Changing Track was the title of an article in Rail Engineer issue 109 (December 2013). It was the result of an interview that I conducted with Steve Featherstone, Network Rail’s track programme director.

That was nearly two years ago – a long time in the changing world of Network Rail. Since then, the company has a new chairman, a new chief executive, a new managing director of Infrastructure Projects (Francis Paonessa – Steve’s boss), and now isn’t even a company at all as it has been reclassified as an arm’s length central government body.

But, despite these changes, Steve Featherstone is still track programme director, leading the IP Track Delivery function and responsible for delivering the majority of track renewals work in Network Rail, including track enhancement and refurbishment works. I caught up with him again recently to find out what had changed for him over those two years.

Still organised into national specialist delivery teams for Switches and Crossings (S&C), High Output and Plain Line, Steve and his team are specialists in each delivery method, making sure they are the best at what they do and providing track expertise across the business.

However, Steve has made some significant changes to his organisation, introducing Alliances in the north and the south to deliver the S&C programme of works, and in-sourcing the High Output organisation from AmeyColas.

Safety and performance

Last time we met, Steve talked about his vision of a ‘seven day railway’ whereby passengers would travel ‘trouble free’ and where maintenance and renewal work would be seamlessly carried out, invisible to the travelling public.

Steve explained that this is still his vision and the team have made good progress.

For example, in 2013, IP Track improved line hand back speeds to 50mph rising on occasion to 80mph. This latter is now becoming the norm and a 90mph line handback speed is now a more regular achievement.

Clamping rails rather than welding joints is a critical factor which is particularly significant in S&C layouts, so the team has set itself a target of 100mph handback speed by March 2016.

It is confident it can achieve this using the rail clamp technology pioneered by Robel – a milestone which will be appreciated by operators and train operating companies alike and which, ultimately, improves rail travel for passengers.

Sticking to the plan

We talked about the delays travellers experienced last Christmas and the impact this had on Network Rail and on IP Track specifically. Steve explained that, although Network Rail would have preferred not to have gone through such an experience, it provided invaluable lessons learnt and emphasised how critical it is that plans are adhered to and that robust contingency plans are in place and followed.

As Steve pointed out, Network Rail is responsible for more than 4.5 million passengers who travel by rail every day, and it isn’t just about getting them from A to B, it is also about caring for passengers and their communities, getting passengers to their destinations in a healthy frame of mind having had a pleasant, delay-free journey.

One subtle but very important change to the planning process which demonstrates this perfectly is the introduction of a ‘cut and run’ stage. When facing overruns, decision making is transferred from the asset manager, who will understandably want the work to be completed to the highest technical specification, to the operations manager, who will decide on the work that can be undertaken and still deliver the line back to the operator on time. This is an interesting change in focus which has the travelling public’s interest at the centre of decision-making.

IP track delivery teams

We discussed the organisation design changes that have taken place within Steve’s IP Track delivery teams in High Output, Plain Line and S&C.

In March 2015, Network Rail insourced the high output organisation of AmeyColas, which included the maintenance and operation of two track renewal systems (TRS) and five ballast cleaners (BCS).

The transfer involved working closely with trade unions to TUPE across over 500 AmeyColas colleagues into Network Rail, and creating a plant maintenance organisation in Network Rail’s National Supply Chain (NSC) managed by its director, Nick Elliott.

Steve West, high output plant director, manages the Network Rail plant teams supplying the TRS and BCS to the production teams which are managed by Ben Brooks, high output director, and which carry out the work and liaise with the route customers.

A comprehensive safety validation process was undertaken to make sure the new role as principal contractor was fully understood by Network Rail and the changes delivered safely and effectively. The production teams are currently being upskilled and re-organised to make sure there are six skilled crews to operate all six units, whilst the seventh unit undergoes maintenance.


Steve explained that the move highlights Network Rail’s commitment to minimise passenger disruption, reduce the cost of running the railway by 20 per cent over the next five years, and improve sustainability.

New ballast cleaner ordered

Steve went on to explain that it is the high output track renewals team’s responsibility to clean the ballast of debris, oil and emissions as well as regularly renewing it so it remains functional and safe – a big job given ballast supports more than 20,000 miles of track across Britain.

Codenamed ‘BCS5’, Network Rail has ordered a new £50 million ballast cleaner from Plasser & Theurer, boasting the latest technological advancements in track renewals, benefitting from reduced fuel consumption and emissions, and incorporating measures to reduce workforce exposure to ballast dust, including mist-based suppression systems.

Built for ‘third-rail’ operation, allowing the conductor rail to safely remain in place throughout the cleaning process – a first for the British rail network – the purpose-built kit and associated support plant will become the fifth ballast cleaning system in the fleet and is due to be delivered in 2016.

Steve was keen to highlight that staff have been issued with self- contained breathing apparatus rather than masks. Costing around £1,000 each, these provide cool air and are being further developed to include lamps and communication equipment.

Plain Line

Ian Henley, project director, Plain Line, has led the awards of three different packages of work. The contracts were awarded to:

» Babcock: Western, Wales& Wessex, Scotland, LNW South – value around £200 million over five years;
» Carillion: LNW North, LNE & East Midlands – around £100 million over five years;
» Colas: Kent & Sussex, Anglia – approximately £75 million over five years.

These awards represented some significant challenges as, inevitably, a void was created by the tender process when outgoing contractors retained, wherever possible, their most valuable and skilled staff. Steve said that this had been particularly difficult in the South East where there is often a shortage of skilled resources. However, the situation is improving and Plain Line management is beginning to see a more balanced and skilled set of resources available to the incoming contract teams.

Successful alliancing

The decision to create North and South alliances for S&C track renewals has proved to be a successful one. The North alliance is between Network Rail, Amey and Sersa while in the South it is between Network Rail with Colas and AECOM. The selection process was heavily biased toward behavioural criteria rather than finance and commercial considerations, the 10-year contracts are collectively valued at £400 million.

Dal Chatta, S&C director for the North alliance is a Network Rail employee, whereas Said Lahssioui, S&C director for the South alliance is from Colas. The management teams are made up of colleagues from across the alliance partners, with the most suitable person filling the role irrespective of their parent company.

Steve explained that this approach has removed many of the barriers previously in place. He has two alliance teams that include both the NSC and IP Track organisations which are totally focused on delivering a successful package of S&C renewals. This collaborative approach means the teams share with pain when things go wrong but also take huge pride in their work when everything goes according to plan.

It’s a new, refreshing and exciting approach to S&C renewals which bodes well for the future.

So, substantial change is evident in every aspect of Steve’s organisation. I remember once someone saying that during such times of flux, everything changes but actually everything remains the same. The same issues and risks still need to be acknowledged and addressed and one of the areas where Steve has committed a huge amount of energy to is with the suppliers of small plant and road/rail machines.

Plant database

Steve is as keen as ever that suppliers with the highest plant reliability are rewarded. To support this stance, his team has developed a database to record the performance of every plant supplier, which also allows each supplier to view its own plant reliability performance.

Some of the plant providers have grasped the message, which is reinforced by IP Track plant reliability awards. Considering that one operation or shift, within a programme of track renewals, costs around £250,000, the message becomes clear; reliability is crucial and should never be compromised. Those with the most reliable plant will win and those with the least reliable plant will lose.

Getting out on track

Even though the IP Track Renewals team have been through some major changes over the past year or so, the same issues face the guys out on track at two in the morning and getting out and about is still a very important part of Steve’s diary. He says that talking to the guys laying the track, and digging the ballast, is the best way of understanding what is going well and what needs to be addressed; where the safety, health and wellbeing of the teams are an absolute priority.

It is a sound philosophy which provides an excellent reference and anchor point when all around you is in a state of change.