Network Rail: We have been listening

Source: RTM Aug/Sept 2018

Network Rail has heard you – and now, it is easier to work with. Mona Sihota, the organisation’s national professional head of asset protection and optimisation (ASPRO), a brand-new role within the company, talks about what’s in store.

The most important message I want get across is that Network Rail is changing, making it easier for external organisations to invest in and build on the railway. To inform those changes, we’ve been listening – to our customers, our staff, those organisations we work with, and the wider industry.

I am now Network Rail’s professional head of ASPRO. The function represents around 200 people, divided into approximately eight teams across the country, via our eight geographic routes. Together, we are responsible for ensuring the circa 15,000 live railway enhancement and improvement projects we currently have on our books are delivered safely and to the right standards. We officially run Europe’s safest railway, and that is due in no small part to the hard work and dedication of the men and women in the ASPRO teams. If an organisation wants to build on or near the railway, they will interface with ASPRO.

Traditionally, those external organisations wanting to build on or near the railway have seen us as difficult to work with – perhaps risk-averse, slow to respond, or having too many complex processes to follow which, confusingly, varied from region to region. We were one of many potential blockers to new investment from the outside industry, and that was identified as part of the Hansford Review. Something had to be done to address this.

Mine is a brand-new role at Network Rail. I’ve been in the rail industry for over 30 years, starting as an intern in the US working on light rail. During my 18 years at Network Rail (and previously Railtrack) my roles have covered design, construction and asset management, and more recently as professional head of drainage. As professional head of ASPRO, drainage is still my responsibility, in addition to off-track (lineside, vegetation and boundaries) as there are significant synergies between these areas.

The creation of this role is one of the deliverables as part of the Open for Business programme – our response to how we’re implementing the recommendations of the Hansford Review to make it easier for other organisations to invest and build on the railway. I’m responsible for setting policy, strategy, assurance and creating a high-level framework. I want there to be a balance between risk, costs and benefits, all whilst ensuring compliance. It’s intended my role will help bring consistency in our approach to ASPRO across the company and professionalise the ASPRO industry under a unified approach.

Asset protection… and optimisation

Old hands will remember ASPRO simply used to be short for ‘asset protection.’ Our approach used to be solely about making sure the railway – and those using it – were safe during and after any upgrades. We’ve since added the ‘and optimisation’ part to the name to better reflect the work we’re increasingly doing and what we’re trying to achieve.

It’s no longer just about protecting the railway assets. It’s also about getting the most out of that asset; using it to its best advantage. Could unused land next to the railway be better utilised and developed for housing? Could we start building above the railway, providing new shops and carparks? Could we enhance depot sites to get more out of them for our train and freight operator colleagues? This is how we are changing our thinking and how the ASPRO teams are adapting.

New framework

The most significant change we’re implementing right now is the roll-out of a national ASPRO framework, providing a unified approach to asset protection and optimisation across the country – something we’ve never had in place before.

I like to think of this framework as our best-practice guide to undertaking ASPRO. It details new processes to follow, responsibilities, response times and escalation points.

The framework has been created and is in the process of being briefed out across the business, with the expectation that all teams will be compliant by September. In doing so, the framework will support in driving a consistent and transparent approach for our customers. 

New service level commitments

We’re working with our industry partners – including Amey in a special advisory capacity – to formulate ASPRO service levels for customers dealing with Network Rail, so our customers know what to expect from the service and when to expect it by. Previously, an organisation building on or near the railway may have got a different experience when dealing with ASPRO depending on what part of the country the project was in. These service level commitments will be applicable to all ASPRO teams across the country, further strengthening that consistent approach.

We intend to have two types of service levels: those embedded in our standard suite of commercial documentation used on ASPRO work, and those which are just good practice for us to report on as part of being open and transparent. I will be looking to ensure that our passion for railway safety is balanced with the project’s need to deliver output and manage their costs. These new service levels are in the process of being agreed with ORR.

It’s important to stress that it’s not Network Rail that has decided what these commitments should be – that would be like marking our own homework. Instead, we’ve consulted with the industry to find out what matters to them. We’ve listened, and these issues will form the service level commitments we stand by in future. 

New leaders

In addition to my role as professional head, we are also in the process of creating a head of ASPRO for each of our routes. Like mine, these are brand-new roles, and go to show the level of commitment we have towards changing how we work with other organisations. These route heads of ASPRO will work with project sponsors on third-party requirements and be directly accountable to the industry for ensuring service levels are delivered. By the time you’re reading this article, I will be busy interviewing candidates for the roles.

Trialled and tested

All these changes we’re implementing are part of a much wider business transformation. When a new streamlined approach to ASPRO was proposed, along with a new structure and improved high-level ASPRO framework, we wanted to make sure it would work.

Our Anglia route volunteered to trial the new changes, testing much slicker, less bureaucratic and easier-to-implement ASPRO processes. The year-long project went so well, and was received by colleagues with such enthusiasm, that we’re using the findings to inform the roll-out nationally. It is these transformations which will help reduce barriers, making it easier for other organisations to invest in and build on the railway.

Open for Business

Rail is vital to economic growth: creating jobs, building houses and connecting communities, enhancing the productive potential of the UK economy by up to £10.2bn a year. Network Rail now has a dedicated project financing team for third-party investment, and a team of business development directors in place on each route. They’re now seeing demand for even more railway projects, many of them local improvements, as community leaders and developers say they want more stations, railways reopened, better connectivity, improved capacity, and faster journeys. These projects can only be realised if we break down barriers to make it easier for other organisations to invest and build on the railway. The Open for Business programme continues to deliver on this commitment at pace, not just in the ASPRO field:

  • We have published a list of opportunities for third parties to fund rail improvement projects, and intend to update it with fresh opportunities including financing and delivery;
  • We have overhauled over 400 of our railway ‘standards’ – the detailed set of requirements that underpin how a railway project is delivered and run – in order to reduce complexity and cost;
  • We’ve introduced a ‘standards challenge’ process whereby other organisations can suggest better ways of delivering a project to help bring innovation and creativity.

The path to changing the culture and behaviours of a large organisation such as Network Rail will take time, but we are committed to becoming open for business and the journey has begun. We’ve published our high-level national framework and have started drafting the processes and procedures to support the variety of external party projects we will engage with. In addition, we’ve produced our national policy around ASPRO so that we maintain line of sight to our national ASPRO objectives.

Supporting these documents, we will revamp our ASPRO website and build in the systems and tools to monitor and measure our internal performance indicators.

I look forward to the opportunities ahead, and I will be open and transparent with our journey. Network Rail ASPRO will continue to listen to the industry via regular meetings so that we can share our progress and learn where we can improve.


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