Achieving efficiency through standards

Source: RTM Dec/Jan 17

Vaibhav Puri, head of standards policy at the RSSB, attempts to bust the myths around standards, and argues that they will be vital to the trading relationship of the rail industry and its supply chain in a post-Brexit world.

You could be forgiven for not expecting to see an article about standards in a feature themed around lean and efficiency. For many, a ‘standard’ is perceived as yet another piece of paper that binds the hands of companies with no choice to do something different. For others, mere compliance with standards is seen as making a piece of equipment or operation ‘safe’ without the need to assess their applicability or suitability. 

But we need to bust these myths. Standards are actually at the heart of how we make things more lean and efficient, and open up markets for rail products and services. Compliance with standards is not synonymous with ‘becoming safe’, and industry standards and committees cannot overrule or change choices and obligations afforded to companies in law. However, the use of industry standards, based on robust assessment, provides an efficient way to address legal and other obligations including safety. 

The government has a clear and ongoing commitment to invest in transport infrastructure and particularly the railways with over £38bn on maintenance and enhancements. This is an era of extensive upgrading of existing assets as well as new-build and high-speed railways, of Crossrail and HS2, and increasingly a time when the government is keen to promote the UK as open for business and a builder of new links with the world. 

No matter what the nature of our trading relationships now and in the future, the post-Brexit rail industry and its supply chain will still need standards in order to deliver this public investment in modernisation and enhancing efficiency and productivity, all of which ultimately mean better rail transport for passengers and freight users. 

As an agreed way of doing something, a standard defines and records what has to be done, or how something needs to be done, and so avoids ‘reinventing the wheel’ or starting from first principles each time the same situation occurs. Ultimately, the information a standard contains is designed to be useful, and so support a compatible, cost-effective, safe and efficient railway system. Without them, the railway would cost the passenger and taxpayer more in time, money and effort. 

There are three basic situations in which the industry uses standards: 

  • When an appropriate authority – e.g. the state – has determined that a standard must be complied with under specified circumstances
  • When the industry needs a recognised method of meeting a requirement that must be complied with – that is, something whose use gives a ‘presumption of conformity’ with that requirement
  • When the industry needs access to useful information or recognised good practice 

In all of these situations, it’s the relevance and value of the information contained within the standard, not the level at which it’s enforced, which is of most use. This information helps rail companies to comply with the law, work effectively with other organisations, reduce costs and boost overall sustainability and effectiveness through open markets for railway products and services. This applies whether you’re working with company or project-level standards, or indeed industry-shared standards such as those we support for GB rail at RSSB. 

Our role involves bringing the industry together to consult, agree, develop and publish appropriate cross-industry standards and guidance, all of which can be found free-of-charge on our website. We provide our members with a clear framework to help industry apply standards, rules and best practice, and to take full advantage of the knowledge and guidance they contain. We also provide a mechanism for companies to assure themselves and consult others when they wish to do something different to industry agreed standards. 

Feedback suggests the legal framework and role of standards is becoming better understood, so companies have a better feel for the theory, but there is always more that could be done at both industry and company levels. Is there a good understanding and competence of how to use standards efficiently; their limits; how to deviate based on robust analysis? And even when there is understanding, is it being translated and applied effectively by companies to their own approaches to projects, operations and assets? The only way full benefits will be achieved is if individual companies get the best out of standards at a practical level. 

A big part of industry’s approach to standards is about putting individual companies in control, providing them with the flexibility and cutting out red tape to allow them the freedom to meet their obligations in the way that best suits them, and so that requires a clearly considered, smart and mature approach to defining what that ‘way that best suits’ actually is. Furthermore, in a competent sector and company, this ‘way’ doesn’t require compulsory use of a given standard by the state, when the law doesn’t require it.  

At RSSB we continue to play a part in supporting whole-industry consensus through the work of the standards committees, involving infrastructure managers, train operators, rolling stock owners, contractors and the supply chain. As always we would welcome feedback on our work on standards, and how best we can engage with rail companies and help boost the appreciation of their role in boosting efficiency.



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