we go forward people will have to ask how much more cost do we put in to gain additional benefi t?' Fenney's team is dealing with 1,200 infrastructure failures a week on 336,000km of track 'consisting of many millions of assets'. Failures can range from the 300 or so rail breaks per year to blown light bulbs.
'We're talking about four failures per delivery unit per day.' That is, by historic standards, very few.
Costs were slashed at a stroke when Network Rail took maintenance in house, and suppliers' overheads and profits were eliminated from the ledger. Although it still has national and regional framework contracts for things like plant and equipment supply, the company has 'standardised best practice across the industry', comparing methods used and performance achieved from region to region and replacing poor practice with something demonstrably good. It has also standardised procurement.
'You are now able to see what people are using for what, Fenney says. 'You can see if people are using too much of something and how they can improve. You are able to look at methodologies - how much tamping is done in one area; the ratio of stone blowing versus tamping. It gives you the chance to assess what is based on habit versus local conditions.' Network Rail is also using its position as a single national buyer to 'leverage purchase', getting discounts on materials and services.
Fenney points to repair of rail defects and points lubrication as areas where the teams have found efficiencies. 'For many years it was established wisdom that you shouldn't do weld repairs which are then ground to the right profile. People said it was unsafe, that you should replace the section of track.
But we felt that was inefficient.
And we've demonstrated that weld and grind is as good if not better. It's signifi cantly less expensive.
'For point lubrication we had been using very expensive greases. We demonstrated they did no good whatever. Recycled oil, which is very inexpensive, is much more efficient than grease, and often no lubrication at all is most efficient.' Fenney's aim for the future is to deliver ongoing performance gains in localised chunks before spreading them through the maintenance organisation.
To achieve this he is wants to get management out of the office onto site, and is recruiting and training hard to produce enough people of the right calibre for the task. 'My aim is to create stormtroopers who are going to be out on the front line of rail modernisation, looking for best practice and pushing it out across the organisation.'