Mention Crewe Works to an old railway anorak and it takes them back to the days of steam. To the locomotives that were built when William Stanier was Chief Mechanical Engineer of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, and the later BR standard classes, the Britannia and Clan passenger engines and the Class 9 2-10-0 freight locomotives.

From 1957 onwards, the works built a succession of diesel locomotives concluding with the Class 43 HST power cars. Class 87, 90 and Class 91 electric locos were also built at Crewe.

After privatisation, and a succession of new owners, Crewe was taken over by the Canadian engineering company Bombardier in 2001.

A quantum change

Notwithstanding its strong and impressive engineering heritage, over the years the Crewe site had begun to lack the efficiency required to meet modern rail standards of quality and cost-effectiveness, not to mention a highly performance-driven privatised UK rail network.

Overcapacity and outmoded working practices meant that productivity was low, with on-time delivery averaging just 33%. Equally, both quality and health and safety standards were below par.

It was evident that to continue to service railway equipment and maintain the workforce there needed to be a significant change of direction so, in 2009, a new management team was appointed to turn things around. Recognising the latent potential of the site given the right tools and techniques, the new team set about addressing the improvement of processes, productivity and customer service levels.

Whenever new ideas which differ from “the norm” are introduced, they have a tendency to be met with resistance. This is especially true within the rail industry and Bombardier’s Crewe site was no exception.

Therefore, the new management worked especially hard on building trust with the employees. They were keen to introduce lean manufacturing processes, but recognised they would have no success if the workforce was not motivated.

Therefore, their first task was to ensure the workforce bought into the concept of forward planning and a team ethic of working together.

A relationship of mutual trust evolved so that when new tools such as Visual Stream Management, 5S Visual Management, problem solving and standardisation were introduced, the workforce quickly adapted to their use.

Heavy overhaul

There is no longer any new vehicle construction at Crewe. Instead, Bombardier’s Crewe site underpins the broader Services business in the UK as a market-leading maintenance and overhaul operation providing heavy overhaul services encompassing bogies, wheelsets, engine rafts, traction motors and many other components.

The site supports both the internal Bombardier businesses and other customers through an increasing number of external contracts, a reflection of the current level of performance and customer confidence.

One of the significant changes introduced under the new management was an annualised hours system of working. A feature of heavy maintenance is that work occurs in natural cycles which inevitably bring large fluctuations in workload – the notorious “feast and famine” syndrome.

To address the difficulties this brings and to give security to the workforce at Crewe, an annualised hours system provides the facility to flex the labour to efficiently match the fluctuations in demand throughout the year.

The flexibility and competence of the workforce is continuously improved through various training programmes. A staff competency board, displayed for ease of reference in the facility, monitors the tasks in which each employee has been trained. The objective is to train the workshop staff in two new areas of work per year.

This ensures that all staff become multi-skilled so they can perform other work tasks when new work business is won, and is a real change from the past when staff had no flexibility within their skill area even though all had gone through an apprenticeship and become time-served fitters and electricians.

Quality and efficiency

The basic process of rail vehicle overhaul has been the same for years. A vehicle arrives at the works, is stripped to the framework and its components are sent to various workshops with expertise solely relating to that component, whether it is an engine, bogie or electrical machine.

The component is then assessed for repair, refurbished or replaced with new equipment. At the end of the process a shiny new locomotive, coach or component appears, ready to do another stint of work back out on the running railway.

Whilst the overhaul requirements remain broadly similar, processes and the working culture at Crewe Works have changed dramatically with tangible results.

As a result, the business has become more efficient and cost effective while reliability and the quality of finish have improved markedly.

Crewe now consistently provides 100% on-time delivery. This in turn means that vehicles can return to passenger service punctually, thereby improving the public performance measure.

This 100% delivery record is matched by a high level of quality. The site has attained RISAS and IRIS accreditation as well as ISO Quality, Health & Safety and Environmental standards, and this year the site has been nominated for its fifth consecutive ROSPA gold award.

Employee engagement

The reasons behind the efficiency of the site are immediately apparent on visiting the site. The pride in work shines through at every level of the organisation and at every workstation.

The introduction of processes commonly applied in the automotive industry but new to the rail sector, such as the Andon system of problem notification, ensures any production hitches are quickly flagged and dealt with, in an environment that believes that a problem identified and shared is one that is quickly solved.

There are around 270 employees on site with an average of 20-25 years service. What is fresh about the site is the degree to which employees are involved in this drive for quality and production improvement. This has been achieved through a process of change and mutual commitment, evidenced by absentee levels which are below industry standards.

Three in one

The works are split into three businesses, housed in three different workshops. These are:

  • Power/Control – pantograph, Vacuum circuit breakers, diesel engines;
  • Wheels – tyres, axles, gearboxes;
  • Bogies – brakegear, traction motors, welding, NDT testing.

In all the three businesses, production of each working cell is monitored by the use of large “child” boards. These are displayed prominently to enable staff to be aware of the progress within their individual production zone. Updated regularly by each team leader, they display progress against the following key performance indicators of safety, quality, delivery and cost.

From these child boards, information is relayed to the workshop “motherboard” at manager/team leader daily meetings. This enables the management team to be aware of any production difficulties and the tracking of components throughout their journey through the facility ensures planned customer delivery dates are achieved.

Over the last two to three years, the facility has delivered more than 2,000 consecutive bogies on time and in excess of 7,500 wheelsets, and is now one of the most efficient service facilities in the country. It also has an excellent safety record, and has won significant new business over the last year.

Giving responsibility to staff, and allowing them to build on their skills to create an environment of continual improvement in quality and reliability of their product, has been key in delivering these changes at Crewe Works.

Moreover, success has been achieved by challenging and addressing service and quality issues to maintain a sustainable business.

As Tony Webb, Bombardier’s Crewe facility general manager, said:

“Crewe Works has improved its performance markedly over the last two years. It continues to demonstrate the capability and commitment of our people in consistently delivering high quality products and services, on time and at competitive rates.”

Crewe is now a sustainable business with world class quality and delivery performance and a workforce that is prepared to exceed the expectations of a modern railway. And there’s not a steam engine in sight…