The skills and ideas to deliver Crossrail successfully

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Feb/Mar 2014

RTM speaks to Crossrail’s new strategic projects director, John Pelton, about programme management, innovation, organisational change and skills for the future.

The programme partner for Crossrail is the Transcend joint venture of CH2M Hill, AECOM and The Nichols Group.

In his role as Transcend director, John Pelton has recently taken over as strategic projects director for Crossrail, replacing his CH2M Hill colleague Mark Thurston.

Pelton, who has an extensive background in civil engineering and infrastructure delivery (see panel), told RTM about the relationship between Crossrail Ltd as client, Transcend as programme partner, and the consortium of Bechtel, Halcrow (itself now owned by CH2M Hill) and Systra as delivery partner.

He said: “Each brings particular skills. Crossrail hires the key people and the people it thinks it needs in continuity jobs particularly, then the programme partner either brings the programme skills that are difficult to find from open recruitment, or provides the ability to respond to specific challenges, short-term problems, and technical issues – whatever it might be. That’s our role.

“We work as an integrated team. The way Crossrail operate it – and I think this is a really healthy approach – is that they understand the skills that each of those three ‘legs of the stool’ brings, and when a requirement for a position comes up, it’s done as the best fit for the role. We often do interchange; there are delivery partner people in roles that you might expect programme partner people to be in, and vice-versa.

“Our key skills at Transcend are in programme controls; we have a role in the systems and systems integration areas, and in design management and in supporting the chief engineers’ group. We also play a role in risk, and in sorting out agreements and
dealing with third party stakeholders. There’s also the role I play in terms of the innovation programme.”

He said Transcend is usually less involved in individual projects, such as a given station or tunnel – “but where it’s a holistic programme approach, we’re absolutely positioned to provide support”.

Organisational change

Pelton noted that some people have been working with Crossrail for up to eight years, and as the project has progressed, its core focus has shifted.

At first the central people were needed to work on the legislative and compulsory purchase aspects, then design management, and then from that into construction, and in the coming couple of years the focus will start to shift from tunnelling and civils into railway systems and then operations.

“There are different skills needed at different stages, so the project has to migrate in its organisational construct,” Pelton told us. “That’s a continuous process, and any project that doesn’t take that into account is going to run into a problem at some point.
My perspective is that Crossrail has taken a very forward-leaning approach on this, and is trying to adapt. The programme
partner approach allows it to do that more easily, as the partner can change the people it provides relatively easily.”

BIM and the ‘Digital Railway’

As explained in RTM’s June/July 2013 edition, Crossrail chief executive Andrew Wolstenholme’s vision is for it to be the “first digital railway”.

Pelton said: “It has a good chance of achieving that. It’s the first project designed and built in the current BIM climate. That makes a huge difference to the way construction has been done. The benefits of the experience we’ve had will mature on projects like HS2 (see page 88), which because of the timing of it, has a better chance of getting up to the Level 3 environment that we might aspire to.

“BIM is a key part of what Crossrail is doing, and the real challenge at the moment is to see how far Crossrail can take BIM in terms of value-added to the in-service management of the railway. The train contract is I believe the first to use condition managed maintenance, and part of the innovation programme is looking at how we can develop BIM so that the whole railway becomes condition managed. Several of the innovation ideas punt at remote condition monitoring of assets. There are two or three involving some form of fibre-optic strain measurement within tunnel linings for example. At the moment, they’re purely tailored to construction, but there are one or two ideas now about making those in-service life monitoring systems. That needs the BIM matrix to be able to report into.”

He said with digital technology, augmented reality becomes possible.

Innovation Programme

Crossrail’s Innovation Strategy was launched in October 2012, with extensive input from Dr Andrew Davies and Dr Samuel MacAulay
at Imperial College London.

Since developing the strategy, Crossrail and its tier 1 contractors have agreed to provide cash for an innovation fund – helping bring ideas from the front line to fruition and getting them implemented project-wide. After some relatively small ideas were submitted, analysed, approved and eventually funded during the middle of last year, there has since been a much bigger scale and “more significant” innovation investment cycle, Pelton said.

Discussing the programme, he told us: “It’s a unique opportunity. We’ve done some canvassing, and nobody else – with a project of this nature – has been so forward-thinking in terms of promoting and encouraging innovation. It’s almost a case study, and I hope a precedent.

“It’s come from the leadership of Andrew Wolstenholme, without any question. It’s come from his personal experience with Terminal 5, and his strong pedigree in construction. There may be an air of zeitgeist about this, but now Andrew’s leadership has pushed it to the forefront, hopefully there it will stay.”

He called the fund, with funds committed by the tier 1s and matched by Crossrail – “a moderate pot of money we’re able to use to bring innovation to life”.

“In the rail industry, you often hear ‘I’ve had a great idea’ – but if there’s no means for bringing that good idea to reality, of testing it, prototyping it, carrying out a study, then it withers and dies. The management gurus refer to the ‘valley of death’, when an idea happens but nothing happens next.

“So that funding provides some resources, and shows the commitment.”

Submitting ideas

Pelton discussed the correlations that have been found between the rate of innovation on work sites and more general performance metrics, as well as safety statistics.

The innovation portal,, allows anyone involved to submit and share ideas. “We’ve been reasonably broad with allowing access,” Pelton said. “HS2 have access to it for example, enabling them to see and share what’s there.

“You can have all the technology and all the governance you like, it’s the people who in the end make the different. The team I have working for me, the four-man team, part of their role with me is to set up, support and encourage this network of innovation champions. These people are out on all sites, and the contractors all have their innovation champions, some on the client side, some on the contractor side, often shared – which is quite an interesting dimension, because it’s in their mutual interest to develop innovations that benefit the programme and help to deliver on-time, on-budget, world class and safely, all of which are incentivised across the whole programme.”

He said that the innovation champions have been actively competing with those on other sites to encourage people to submit innovative ideas, adding: “As a positive behaviour, you couldn’t ask for much more.”

“We had to connect the people, their ideas, and the resources in a positive way, which both helps the ones really worth helping, and demonstrated to the others that there was a chance they might get their idea taken forward.”

Getting the go-ahead

During the lower-level investment cycle kicking off in April 2013, around six small-scale ideas got approval and funding, after being signed off by a governance team chaired by Crossrail non-executive director Terry Hill of Arup but also including representatives of the tier 1s and Imperial College London.

One of those smaller-scale ideas that got the go-ahead in the autumn was for colour-coded work gloves – red, amber or green depending on the relative risk associated with the activity that person’s involved in.

Pelton said: “It means when you walk onto the site, whether as foreman or as a visitor, you can see from people’s hands what they’re doing. That’s important, as it changes the way you approach that person. On the back of the glove, there’s a safety message related to the level of risk associated with that colour of glove.”

That innovation is now being prototyped, and looks likely to be approved project-wide. Asked if it might be mandated, Pelton suggested it could be if it improved safety at only nominal financial cost, as seemed likely.

In the more significant second innovation funding cycle, Pelton said, ideas ranged from ultra-low-carbon concrete to Bluetooth underground networks to assist with safety and zoning, to applications relating to BIM, to safety and health promotion ideas.

Although the total size of the funding pot has not been revealed, Crossrail spokesman Peter MacLennan told RTM: “Crossrail has received over 450 ideas since the launch of the innovation programme in April 2013, around 200 have been implemented on the project with around 20 of those innovations selected for seed funding.”

The next steps for innovation

Pelton said it is now time to take a more strategic perspective and channel ideas best aimed at solving specified challenges, which are currently being decided upon by the executive.

The team, including Pelton, is also talking to the various other groups involved in innovation in the industry about closer working.

TfL and Network Rail both have their own innovation programmes, as does the TSLG via FutureRailway/EIT and the ‘Unlocking Innovation’ fund introduced by RIA.

Pelton said: “We’re talking to Peter Hansford, the construction adviser at BIS, as to how the industry takes this forward. It would be a terrible waste to let it wither on the vine.”

About John Pelton

Pelton previously led the HS2 Efficiency Challenge Programme team, and prior to that led the CH2M HILL UK Government Infrastructure team, focusing on defence.

He spent the first 29 years of his career serving as a Royal Engineer officer in the British Army, with deployments to Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

He has been a strategic planner for the Army, both in planning operations and in the personnel area.  He led a procurement team providing operational infrastructure to deployed troops before finally leading the development of an infrastructure programme for the Army’s UK bases. He left the Army as a Colonel in May 2011 to join CH2M Hill.

Pelton is a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers and a member of its Municipal Engineering Expert Panel. He co-authored the 2013 Transport State of the Nation Report.

Discussing the transition from military engineering to his current role in rail infrastructure, he told RTM: “A lot of what I did in my latter career was pure programme management, often overtly so, particularly in the procurement organisation as well as working on operations.

“There’s a very strong synergy and overlap between the military concept of campaign planning and the infrastructure programme management approach, which I only really appreciated when I was doing some work analysing how the Olympics had been done.

“It’s about the management of people, relationships, collaborative working – that’s key. When you look at a military operation, the complexities of which should be evident even if you don’t understand all the details, and then a major construction site – there are a lot of very similar behaviours and skills to manage. It hasn’t been that difficult a transition!”

The next generation

With the success of RTM’s charity, the UK Rail Industry Training Trust, whose fundraising total has just passed £90,000, we have been asking a number of rail industry leaders for their views on the importance of getting talented young people to consider a career in rail.

Pelton said it’s something he’s keen on personally, and that he mentors youngsters through the Social Mobility Foundation (CH2M Hill also actively supports Business in the Community and the Employee Ownership Association).

He said people often talk about the “traditions” of the rail industry that might put people off it – but that since he joined, he’s been hard-pressed to really find examples.

He added: “Rail engineering in particular is finally, at last, moving into the 21st-century in the extent to which information and data management is applied. People have a sense that if you go to Rolls-Royce, you’re going to be involved in high-tech engine design – and the same is now true of rail. When you see what’s happening to the trains, the rail control systems and the rails themselves – this is cutting-edge technology and it’s a fantastic place to be.

“The UK is right at the leading edge of this, and the technology is some way removed from the Victorian engineering approach which many people might have in their mind’s eye. Many aspects of rail are moving into the same league as the aerospace industry in terms of the technologies and skill-sets needed.

“It’s an industry with durability: we’re going to have trains, more trains, better trains, for years to come – if you wanted a growth
industry, you need look no further.”


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