Over the last decade, Network Rail has invested heavily in high output plant and equipment designed to maximise the installation of new track and switches & crossings (S&C) whilst minimising disruption to train services. Weekend leisure travel is growing, and although the age of severe weekend disruption caused by engineering work has not entirely disappeared, it is slowly receding, allowing the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) and their customers to start to believe that the railway is open for business seven days a week.

The person responsible for maximising the use and efficiency of all this expensive equipment is Steve Featherstone, Network Rail’s track programme director. The Rail Engineer caught up with him in Birmingham recently, the day after he had hosted a very successful ‘Reliability Conference’ for plant suppliers which highlighted their importance in the process of efficient track renewal.

Front line knowledge

Steve is always trying to create more time to get out and about to meet those who do the actual work. This approach is based on advice he received from his father when he first started work nearly 30 years ago. His father told him that “if ever you have a problem, ask the guys who dig the holes. They will have known the answer for 20 years, it is just that nobody asks them.” And that is just what Steve does.

His first career was in the gas industry. As he was experienced at managing safety critical infrastructure, he was asked to take on the role of maintenance director for Network Rail just over six years ago, shortly after the tragic train crash at Grayrigg. Since then, he has worked hard to acquire a significant amount of rail experience and, throughout this time, he has attached great value to the knowledge of his front line staff and suppliers. In fact, he now builds on his father’s advice by saying that “you should also ask the guys what the problems are that they face on a daily basis and then ask them what the solutions are. That way you will be able to address the fundamental barriers to progress.”

Another example of this approach is the recently held National Track Plant Exhibition (issue 107 – September 2013). This was Steve’s brainchild, bringing the myriad of suppliers together along with nearly 4,000 visitors. Steve explained that it was time well spent meeting suppliers at the exhibition, to realise the great practical innovation that is being created by the supply chain that will allow Network Rail to be more productive, use less track access and hand back reliably at higher line speeds.

A decision had been made on the day of this interview to repeat the exhibition, provisionally on 18/19 June 2014. You heard it first in The Rail Engineer!

Boundaries removed

Over recent months, the track delivery team for which Steve is responsible has been significantly reorganised. The previous arrangement consisted of four regional teams, all with the ability to carry out all forms of track renewal. The new organisation is made up of three specialist national teams covering high output, S&C and conventional plain line. Regional barriers have been removed and skills, knowledge and best practice can be shared across the whole railway network.

The high output project director, responsible for two high output track renewal systems designed to renew rail and sleepers, is Ben Brooks. He also looks after three high-output and two medium-output ballast cleaners. Each train is designed as a 900 metre long linear factory. Currently, AmeyColas maintain and operate these machines.

Maximising output

The highly-trained AmeyColas team require 2-2.5hrstosetupreadyforworkandthe machines are then capable of between five and nine metres of productive work per minute. Steve mentioned that nine metres per minute was achieved when the Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, visited the site to see at first hand one of these machines working. The machine operators were determined to put on an impressive performance and they did. Steve said you could hear a different tone and pulse from the machines – they were working to maximum capacity and they worked well.

Once these machines are running, every additional minute that they are able to work has a significant impact on output. This increase in productivity is something that Steve has spent time discussing with the TOCs. Given that one more hour of possession per midweek night could offer an additional 2,000 metres of renewal each week, should the last trains of the day be diverted or cancelled and is there a way of sharing the benefits?

The Track Renewal System offers an 80mph handback speed if the track has been consolidated with a Dynamic Track Stabaliser (DTS). If a DTS is not used, a 50mph handback speed is imposed. However, not using the DTS allows more time for the high output machines to work, improving productivity. It’s a trade off that the industry has to consider. Steve did point out to me that a typical handback speed in France is 30mph, giving them even more time for production and therefore potentially lower unit costs. The French are however keen to learn about higher handback speeds, where Network Rail is now leading the way.tilting wagon [online]

This balance between output and handback speed can only be solved by Network Rail and the TOCs working together. More work in one session means less line closure overall, but the lower handback speed can effect the timetable for a while.

Stiffening S&C renewals

Steve remarked on the risks associated with S&C renewals and the need for quality engineers, working to high standards, to ensure that all the risks are managed effectively and efficiently in this potentially high-risk area. To manage this very challenging process, Joan Heery has been appointed as project director for S&C renewals throughout the network. Steve described Joan as one of the best engineers that he has ever worked with and a great person to lead the S&C portfolio.

In the future the contracts for this work will be split into two areas, north and south, and at present tenders are with Network Rail for their consideration.

Modular S&C renewal allows more time and attention to be spent on the preparation of the sub-base, raising standards to those used in highway engineering where falling weight deflectometers are used to determine the right formation stiffness before the black top is applied. In the past, stiffness of track sub-base was determined by the number of passes of a vibrating plate whacker and usually three passes was the norm. That has now all changed and stiffness of the sub-base is measured accurately before the S&C units are lowered into place and joined together. This improvement in quality has enabled S&C renewals to be opened to traffic at 80mph. Steve’s vision is for up to 125mph handback speed, but there is still some way to go before they get there.

Giant jigsaw

Steve talked about a recent visit to Progress Rail near Nottingham. Progress Rail provides modular S&C panels for Network Rail’s
tilting wagons to deliver to site. He said it was fascinating to see the new complete S&C layouts assembled on an area about the size of 5 football pitches. These layouts are then broken into their modular pieces and transported to site where they are reassembled, as Steve said, “like a great big jigsaw”.

One of the key issues raised by the Progress Rail team was their desire to be involved in discussions with designers and installers at a much earlier stage than they currently are. They believe that this will reduce waste and increase value. Therefore, Steve has organised a pilot of a manufacturer’s hot desk for them to be able to spend time with the designers and installers.

Conventional plain line renewals is now directed by Ian Henley, who is one of the most experienced engineers in this field. Contracts for seven areas throughout the country are currently out to tender with a short list planned for November and contracts placed by April 2014 lasting up to ten years. To avoid one contractor dominating the process, no one company will be able to have more than 55% of the total work.

Every week, Steve produces a ‘Track Delivery Update’, outlining anything and everything that he thinks would be of interest to the wider railway team. It started six months ago with a distribution of about 100 but this has increased significantly to about 7,000 and is still growing as people ask to be added to the distribution list. In the Update, Steve not only talks about the things that have gone well but also provides an honest assessment of the things that have not gone well and the lessons that have been learned.

Steve recently wrote about activities on the Wigan to Southport route where they are achieving around 270 yards of rail, sleeper and ballast renewal per night, emphasising the financial benefits of midweek night relaying. Also, he writes about his visits to meet the frontline teams and his suppliers and the things that he has learned by “listening to the guys that dig the holes”. It’s a fascinating read, indicative of his open and inquisitive management style, and it is very refreshing to see such an open, honest and transparent approach.

Improving efficiency

Ballast is very much on Steve’s mind at the moment. This is currently over-ordered by about 45% on average, so he is stressing the importance of using the ‘ballast calculator’ properly to ensure that accurate quantities are ordered. This will sit alongside a process that will start to measure the over-ordering of ballast on each site so that the problem can be resolved.

Steve is also pushing hard to reduce the exposure of the frontline workforce to the effects of ballast dust. Following his father’s advice, he visited a quarry and talked to those who quite literally dig the holes to find out where the dust comes from and how the quarrying process works. He also visited one of the NDS (National Delivery Service) local distribution centres so that he could fully understand the lifecycle of ballast from quarry to local distribution centre to installation in the track to removal from the track and finally to recycling. As an engineer himself, Steve likes to understand how whole systems work so that he can work to make the whole system more effective and efficient.

Rewarding those who are embracing the challenges is important, and Steve recently presented two ‘Golden RRV’ awards. The first for the best track plant operator was awarded to A P Webb as its plant was 100% reliable throughout period 5. The second, for the most improved track plant operator, was awarded to TXM. Since the presentation, a number of plant company managing directors have since contacted Steve to find out what they need to do to win an award – exactly the reaction that he anticipated.

It is clear that much progress has been made and the benefits are visible. Steve’s organisation has moved from four regional teams to three specialist teams managed by Ben Brooks, Joan Heery and Ian Henley, as already outlined. Steve attaches great store to this organisational change, believing that now there is the opportunity for great ideas, improvements and lessons learned to be shared more easily throughout the organisation. This is underpinned by another principle that Steve believes in “Share with Pride, Copy with Pride” – a commitment to best practise and continuous improvement which bodes well for the future.