Interviews

01.04.13

Improving railway performance for the passenger

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Mar/Apr 2013

The Office of Rail Regulation’s (ORR’s) new director of railway performance, Alan Price, formerly the rail division infrastructure director at FirstGroup, speaks to RTM about how Network Rail and the operators handle severe weather, and preparations for Control Period 5.

I'm not a lifetime regulator,” Alan Price told us. “I come from a very different background: that was one of the things that attracted me to the position.”

Price, who recently took up his new role as ORR director of railway performance, has worked throughout the railway industry concentrating on infrastructure, asset management and renewals.

He spoke to RTM shortly after the Q3 2012-13 Monitor was released, and told us about how he envisioned his own role, and how he plans to engage with the rest of the industry.

“[ORR chief executive] Richard Price wants to move the organisation to be more collaborative and part of the industry leadership.

“I’ve seen all sides of the industry. It’s important that we do get out of the ‘ivory tower’ and go and engage with the Network Rail routes and with the TOCs.”

Bringing the route MDs and TOCs together

He told us about the recent talk he gave to the forum convened by Network Rail’s managing director of network operations, Robin Gisby, bringing together every Network Rail route managing director, and all the TOC managing directors, for the first time.

“I don’t think they’ve ever all been in a room before to have a sensible and open discussion,” Price told us. “I know most of them from my ‘previous life’. What I told them was not ‘you’re rubbish, you need to improve’ – but I set out the challenges. Given where I’ve been in my career and my role now with the ORR and the RDG, I’ve seen examples of best practice, I’ve seen what we can do. But there are practices I’ve seen in some parts of Network Rail that aren’t shared with other parts of Network Rail; where the alliance approach can deliver real benefits.

“It’s about engaging with the industry and getting out there, so I’m not sat at a desk looking through statistics every day. If I look at my diary for the last two weeks, I haven’t been in the office for half that time.

“The operators’ forum was a good starting point for me. I think it’s important that we engage, and I still play a role with RDG and now go to the national taskforce as well. Before I went, they almost warned me – ‘don’t come and use this as a forum to gather evidence to use against us’. But I think they realised very quickly that that’s not my approach at all.

“I think they do value the challenge I bring.”

‘Own goals’ by Network Rail

The quarterly performance monitor published in late February showed the heavy impact the winter weather had on the railways.

PPM for England and Wales was 88%, which was 2 percentage points worse than expected and 1.4 percentage points worse than the same time last year.

The disruption was made worse by ‘major problems’ on some schemes over Christmas, including signalling issues at Paddington and the closure of the Heathrow Express on its busiest day.

The Monitor put it like this: “Overall there were fewer overruns but those that happened caused more delay and cancelled services. We have asked Network Rail to explain how some operational planning issues were caused by basic human errors and how these will be prevented in the future.”

‘Basic human errors’ is not something Network Rail would boast about (although 97% of the large Christmas-time projects were completed on time).

“It certainly is a worry,” Price told us. “Yes, we did have the big weather issues over Christmas, and a lot of people worked very hard in some ridiculous conditions to get the railway running – and we do applaud that.

“Yes that’s weather and that’s beyond their control, but I want to make sure they don’t score the own goals that bring the performance back down again.

“There were some poor examples of that over Christmas: where they booked possessions and tried to run electric trains with no overhead line turned on, for example.

“Their systems should be robust enough to make sure those things don’t happen, and impact on passengers as they did.”

Sir David Higgins’ response to these criticisms, on behalf of Network Rail, is below.

Price also commented on the variation in measures taken by the operators to deal with severe weather, saying: “In the south, there were some operators that announced the night before that they were going to run a shorter timetable the next day, even though the snow hadn’t fallen. Fortunately – as it were – snow did then subsequently fall, meaning it had been the right decision to make. What we need to get our heads around is the different plans they put in place: so, for example, one operator may cancel 20% of trains as their back-up timetable, and another may cancel 40%. What’s the best balance? There’s not a lot of consistency at the moment.”

Long-term trends and resilience

The quarterly Monitor also dealt with some concerning long-term trends in performance, which have proved stubbornly difficult for Network Rail to deal with.

Price said: “Clearly we need to understand where we’re going to get to at the end of this control period on long distance. It is behind, so we have a team looking at that. They’ve sent us their latest update, referenced in the Monitor: that’s key, because that determines where they output this control period, which is the input to the next one.

“From a resilience point of view, we need to get into the next control period and defi ne what their plans are buying. Obviously there’s a balance: take the Cowley Bridge flooding over Christmas [near Exeter], we all saw the pictures of that. If you let the engineers go mad, they’ll lift it all up in the air and spend £200m. The other extreme is, when it floods, you put all the ballast back several times and spend tens of millions of pounds. There must be something halfway in between. What we’re challenging Network Rail to do is to fi nd the best whole-life solution to that – and can we see that in your plans for CP5.”

Network Rail’s current plan for Cowley Bridge itself involves spending £30m on resilience measures to allow quicker recovery from floods – rather than spending far more to try to prevent flooding or immunise the bridge somehow. However, he doesn’t blame Network Rail for this state of affairs: “Network Rail were funded in CP4 to develop the CP5 projects.

“The issue is that certain people have moved the goalposts in terms of the projects they want to buy. So it’s not fair on Network Rail to say ‘your project is immature, why haven’t you done that’: things like the Electric Spine was a new concept only last year, so aren’t mature enough to go into CP5 with a defi ned scope yet.”

Route devolution a ‘huge step forwards’

Price had nothing but praise for Network Rail’s decision to devolve powers and budgets to the routes.

He said: “It’s been a huge step forwards. While reviewing the Strategic Business Plan, we’ve had what we call the route-based reviews, so we’ve gone out to where each of the routes are based.

“To me it’s quite important that the ORR builds relationships at the route level, because they’re the guys who do the delivery. I’m deliberately taking my teams out to meet them, looking them in the whites of their eyes and asking if they can deliver the plan.”

“It’s good to see that their director of route asset management now sits with the route teams. He considers his role to be the specifi er of what he wants to run on that route. “He sits now with the maintenance teams, so they are very much looking at whole-life costs and the maintainability of these schemes, rather than designing them and disappearing.

“Devolution has been incredibly powerful in ensuring big enhancement schemes deliver passenger benefits and proper operational benefits – not just infrastructure schemes for the sake of infrastructure schemes.

“For the next control period, because they have devolved their routes, I’m also working with Network Rail to come up with solutions as to how we can manage/monitor asset management capability at route level.”

Financial threat

But on the broader issues of poor performance, it has a specific fi nancial threat hanging over it – since Network Rail remains “significantly adrift” of the long distance punctuality target it was funded to deliver by 2013-14, it will face a financial penalty of £1.5m for every 0.1% percentage points it drops below the 92% target.

But Price admitted this could still be subject to “negotiation”. He said: “The criteria for the enforcement notice was quite clear: we’re keen to ensure they’re held to account to deliver that. “They were funded in the control period to deliver that as an output: if they’re going to miss that, we want them to do everything reasonably possible to recover in the next 15 months, before the end of the control period.

“That’s us trying to incentivise them to do the right thing for the passengers. If they don’t, we know full well the words they will use– ‘we’ve done everything reasonably practical’ – and therefore, yes, I’m sure there will be some element of negotiation.

“That’s why, in the Monitor, we’ve flagged up that there have been own goals – so even if they’ve done everything in their plan, there are things they themselves have done to bring down the performance they could potentially have achieved.”

Performance and passengers

Despite some good news, anyone reading the Monitor could be forgiven for feeling somewhat downcast at the number of problems and delays.

The latest National Passenger Survey, by contrast, published in January and covering journeys in autumn 2012, shows record satisfaction levels – 85% overall.

Some of this is because of big jumps in satisfaction with things like station facilities, and a small upwards tick in value-for-money satisfaction, but Passenger Focus says that performance is always the biggest driver – so perhaps the Monitor is too negative?

Price said it’s good that the passenger scores are up. He told us: “The growth the industry is facing is clearly because a lot of people don’t have any choice about travelling on the railway. So the fact that they’re happy – or getting happier – is good.

“But I still think everyone can do a lot better – and that’s not just Network Rail but some of the train operators have things they need to improve as well.”

Strategic business plan

If punctuality remains a problem, Network Rail’s enhancements works programme – ‘developing the network’ – is defi nitely in the ‘good news’ category as far as the Monitor is concerned.

This bodes well for 2014-19, Price said. “It’s good news, because a huge part of the spend for the next CP is enhancements, and there’s a long shopping list that the Government have asked for in the HLOS.

“The downside of that is that a lot of the projects are very immature in terms of their lifecycle: what Network Rail would call GRIP 0 stage, so they don’t actually have any scope.

“I spent this morning with Network Rail working out how we can manage those into the next control period, so we can make sure we define the scope that delivers the operational benefi ts we want, and we get an efficient number out of it.

“At the moment, I don’t know what the scope is, so it’s difficult to put an efficient number to it.”

‘Up to sixty landslides in a single day’

Commenting on the ORR’s quarterly performance monitor, which highlighted the impact of extreme weather on train performance, Network Rail chief executive David Higgins said: “We recognise that this has been a diffi cult period for passengers, with disruption on many lines due to extreme weather.

“Our staff worked tirelessly, often in difficult circumstances, to get the railway back up and running and we would like to thank passengers and train operators for bearing with us during this time.

“The damage that extreme weather can do to a Victorian rail network which was neither designed nor built for such challenges is clear. Whole lines were closed by fl ooding and tracks came close to being washed away by rivers which burst their banks.

“On the worst affected parts of the network, torrential rain caused up to sixty landslides in a single day.

“This has been a wake up call for the whole industry, which we ignore at our peril. As we set out when we launched our strategic business plan in January, we are playing catch up on decades of under-investment. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the embankments, cuttings, bridges, tunnels and other structures which have struggled to cope with extreme weather, alongside the burden of carrying more passengers than they were designed for.

“Our submission to our regulator for the next five-year funding settlement reflects our plan to tackle this.

“Despite considerable challenges, the industry still managed to move more than 3m people a day by train during this period, with almost nine out of ten trains arriving on time. This is testament to the hard work of all our staff and those working for our partners. However, this does not undermine the need for us to do even more, including better investment in our assets, to be able to improve resilience and recovery during extreme weather in the future.”

Tell us what you think – have your say below, or email us directly at opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com

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