Rail Industry Focus


Fleet Revolution: New fleet strategy heralds a radical overhaul of strategy

Source: RTM Oct/Nov 2019


Michael Black, supply chain services director for Network Rail, explains how its new fleet strategy heralds a radical overhaul of its services, new trains – and better performance.

Network Rail’s Route Services directorate supplies the wider business with critical rail fleet and machines to operate, maintain, renew and enhance the rail network. It owns around 3500 rail vehicles, leases a further 3000 from the supply chain and manages the associated operation and maintenance contracts.

Managing these fleets was until recently very tactical – investing only when required and not considering the strategy around managing the fleet as a whole. Many of the rail vehicles were still operating well beyond their design-life and this showed in the performance statistics. Our route customers’ requirements were also changing. They were starting to demand better performance and efficiency, while our teams were operating in an increasingly challenging environment with reduced access, demand inconsistencies and changing requirements.

The delivery plan for Control Period 6 (CP6, 2019-2024) gave us a fantastic opportunity to take a fresh look at our operating model, review the status of the fleet and consider new ways of working. We engaged closely with our route customers to fully understand their requirements, and rolled out an asset management development programme to drive increased understanding needed to deliver an effective service.

We formed our CP6 fleet strategy as a result of this approach, aiming to increase innovation and introduce new technologies, which in turn should deliver reduced costs and over 99% performance levels across all services. This five-year investment programme was supported by the Office of Rail and Road, and subsequently we were awarded £607m for CP6, an increase of almost £180m from Control Period 5 (2014-2019).

There are three underlying themes in the plan: maintaining and increasing existing capability, introducing new services, and innovation. However, the cornerstone is driving improvement in maintenance quality. This meant we had to get the basics right and invest significantly in our fleet maintenance facilities.

Maintenance facilities

The norm until CP6 had been for our fleet to be maintained in poor facilities, outside in the elements, with maintainers often carrying out their work lying on ballast. It was no wonder that we had low levels of employee engagement and inconsistent levels of fleet performance. In CP6 we are investing more in our fleet facilities than we ever have since the privatisation of the railway.

One such facility is our Holgate Engineering Works at York. It is Network Rail’s largest facility, built in the 1880s as a carriage works, employing 5000 people at its peak. In recent years the autumn railhead treatment trains and aggregate wagons have been maintained there and it was massively underused.

A huge investment programme costing more than £25m started a year ago to improve working conditions and increase capability. The work comprises building a new track fan, maintenance pits, a new roof and a complete refit of the maintenance bays. The first trains to get the benefit of these new facilities will be our high output ballast cleaning systems and track relaying systems – our biggest ‘flagship’ trains – which will undergo their mid-life overhauls there from next year.

Network Rail relies on a network of around 30 operating bases and depots. Throughout CP6 we will be investing in each of them to ensure they meet our modern requirements, and we have committed that the employee facilities will all be the same high quality as Network Rail’s corporate office accommodation.


Innovation is split into two areas: new technology and safety and environmental improvements. We have already delivered a step-change in the areas of ballast dust and pollution, carbon use, and working at height. These improvements will all have a long-term positive impact on the welfare of our people and on the environment.

We have suffered from under-investment in technology and are working with cumbersome and slow processes as a result. Other train operators have embraced technology including remote condition monitoring and lineside scanners to move to predictive maintenance regimes, which increase fleet availability and reliability while reducing overall operating costs.

We are working with the wider industry to introduce remote condition monitoring on our rail vehicles and scanning/tracking technology at our depots. This offers us the opportunity to standardise the technology for all operators, reducing the overall cost and benefiting from network-wide coverage. Introducing this technology means we can fully monitor all our rail vehicles, allowing for maintenance to be scheduled so we can repair faults before they have an impact.

We are also seeking a partner to help us deliver our Future Logistics Project. This aims to modernise our planning and operations, moving away from outdated legacy systems.  There are four main deliverables: transparent logistics, providing automated validation of resource orders and a real-time view of progress; intelligent wagon planning, using orders and maintenance data to reduce logistics costs; automated routing – planning train paths in the most efficient way; and augmented reality planning – 3D visualisation of work sites and logistics plans.

Fleet renewal

Our asset management work and customer reviews identified the need to invest in replacement fleets. We are part-way through building 11 multi-million pound new stone-blowing machines, which ‘inject’ stone beneath the track to restore track geometry. This replacement allows us to move to a standard fleet of 21 multi-purpose machines (capable of switches and crossings and plain line) and retire our life-expired plain line fleet. This is partly owing to an almost 50% increase in demand for S&C stone-blowing in CP6.

We are also working with the supply chain to renew two other important fleets – rail delivery trains (which deliver long lengths of rail to the track side) and some of our infrastructure monitoring trains (which scan the track and overhead line for faults). Both are older than they were designed to be, mainly due to the loss of funding in previous control periods, and suffer from obsolescence and falling performance levels.

Replacing these vehicles offers us an opportunity to work differently with the supply chain. Traditionally, we would source and buy a new asset then sign contracts to maintain and operate them. We could procure these as services – asking suppliers to deliver an output (for example to drop a number of rails) and manage the associated activities on our behalf, including sourcing and funding the new vehicles as well as planning and operating them. This approach could more fairly distribute accountabilities, risks and costs, thereby incentivising improved performance.

New services

Taking a more inclusive approach to asset management helped us identify a gap in our service offering. Grinding trains take small amounts of metal from rail heads to remove small defects and restore the profile, but we identified milling technology that would remove larger defects. Network Rail’s usual approach to these was to replace the rail – a costly and disruptive process.

We worked with the route teams to identify the likely demand and mobilised a team to procure the solution. The result was introducing a leased milling train in 2018 and signing a contract to buy two further trains. These are being built and are scheduled into service from late next year.

It is a very exciting time to be delivering this level of investment in rail fleet and technology, as well asset management capability, to drive forward progress across the industry. I encourage other operators and the supply chain to work with us in delivering this ambitious vision.


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