Writer: Nigel Wordsworth

Chris Burchell, chair of the Rail Delivery Group, delivered this year’s George Bradshaw address at the Institution of Civil Engineers. Speaking to a group of almost 200 industry leaders, he chose “Change” as his topic.

The George Bradshaw address is given every year by industry leaders to their peers. Last year it was delivered by then Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin, the year before was the turn of Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne. Both Carne and current Rail Minister Paul Maynard were present to hear Chris Burchell, sitting together in the second row.

Opening his talk, Chris Burchell said he seemed to have become ‘a career railwayman – not something I envisaged when as a final year student I was applying to every graduate scheme I could find an application form for, and yet I landed up at Railtrack.’

Chris was also at Thames Trains, in 1996, then Southern, and is now managing director at Arriva. He has chaired the National Task Force for six years and is now also the new chair of the Rail Delivery Group.

The railway in society

Having established his pedigree, he looked back at the railway’s history. ‘Look around any British city,’ he invited his audience, ‘and you can see how the railway has shaped our cityscapes. There are over 300 pubs named after the railway. Station Road is the second most popular street name.

‘Whole towns like Swindon and Crewe grew from villages. The railway was the catalyst for the seaside holiday, made fish and chips the national dish, and even invented our modern concept of time, with the publication of timetables by men like Bradshaw creating the need to synchronise the nation’s clocks.’

These ways in which the railways have changed Britain led Chris on to his main topic for the evening, the way in which the railways now must change yet again. In fact, as he stated, ‘the only constant factor in the long life of Britain’s railway has been, and remains, change.

‘The railway has grown and has had to find ways to evolve and modernise many times already in the past. We are at a crucial turning point, and unless we manage change, embrace change and lead change now, our industry will go backwards.

‘New technology is changing every area of our society. And alongside the technological revolution is a social revolution in culture, habits and attitudes.’

Then he added some words of caution, ‘The railway has no right to exist in perpetuity, we must continue to justify our existence amidst this maelstrom of economic, technological and societal change.

‘We must make the case for the railway, and we must do it not just with words, but with deeds. We must earn respect from passengers and politicians by what we do, not what we say.

‘So it is not a question of whether to change, but how, and when.’

Passengers

He reminded his audience of the railway’s recent achievements – carrying twice as many passengers as twenty years ago, adding value to the economy, getting people off roads into safer trains, and hence reducing CO2 emissions, and employing 216,000 people around the country.

But he was also realistic. ‘We have to be honest about when we let people down too. Really honest.

‘I catch the train at Haywards Heath. But it could be any line taking people to work. On those terrible mornings when things are going wrong for people, all of the statistics I quoted just now would count for very little.

‘When you’re late for work, have to cancel client meetings or miss bedtime stories with your children, you’re not interested in the statistics.

“The huge role we play in the economy is real journeys made by real people, for work, for business, for leisure and for love. When it goes smoothly, people get the level of service that they should expect. And when it goes wrong, it ruins people’s days, upsets their plans, makes people stressed.

‘We must be alive to criticism, and listen closely to what people are telling us.’

Chris then returned to his earlier comments, and the need for change.

‘The question is how to deliver change for the better, not change for the worse? Forwards not backwards? Progress not decline? This is the question that we all must address.

‘And our answer must land firmly on the side of the people, and the communities and businesses who depend on the railway. A railway for passengers, for freight, for the whole country.’

Taking a moment to reflect on the effects of privatisation, and competition, Chris reflected that is had led to a plethora of different systems and different technologies. Recently, it had been discovered that there were 70 different ways of relaying passenger information to customers, leading to confusion at times of disruption. That has now been brought under control.

Localised competition can be a good thing, driving down prices. But complexity should be avoided.

‘We need to retain the best elements and advantages that the competitive market offers but at the same time, couple this with the best elements of system and government, when we take a network-level view of things for our customers. A daily obsession with a quality experience for our customers, coupled to a long-term sense of network stewardship over a precious national asset.

‘Now, there are those who believe that the way forward is to go backwards, to the structures and systems of the past, in pursuit of the golden age of rail. But if such an age ever existed, it was only in our imaginations. It certainly didn’t exist for many of the customers who experienced it.

‘That’s not to say at all that the current system cannot be improved. We don’t want to move backwards, but we don’t want to stand still either. We must move forwards.

‘Because it can be better, and it needs to be better, to deliver further success in the next 20 years. Change is what this industry needs, what our customers deserve.’

‘Customers are our alpha and omega, our beginning and our end. We need to engage with their criticisms, their aspirations and their frustrations.

We need to do the things they demand: clean, safe, comfortable trains which run on time, which cost a fare which seems reasonable, with access to Wi-Fi and a seat, and clear information and redress when things go wrong.

‘Doing the right things in the right way builds customer confidence and trust, and means that when there are challenges, people give us the benefit of the doubt.’

Railway staff

But Chris didn’t restrict all of his comments to relationships with passengers.

‘I want us to build a new partnership with our people,’ he stated. ‘You’ll have seen today that more industrial action on our network is looming.

‘I don’t believe that anyone in the railway – management, unions, our people – wants a railway that continues to be disrupted and that lets down the people who depend on it. I want to see these disputes resolved as quickly as possible.

‘We all need to recognise that the railway needs to change to deliver the service that our customers expect and the economy deserves. There can be no attachment to old ways of working. Failure to effectively modernise puts future investment at significant risk.

‘As we embark on a fourth industrial revolution with new technologies and opportunities, the very nature of work is changing including on the railway.’

He added that the very make-up of the railway’s employees was changing. ‘Forty per cent of our workforce is over fifty years old. As they retire, many after decades of tirelessservice to the railway, we must attract new men and women to take up their mantle.

‘A generation born after the end of British Rail. Some born in this new century.

‘So that valuable experience and expertise meets fresh millennial talent, new ideas, new ways of working.’

Government

As well as its relationship with its customers, and its staff, the railway’s dealing with government has to change too. ‘I believe that 20 years on from the end of British Rail it is time for a more mature relationship between industry and government to take us forward, together. Not parent-child, but adult-adult. It must recognise that the relationship is symbiotic. We need each other to succeed.

‘I believe there is a vital role for government in changing our industry for the better.

‘But governments need to recognise that we need our freedom to innovate, to grow and to access new sources of investment. We need government to help us where they can, and to remove any obstacles on the line which may hinder our progress.

‘Network Rail’s nascent devolution of power from the centre to Routes, whose targets are increasingly being aligned and driven by customers, is a good example of industry leading change. Enabled by government, this will bring track and train closer together and reflect customer priorities.

‘In another example, the simplification of ticketing across the whole network will require a commitment from government. And, as in other cases, it is up to us as an industry to inform ministers how these changes can be made, to speak “truth to power” about the winners and losers, to propose solutions, and to help handle the consequences.’

The railway itself

Having discussed the railway’s relationship with its customers, its staff and, now, government, Chris Burchell turned to the sector’s own organisation.

‘Increasingly, across the public services, there is a recognition that top-down targets and strict command and control is an outmoded method to deliver quality and innovation. We’ve seen how targets can skew performance, stifle innovation, and reduce the system’s agility to address real people’s needs.

‘First we saw it in private manufacturing, and more recently in public services such as health and education.

‘Instead of top-down command and control, I believe we need to see the railway system for what it is: a system. With routes, train operators and the supply chain working together as a team to focus on the customer.’

Over the course of the evening, Chris Burchell had emphasised his belief that the rail industry needs to change, and keep changing. That the industry and government need to work together, but that competition will work to keep costs down.

He finished of by stating, ‘The system needs the rigours of competition from an enhanced, more open franchising model balanced with clear network values, principles and leadership.

‘It needs increasing investment from more sources.

‘It needs greater accountability to customers and passenger groups, perhaps on a localised, devolved level – the pilot of an independently chaired Board with customer representation in Great Western is hopefully the first of many.

‘It needs the enthusiastic support from governments, of whatever hue. It needs the big projects such as the Elizabeth Line and Hi-Speed rail links to be built as quickly as possible.

‘Most of all, it needs the active support from a majority of the population.

‘That’s my vision: a dynamic system, with industry-led improvements, driven bottom-up by customer demands, with the capacity to meet another doubling of passengers over the next twenty years.’

The audience was left with Chris’ overarching belief in change, but not in the detail, the minutiae. There was no mention of driver only operation, or digital railway, or traffic management. He set out what needs to be done overall, while leaving the industry itself to plan exactly how to do it.