‘We don’t want Stafford to be a one-off’ – Interview with Atkins' Philip Hoare

Source: RTM Oct/Nov 2015

RTM interviews Philip Hoare, the head of rail for Atkins in the UK who also now runs the company’s wider transportation business, including highways.

The ‘pure alliance’ delivering the West Coast Main Line upgrade in Staffordshire is a model that should be here to stay, according to Philip Hoare, group managing director of transportation at Atkins.

Hoare, who joined the company in 1997, was speaking to RTM in September, not long after a busy bank holiday weekend of commissioning on the Staffordshire project.

Stafford resignalling

Atkins and its alliance partners – Network Rail, VolkerRail and Laing O’Rourke – delivered the resignalling (phase 2 of the project) on time and on budget, while the major structural and track works at Norton Bridge will be complete next year (with some elements continuing into 2017).

RTM covered the precise technical details of the resignalling in our interview with Alliance operations manager Ian Johnson in our July/August 2015 edition. But it was the broader delivery philosophy we asked Hoare about. He said: “The benefits of the Alliance for me really came out not in the commissioning – the delivery of that went pretty smoothly – but in the lead-up to it.

“We really got value from having Network Rail embedded in that team, and with a common goal – making the decisions together about what was in the best interests of the project. It reduced some of the overlap and duplication you find on other projects that aren’t set up in that way. For me, it really felt like a team, where everybody wanted success to be the outcome. It really did feel different.

“The other thing is openness. People are more open to talk about their challenges, because problems are shared. There is no blame – it’s either a success for everyone or a failure for everyone. That tends to drive a bit more honesty than I’ve seen on perhaps more traditional projects.”

Hoare added: “Hopefully we can continue Stafford into future arrangements. We don’t want Stafford to be a one-off.”

SAIP Alliance announcement, picture 2 edit resize 635823236371445763

The Staffordshire Alliance members pictured near the beginning of the programme. The knot is both the county's symbol and a metaphor for their close alliance.

Great Western

He also cited the virtues of the Staffordshire model when asked about the more difficult situation on the Great Western Route Modernisation programme (including electrification), for which Atkins is lead designer. He suggested that earlier and closer collaboration between the parties involved, as at Stafford, could have prevented some of the current delays and rising costs.

But he added: “I know the team – everybody – is behind [schedule], but there’s a significant amount of effort, and as a result some good thinking and new innovation is being brought forward to try to bring that programme back on track.”

He called it “a particularly challenging project” and said there was no one specific cause behind the delays and rising costs, or individual company that is culpable.

“You can’t and wouldn’t want to blame any one particular organisation. I think the team there would have benefited early on from taking some quite important decisions together, and planning and preparing that together. So if you draw a comparison between the Alliance model (as at Stafford), where everyone is equally incentivised to drive performance, you can see some of the challenges we’ve had on Great Western, where perhaps not everyone’s been pulling together at the same time. But what I do see on Great Western is everybody working really hard to deliver what is a pretty challenging and demanding programme.”

Ending the uncertainty

Hoare was clear that the “uncertainty” thrown up by the reviews into Network Rail’s capabilities and future must end.

He told RTM there should be an “industry call-to-arms” to end the mixed messages. “There’s no doubt – as an industry and as an organisation – that we’re worried about the impact of the various reviews into Network Rail,” he said.

“What we want as an industry is a really solid workbank and good visibility of when that work is going to come on-stream. To build and invest in the future you need to have good sight of that. At the moment, we haven’t really got that clear view.”

Sir Peter Hendy was installed as Network Rail’s new chair in June, replacing Richard Parry-Jones. The former London transport commissioner’s proposals on re-planning the delivery of enhancements – due in November – could see a big shake-up of CP5 projects.

Hendy’s review into Network Rail is one of a number announced by the government in June. Separately, Nicola Shaw, chief executive of HS1, is to ‘advise’ the government on how it should approach the longer-term future shape and financing of Network Rail, while Dame Colette Bowe, an experienced economist and regulator, looks at lessons learned.

Richard Brown, who reviewed the rail franchising system for the government in 2012, has been appointed as a special director at Network Rail and will update Patrick McLoughlin MP directly.

Influencing the reviews

Hoare said the supply chain must try to influence those reviews, to ensure they don’t have a long-lasting impact on delivery.

He told RTM: “There have been significant slips in terms of programme at Network Rail, and challenges around budgets, and I’m sure the outcomes of the Hendy review will be pushing more and more schemes ‘to the right’ and into CP6 and possibly later.”

The Office of Rail and Road recently described Network Rail’s project development and delivery problems as “systemic”, as it missed 16 of 44 (36%) of its GRIP 3 regulated outputs and 14 out of 40 (35%) GRIP 6 regulated outputs in 2014-15.

August Bank Holiday works 2014

Skills balance

Hoare told us that Atkins was having to consider reductions in its signalling workforce “because the workflow just hasn’t been in line with what we thought it would be”, despite the oft-repeated concerns in the industry about a lack of signalling renewals capacity and skills.

“We haven’t quite got the balance right [as an industry],” he said. “We, as an organisation, are currently consulting with a number of our staff around job reductions in the signalling space.”

He said the industry’s ageing workforce did create the “potential” for skills gaps across all disciplines, but said Atkins is investing heavily in the future. “We’re committed to training and developing graduates and apprentices, and looking at the development of our staff in the early parts of their career and bringing them forward as quickly as we can.”

Atkins recently restructured its UK and Europe operations. The UK transportation business, which Hoare leads, employs 2,700 professionals in the UK, and 3,000 when the wider support teams in India are taken into account.

He said: “Size isn’t everything – but, actually, in times when we’re delivering some pretty big programmes of work and significant projects, size is important. Being able to provide that capability and capacity to deliver – clients really want to make sure we’ve got that.”

The company realised that its 1,000 civil engineers across highways and rail were stuck in silos, not sharing enough best practice and not working together as they might. “If you’re designing a bridge, whether for road or rail, there might be some nuances, but fundamentally you’re a civil engineer,” Hoare said. “We believe we can bring a better service to our clients, and also be more efficient in delivery, by combining those common skillsets together.”

The merger of rail and highways was announced in late 2014 and implemented this year.

Signalling technology

An important focus for Hoare this year has been Atkins’ attempts to bring ElectroLogIXS to the UK, to challenge the dominance of the ‘big two’ signalling interlocking systems currently in operation. There are 7,000 GE ElectroLogIXS units globally, so it is well-proven.

Hoare said: “It does cause issues for our industry, to only have two pieces of technology you can rely on. Bringing a third technology to the market is critical, and we’re well on the way with that.

“ElectroLogIXS paves the way for the ‘Digital Railway’ of the future; it’s completely compatible with any ERTMS solution, and it works on IP protocol, so, effectively, rather than having to have somebody on site to programme each time you make a change, you can control that remotely. Not only does that have safety benefits, but it also allows much more flexibility in terms of control.”

Atkins is also refining its approach to signalling design. Its new automated system will be compliant with European standard EN 50128. “It virtually eliminates the chance for human error,” Hoare told us. “I’m really excited about that, and over the next six to nine months, we should see the first ElectroLogIXS in operation on the UK network.”

Birmingham New Street

Another major Atkins project that has recently come to glorious fruition is Birmingham New Street. It had been involved since 2008 and was lead designer, working as part of an integrated project team alongside Network Rail, Mace and Foreign Office Architects.

242 c. Ross Jukes Photography edit resize 635823248344211500

Hoare said: “It’s a fantastic, iconic project for Birmingham. Most people won’t ever appreciate it, but taking a reinforced concrete building built in 1965 and totally transforming that into an iconic hub – and halfway through, including a massive John Lewis retail development as part of that – it’s a real feat. It shows the sort of things we’re capable of.

“There were lots of organisations involved, but we’re very proud of our part as the lead designer.”

Atkins had more than 200 people working on the project at its peak, drawing on its multidisciplinary expertise – from civils, highways and architecture to modelling, telecoms and landscaping, including staff from its Global Design Centre in Bangalore, India.

Hoare called it “amazing” that the whole seven years of construction and development carried on while the station remained “completely operational throughout”, with a train leaving every 37 seconds. 

HS2 work

Atkins has already won a number of early contracts, but winning the role of phase 1 engineering delivery partner (in a joint venture with CH2M and Sener) would be its biggest win to date. It is up against a Bechtel-Jacobs JV and WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff for the £350m, 10-year contract.

Earlier this year, Atkins successfully pre-qualified for lots 1-3 of the professional services package for phase 2, covering civil engineering and structural design services, environmental services and railway systems application design services for the 50 miles north of Birmingham. The estimated total value of those lots, plus two others, is £75-150m.

“Tendering activity is intense,” Hoare told us.


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