Sir David Higgins has been chief executive of Network Rail for just over two years. In early March, he invited our very own Nigel Wordsworth to his office in Kings Place, overlooking the Regent’s Canal in London. Over the next couple of issues, Nigel’s in-depth interview will cover how Sir David got to grips with the industry from a standing start and his views on the important strategic issues that affect the industry.

The first thing I noticed when I moved into the rail industry was the scale and complexity of the operation.

There are so many different disciplines. There is everything from track to power to structures to signalling. It’s just so complex…. and then there are all the multiple stakeholders.

I think the other thing you realise is that you might wish to talk about strategy, but if you’ve just had an overhead line down on East Coast, no one wants to talk about anything other than rectifying the train service!

It’s relentlessly operational, it’s complex and it’s fragmented. Having come from outside the railway industry, I just never realised how fragmented it is. There are so many other parties involved or approvals that are needed. And everywhere there’s an interface, there’s a cost.

The other surprise is the age of technology. We have a range of technology going from stuff that is a hundred years old to the latest traffic control systems in our new operating centres – but there’s just a huge variation. We still have track workers with red flags and a hooter, you know, it’s like the Railway Children!

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Until we brought in GSM-R, the way that a train driver would report an accident was to stop the train, get off, walk along the track, find a signal phone, ring up, and say “Guess where I am. I think I’m somewhere so many chains from such and such a mile post”. You think, “Really! It can’t be like that, can it?” So the railway has survived on tried and true technologies and a failsafe, fingers crossed, system for a long, long time. And unlike every other infrastructure in this country, it’s growing at a dramatically high rate.

So you sat down on day one having landed in this hugely complex business. How on earth did you decide what you needed to do first?

There was absolutely no point in trying to second guess our experts in the industry or, for that matter, in our suppliers and our train operating companies.

No, the first thing I did was to listen for the first three or four months. I had that white flip chart over there and I just had people come and sit and talk to me for an hour. I would sit here and listen, and whenever they said something I would scribble it up on the board and ask them. “Is this what you’re saying?” All I was trying to do was listen and translate what they were saying, trying to understand where there were common threads.

And from that I eventually came down to the conclusion it’s about getting more productivity out of our industry and our organisation, and the only way we can do that is to take away the conflict ridden system to try and create more joined up-thinking.

We have got to try and overcome the fragmentation by getting people to work together. So let’s combine everything at route level and take away the barriers.

The next obvious thing was setting up alliances. Rather than fighting with each other, let’s try working at other things that make us stronger because ultimately the public really doesn’t give a damn about all these different, complicated companies. They don’t see the fragmentation, they just see frustration.

Does the greater world, then, see you as a maintainer of Victorian infrastructure rather than a builder of new railways?

Perhaps they do, but the irony is that every year we do two and a half billion pounds of new work, enhancements, rather than just maintaining and renewals. So although we do a huge amount of new work, people just don’t see it.

I’m amazed at the complexity of the work we are doing. I mean, changing over an existing signalling control system, like we are just doing at Western for example, on a very densely used operational railway – one of the most densely used railway networks in Europe – is an incredibly complex thing to do.

But reliability must be almost your top priority isn’t it?

I think it was day three after I arrived when I went to a Select Committee and I said there is a trade-off between capacity and performance. That was said intuitively, but now the industry accepts the principle.

The more and more trains you put on the tracks will ultimately affect performance. I am quite convinced of that and we have had one or two international experts who have come in and looked at our routes, modelled them and come to the same conclusion. There is not enough resilience in the timetables. Some of these timetables are now so old they’ve lost their value and therefore they need to be re- planned.

As for resilience we have 22,000 sets of switches, all with the potential to fail. I would love that they didn’t fail, but they can – although such incidents are fewer. But a feature emerging over the last three years is that the recovery from an incident is now more disruptive than the original issue. So you have an incident at Croydon in the morning peak that takes six or seven hours for the service to recover.

I would like to have fewer and fewer incidents which is why remote condition monitoring is so important. We are able to pre-empt a problem and solve it before a service failure.

If you go back 10 years, the scourge of the industry was defective rails. Nowadays, with ultrasonic testing and measurement trains, we can predict failure risk. It’s not failsafe, but certainly a huge amount is picked up showing where intervention is needed. So there’s a move to condition-based monitoring; a move to risk-based intervention on the railway line so we can intervene, repair or replace rather than having a disruptive failure. Remote condition monitoring of switches has allowed us to intervene and replace, maintain or repair them before they fail.

But some of our signalling systems are old and the best thing you can do is to leave them alone because inevitably, when you do touch them, some time now or in the future a fault is going to occur because of old cabling. So, what can we do about that? Replace the lot? Well, we’d like to, but realistically we can’t replace or upgrade all that Victorian infrastructure completely. But we can get smarter about how we manage it, although we are never going to eliminate every incident.

And all the while there are pressures from all around?

To reduce disruption when a failure does occur means a much closer co-operation with the key passenger train operators. Now that’s complicated on West Coast when the biggest operator only has 15% of the route capacity, but we’ve got to have recovery plans that everyone is trained on and is happy to use so that we change the timetable at short notice.

Despite the pressures and the lobbying, what we have to do is say there is not the money in the country to solve these issues all
at once. For example, we’ve got 300 signal boxes that are over 100 years old. I mean, some of them run crucial parts of the West coast. It’s bizarre isn’t it? 125 mph Pendolino depending on levers, but that’s where we are.

Ultimately, we would like to have state of the art traffic management systems to get the most effective use of our capacity. We’ve done it in East Midlands. Fabulous, great! We would like to bring everything into the twenty-first century but, realistically, it’s going to take 20-25 years.

There are just not the resources, and the other thing we’ve got to stop doing is turning the tap on and then turning it off again. We lost all the electrification skills in the whole industry, everything from front line troops to design. We did the same with train manufacturing as well. Then we wonder why we don’t have that capacity! We need to say we have a 20-25 year plan that will go from replacing ageing signalling systems right through to European train control systems through to traffic management and we’ll build up and sustain the expertise from design through to managers.

It is the same with the civils, the structures and the embankments. We’ve just had a terrible time with our civils structures, you know. We had sixty landslides in one day, just on Western alone. It was a really, really concerning time. Without doubt we’ve got to get a lot smarter in how we monitor embankments.

I noticed in the business plan that drainage gets quite a mention.

I think, as in all things, data quality on assets is crucial. We’ve always had a very strong capacity on track. In control period 4 we will have saved a billion pounds by a more intelligent way of replacing rail. On drainage, we are spending a substantial amount of money this time round but we are certainly putting in for larger investments, particularly in our earthwork structures, next year and next control period as drainage is essential to maintain our basic infrastructure as well as ensuring high track quality.

Similarly with level crossings. There has been a huge campaign on level crossings for the last two years. The more we know about level crossings, the more risk we understand about them. One of the first things our level crossing managers will discover is that there is a higher risk on these level crossings than we thought because there is more misuse.

It is very easy to get a bad press on safety because you get one incident and it hits all the headlines.

Level crossings, and there are around 6,300 of them, still remain the highest risk to the train service. We shouldn’t have any at-grade level crossings on high speed lines. It’s just the wrong way to run a railway, but we do. I’d love to close thousands. In this control period we are closing over 700 or 800 but I would love to close thousands more – particularly user crossings.

But closing level crossings in many cases is a long, tedious legal process because they come from parliamentary bills.

The level crossing is where you interface with the local council and pressure groups, several of whom have different ideas.

We have many of those cases and we are dealing with one right now. The coroner said a level crossing should be shut as there was one just down the road. So we shut it. We locked it. Half a dozen times the locals have broken open the locks and forced it open. There’s a massive local resident group who are saying that they don’t want to walk 200 metres down the road to the other level crossing which is much safer. They say that it’s their right and just because two people have been killed there it’s not their problem. Really,

I feel that the communities need to take some level of accountability.A006_C012_0226H7_S000.0000000 [online]

I can understand the frustration as we have more and more dense train services. The time that barriers are down increases, and it’s not going to get any easier. But there isn’t the money to build over-bridges and, what’s more, many communities don’t want them, they just find them unsightly!

And subways are prohibitively expensive, you know, you’re talking ten million plus for those under major lines so, yeah, it’s not an easy story.

But how can you mitigate the risks from the impulsive actions of others?

There is much more we can do, even in suicides and trespass, with fencing and barriers on the stations themselves. There are hotspots and we work with British Transport Police very effectively and Samaritans on those areas. We run media campaigns and have been very, very active in the last 18 months with campaigns to address intruder issues.

But our railways are a lot safer than they were. We have a safety standard comparable only with off-shore oil rigs and nuclear power stations.

We carry people on our service, we don’t carry water or power, and therefore passenger safety is always going to be incredibly sensitive and so the issue dominates our Board, it dominates our management team and everything we do.

Track-worker safety is one particular area which we really are very unhappy about in terms of our performance. It is just totally unsatisfactory that people should be put at risk and our systems of getting track access and our systems of work need reforming to improve safety. We need more training in frontline supervisor and track-worker level but we shouldn’t have a situation where someone is put at risk.

You’ve changed your safety philosophy recently from the Safety 365 system to this new life saving rules system. Is that partly reactive to this specific problem?

I’m sure you’re aware, the whole idea of league tables encourages a certain level of behaviour and we wanted to stamp that out and say safety isn’t about league tables, it’s about having a safer system of working. The classic pyramid says that to avoid one fatality we’ve got to have a thousand close- call reports. So we should be encouraging people, we should bring in a culture that when something happens that doesn’t result in an accident there should be no blame. People should be encouraged to report because only by reporting close-calls, near misses – whatever you wish to call them – are we going to work out the unsafe events on the railway that we need to correct.

Certainly, the standards and the access to the track and the assessment we use needs to be reformed because it’s not fit for purpose in terms of providing simple, clear direction.

So, we’ve bought in the life saving rules, but we are in the process now of streamlining all of our other rules to come up with, ideally, a hundred rules maximum. Maybe there will be a few more but they will say very clearly what you can and can’t do. Then everything else, the ‘how you do it’, should be advisory, or should be best practice or available as advice, but it shouldn’t be a rule.

In our next issue Sir David will expand on Devolution and how it all started; on alliances; on the new Infrastructure Projects Organisation – and the 6’ 6” high business plan.