Rail Industry Focus


Planes, trains and fleet reliability

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Aug/Sept 2013

Engineers and fleet directors from the train operators spent a day at Monarch Aircraft Engineering’s hangar at Manchester Airport as part of ATOC’s ReFocus fleet reliability group. 

RTM’s Adam Hewitt, who attended the event, hears from ReFocus’s chair Stuart Draper (engineering director at Northern Rail) and its performance engineer Derek Jackson; Mick Connor of BMT Reliability Consultants; and John-Paul Williams of Monarch Aircraft Engineering. 

In RTM’s September/October 2012 edition, we covered ATOC ReFocus’s trip to Welsh Water, as part of its broader programme of visits to explore best practice in other industries and how it can be applied to rolling stock engineering and maintenance. In July, another such visit took place, with a number of fleet, depot, performance and reliability engineers and technicians from the train operators spending the day at Monarch Aircraft Engineering’s facility at Manchester Airport. 

The group heard from John-Paul Williams, general manager, Maintenance and Operations (North), at the company, and other staff, and got a tour of the hangar. 

Engineering and maintenance in the aviation industry

After a rundown of the airline’s structure and the way its engineering arm is set up and where it is based geographically, Williams talked the railway visitors through some of the basics of aviation maintenance and its heavily seasonal nature. November-May tends to be a period of heavy maintenance, except for the cargo lines, while during the summer the airlines want the aircraft in the air as much of the time as possible. 

“Monday night to Thursday night is the only time to do maintenance through the summer,” Williams said. 

The engineering company has to stand on its own and make a profit, so it goes out to seek new customers. 

Williams explained the two sides to aviation engineering – one is general maintenance, and the other is continuing airworthiness (known as European Aviation Safety Agency ‘Part M’), which breaks down into planning, technical records, engineering technical services, reliability, powerplant management, maintenance operations and more. 

Different airlines have different approaches – some (such as Easyjet) keep a fleet of virtually new, expensive aircraft and replace them regularly to avoid the need for heavy maintenance and overhaul, while others are more willing to fly cheaper, older planes and pay to keep them up to scratch.

Williams described some of the differences between the ‘must do’ engineering operations under airworthiness directives, and the ‘nice to do’ things that may improve reliability but are not obligatory. He described the air freight industry as being “manic” about keeping delays to an absolute minimum, and the difficulty of sourcing spare parts and components for some older aircraft. 

He also explained more about the way he monitors the engineers via a daily status report, with every job categorised and given a time estimate. “I can see every card to ensure no-one is over-running,” he said. 

The wide-ranging talk provoked a lot of interest and questions among the attendees – who frequently remarked on similarities to rolling stock maintenance. 

They also got an in-depth seminar on non-destructive testing, followed by a hangar tour. 

Sharing best practice 

After the main session, RTM talked to Stuart Draper, engineering director at Northern, who chairs ATOC ReFocus.

He told us: “The ReFocus group is about bringing all the TOCs’ performance and engineering people together to share best practice and to understand how we can improve the rail industry as a whole, from an engineering perspective. 

“It’s not just about pure technical engineering: it’s about what we can do to influence and improve the whole operation for TOCs.” 

He said he is keen to “take the train away”. He explained: “If you take people to a depot, they tend to just think about the train – so let’s go to another industry, and see how they do maintenance. It’s about processes, governance structures, doing things right first time: getting away from the train itself can help people think about that and look more broadly at the way things can be done.”

Draper continued: “It’s great in a way that there isn’t an aeroplane [in the hangar] today, because if there was, people might be focusing on that rather than the processes. It’s all about learning from other industries.” 

The ReFocus group has been on a number of visits now, including to Welsh Water, Nissan and others, as well as some within the rail industry. 

20 Point Plan 

The first iteration of ATOC’s 20 Point Plan for maximising the reliability of rolling stock – the current version of which can be found in the ‘National Fleet Reliability Improvement Programme’ document – was written by BMT Reliability Consultants, which was instrumental in organising the Monarch visit. 

Its senior consultant, dedicated to the rail sector, Mick Connor, said: “We wrote its first iteration, then it became ATOC’s document and they moved it on. We wrote that based on best practice from other industries – the majority of it from aerospace and defence. 

“We started in rail in 1998, and ever since we’ve been trying to bring best practice into the rail industry from other industries, since we work in defence, oil & gas, civil aviation, maritime shipping.

“It is all about the holistic approach: if you put a different bogie on a train, it doesn’t mean that’s the only thing you’ve got to do. 

“You’ve got to train people, change your facilities, and things like that. ATOC have grown it in into a very interesting document.” 

BMT organised a trip to Monarch’s facility at Luton about four years ago, Connor said, adding: “That went down very well.” 

Industry similarities 

He and Draper both noted how many similarities there are between aircraft engineering and rail engineering, and said the amount of engagement from the ATOC visitors on the day showed how worthwhile it was. 

Derek Jackson from ATOC ReFocus added: “It backs up the principle that engineering is engineering is engineering.” 

Draper said: “The air engineering side suffers from exactly the same issues as the rail side. The classic ones are supply management; delay management; configuration control. 

“Aircraft engineers have got it sorted, because they have a very structured design authority approach. Unfortunately, the rail industry doesn’t have that: you had British Rail, which built all the trains and that was that. But now people don’t always know who’s responsible for what.” 

Connor said: “If you want to put a poster on a wall on a bulkhead in an aeroplane, you’ve got to get the owner’s permission. 

“So Boeing are the design authority for all Boeing aircraft around the world. If you want to do anything, it’s got to go up that tree and come back down again.” 

Draper said: “In rail, that’s still supposed to be there – but it gets short-cutted.” 

He added: “They [the aviation industry] have learnt from rail, too. Competency management is just coming in, in the aviation industry. I was gobsmacked when I heard that, I thought they would have it tied up.”

“They have it at the higher levels – such as the person who signs the plane off to let it out the door – but they can bring someone in who’s done an apprenticeship in car mechanics and he’s allowed to fit things to a plane. In the rail industry, that’s not allowed.”

Third-party work 

In both industries, engineers do a lot of outside work, not just in-house. Monarch’s team does work for other airlines, for example, while Draper made the point that Northern does third-party work for East Coast, Grand Central and other operators, as well as the Network Rail New Measurement Train. 

“A lot of TOCs are the same in that regard,” Draper said. 

But one difference between rolling stock and aircraft maintenance is the infrastructure. As Draper put it: “Even if a TOC gets its reliability right, it can still perform badly if there’s a Network Rail asset failure. 

“The infrastructure can be so vulnerable to trespass and vandalism, for example. 

“That’s the interesting point about ERTMS and in-cab signalling: there’s been a struggle with the infrastructure, so let’s get it on board the train.”

Bridging the gap 

Speaking to RTM, Williams said: “The industries are very closely related. There’s a lot that hopefully we can pass on, and the other way round: there’s things I hope to learn from the guys on this visit. 

“Maybe historically our standards have been quite a bit higher, with the regulatory requirements, but rail is there now. You can see we’ve got the same frustrations as engineers. Sometimes as an engineer you’re piggy in the middle, stuck between the operator and the OEM, and you have to bridge the gap. 

“But there are definite commonalities: reliability; components; key metrics; on-time departures; customer satisfaction.” 

Working culture 

Explaining the overall aim of the visits, Draper told us: “We try to gather the best practice and put it into our 20-point plan. That sets out, if you’re going to do engineering or maintenance on the railway system, here’s some best practice – try it out, and here are some places you can go and see it and some case studies. We also encourage people, outside of this, to go and visit people and network. 

“We’ve been to a number of places where there have been significant things happen. We’ve been to Chester to see the Class 175 performance, where it was, where it’s got to; we’ve been to Central Rivers with Bombardier. 

“Originally when they had the CrossCountry sets, reliability was poor, so we heard more about how they worked through getting their performance to where it needed to get to.” 

Connor said: “On the Chester visit, as an example, we saw wheelset covers, which mean that rather than building a big hangar for wheelsets, you can put on these small bespoke covers. For a TOC that can be an immense saving.” 

Draper added: “We’ve moved away from looking at the pure technical issues, and have been looking too at, for example, people issues. At Bombardier, for example, an important aspect was changing the culture from what it was, to what it is now – can-do, will-do, want-to-do. It’s a lot about getting the right environment for people to work in. 

“That can bring better benefits to reliability than just changing some parts or bringing in better kit.”

Some of the topics discussed

•  Maintenance planning and at what periodicity

•  Configuration and modification control

•  Managing differed work and how it impacts on availability

•  Control of maintenance at satellite facilities

•  Management of the supply chain

•  Modern maintenance techniques 


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