Innovating the future at Stafford

Source: Rail Technology Magazine June/July 2014

Andrew Ellwood, innovation and continuous improvement manager on the Stafford Area Improvements Programme, spoke to RTM about innovation in project management.

After our site visit to see early construction work on the Stafford Area Improvements Programme (SAIP), as reported in the April/May 2014 edition, RTM wanted to hear more about the ways innovation is being managed on the project.

It is being delivered by Network Rail with partners VolkerRail, Laing O’Rourke and Atkins, who form the Staffordshire Alliance. Their aims are simple: improving the line speed between Crewe and Norton Bridge, resignalling Stafford station, and installing a new railway flyover at Norton Bridge. But delivering the project as safely and efficiently as possible has required a new way of working.

Andrew Ellwood works for Laing O’Rourke and manages innovation and continuous improvement for the Alliance. He is a Chartered Mechanical Engineer from the manufacturing sector.

Values and behaviours

He told RTM: “Staffordshire Alliance’s client, Network Rail, will be delighted if we deliver its £250m SAIP on time and to budget, but not if we do so by exhibiting the wrong values and behaviours.

“It is important to recognise that to truly ‘deliver’ this challenging multi-disciplinary programme of work, we need to demonstrate that we have done the work differently; that we have not defaulted to business-as-usual practice when under pressure but have actively sought the more efficient and effective approach. We need to be diligent in our choice of products, services and construction methodologies to ensure that new and emerging technologies are appraised and applied where appropriate.

“It’s worth noting that ‘best for Alliance’ should give cognisance to the intangible benefits that arise from playing host to innovation, meaning that it is ok to spend a little or risk a little in the pursuit of something new. Alliance team members recognise that it is squarely within their duties to look outside the rail industry for inspiration and seek to import the good practice or proven products into the rail environment to challenge our existing ways of working. This is how we will demonstrate our core value of ‘Challenge and Innovation’ to the client and the wider industry.”

Beyond the tangible

The Alliance has been making “concerted efforts to innovate in a range of levels and directions”, Ellwood added. “Business-level innovation, such as novel forms of contract or industry partnerships, have been as important as more tangible items of innovation, such as products and services that challenge the incumbent ways of working.”

Doing so has necessitated looking outside the Alliance, and plenty of partnership working. “Working relationships have been formed with the Railway Industry Association (RIA) and the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB), with both bodies choosing to pilot business-level innovation schemes using the Alliance as a test-bed,” Ellwood explained. “RIA is currently organising an ‘Innovation Intermediary’ scheme to scout and broker innovation as a service embedded within the Alliance team structure, whilst the RSSB FutureRailway group (more on page 38) recently completed a pilot training programme aimed at embedding innovation capability within the rail sector. The pilot equipped six individuals with the skills needed to identify and foster innovation within their existing roles on the Alliance.”

Innovation from other sectors

Ellwood continued: “Considerable efforts have also been made to identify products and services which can be introduced to the rail landscape from other sectors. Items such as GPS-based vehicle monitoring and the use of composites in structures and electrical enclosures are common in other industries but less common in the rail sector.

“Novel ways of working have also played a part in the pursuit of innovation, with visual management techniques being imported from the manufacturing sector in the form of Visual Process Control, which uses simple flexible graphics to represent a work-flow during a short ‘progress update’ meeting. Colleagues usually stand throughout the meetings and the facilitator actively establishes fact-based information, with debate taken away for consideration.

“‘Task and finish’ teams have been created to pursue discreet areas of innovation and operate under a distributed management model, so are independent of line management and are able to self-select their membership and direction. The teams report progress to the board of directors on a bi-monthly basis to ensure that results are kept in sharp focus.”

Return on investment?

But all the process improvements in the world would be pointless without real-world outcomes to point to. Progress is being made in this area, Ellwood explained.

“Staffordshire Alliance has already identified around 100 potential items of innovation and implemented around a quarter; this sounds low on first inspection, but is actually a perfectly natural proportion.

“The numbers indicate that we are investigating really challenging items, including those without immediate and obvious financial returns. This seems counter-intuitive to some and illustrates one of the fundamental challenges of innovation; that the return on investment is often ambiguous or difficult to quantify. Our standard project management training leads us to reach for the cost-benefit tool kit as a familiar first step and this discounts many areas of innovation immediately, since benefits are often realised by the operator but funded by the installer. A more phlegmatic approach is required, with the aim being to evaluate the optimum conditions for the innovation to deliver benefit; this often raises insights into intangible or ancillary benefits, which make the opportunity worthwhile.

“As the SAIP progresses, the Alliance will continue to focus on identifying new products and services until the scheme design is complete in the summer of 2014, from which point the focus will shift toward innovation and continuous improvement in construction methodology.”

Rail Live

The Alliance marked that milestone by exhibiting its innovation successes and challenges at the Rail Live show (more on page 111), helping to show that innovation can occur at all stages of a project, and that innovation can thrive within the rail environment.

The need for the Stafford Area Improvements Programme

Against a backdrop of unprecedented passenger growth, the West Coast Main Line is set to reach capacity within the next five years. With little investment since the 1960s, the railway around Stafford (and in particular Norton Bridge), is a major constraint to capacity, causing congestion and delay on this key rail route.

The SAIP addresses this through three key rail projects – linespeed improvements between Crewe and Stafford (completed in March 2014); resignalling Stafford station and the surrounding area; the construction of six miles of new railway at Norton Bridge including a new flyover.

On completion, passengers will benefit from a faster, more reliable railway with the capacity to run:

•  Two extra trains per hour (each direction) between London and the north west of England;

•  One extra fast train per hour (each direction) between Manchester and Birmingham; and

•  One extra freight train per hour (each direction) through Stafford

Staffordshire Alliance

The SAIP is being delivered by the Staffordshire Alliance – a partnership of Atkins, Laing O’Rourke, Network Rail and VolkerRail, working as part of a new collaborative contract that will help to transform the delivery of rail infrastructure projects in the UK.

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