It is exactly 50 years since the former Institution of Locomotive Engineers amalgamated with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, forming its Railway Division. Andy Mellors, the Division’s 50th chairman, mentioned this when Rail Engineer interviewed him as he prepared his Chairman’s Address, which he presented on 10 September.

Andy had decided on the title “Challenging Times”, which seems particularly apt, not least for him personally, as he balances his IMechE role with his day job as managing director of South Western Railway, one of the UK’s biggest train operating companies.

Andy continued the tradition of outlining his career and using that experience to explore some of the opportunities and challenges for railway engineering.

With Sir Kenneth Grange, who designed the timeless ‘face' of the HST.

With Sir Kenneth Grange, who designed the timeless ‘face’ of the HST.

Early days

Andy comes from the “class of 88”; one of 17 school leavers – “all male”, he said with disappointment in his voice – who joined the British Railway Engineering Management Training scheme. He reflected on what it was that attracted him to engineering, attributing it to a combination of his physics teacher, who made much of the practical application of the science, the enthusiasm of his form tutor, who urged him to go to university in London, and to his deputy headteacher, who had an interest in railways. Andy returned to this subject later.

The BR training scheme provided for practical experience in the years before and after university and a university project to solve a practical rolling stock ride quality problem. This delivered an engineer who, at the tender age of 22, was appointed a shift production manager at Wembley depot, a position of considerable responsibility.

Andy said: “Whilst I’ve had some very rewarding moments in my career in the subsequent years, never have I had a job more consistently rewarding than one where, after many a challenging night shift, with the pressure of imminent deadlines, teamwork was everything and you could readily see the fruits of your labour being realised, with correctly formed and well-presented trains going into service on-time for the benefit of our customers, as you made your way home for some well-earned sleep.”

This role was Andy’s introduction to people management, as well as learning about the systems aspects of railways, not least when he had to have a conversation with a very experienced train planning manager “undertaking a post-mortem into a Saturday night at the southern end of the West Coast main line when there were more trains planned to stable than there was actual space – never mind the manpower to clean or service them!”

Andy then moved to the Merseyrail network in a commercial role dealing with contracts required to lease and maintain the privatised fleet. He recalled: “As a relatively small operation, there was plenty of opportunity to get involved in a much wider range of issues and get a better understanding of the workings of the railway company and the communities and the stakeholders which it served” – something he would encourage all engineers to do.

After Merseyrail, Andy moved to FirstGroup, starting with First North Western dealing both with the bathtub curve problems of new trains at the start of their lives and of the end of life issue of ancient class 101 diesel multiple units. Moving to First Scotrail, at the start of that franchise in 2004, provided further challenges with an even more diverse rolling stock fleet.

South Western Railway Siemens Desiro Class 444.

South Western Railway Siemens Desiro Class 444.

Andy then moved to become engineering director and later deputy managing director at First Great Western (now GWR) in 2007, a modern-day equivalent of the role of his former mentor from the start of his career. In conversation, it was clear that he had to deal with some truly “challenging times”, but he chose to highlight some wonderful memories.

Many of these inevitably revolved around High Speed Trains, including the coalition between operator, owner and supply chain to re-engine the power cars and put further life and vital reliability into the venerable machines, as well as some record breaking non-stop runs and the 40th anniversary with Sir Kenneth Grange.

His proudest moment was the launch of the electric commuter service out of Paddington with brand new trains, which has been a real game changer on that railway.

Finally, in Summer 2017, he took up his current role.

Andy commented that the challenges had remained remarkably similar, irrespective of where he has worked. These include managing safety in a steady-state environment and ensuring that safety is not compromised during periods of change, always wanting to do better in terms of service/customer delivery with a desire to improve fleet reliability and deliver the required levels of capacity, all with the requirement to ensure value for money and achieve continuous improvement in driving out waste.

Of course, none of this can be delivered by one person and Andy emphasised the importance of teamwork and collaboration in achieving results, often across contractual boundaries and physical interfaces where the individual parties’ objectives may not be completely aligned.

“So, all of that helps explain why I am a rail engineer and a railwayman – the opportunity to work with awesome kit and great people where, not only is every day different, we can and do make a difference in people’s daily lives,” he said.

Andy briefly mentioned some of the strengths of the railway such as the dramatic increase in frequency and ridership on the North London line of the London Overground network, before focusing on things to improve.

Launch of GWR's Class 387.

Launch of GWR’s Class 387.

Challenging Times – Railways

Andy reported a number of measures of dissatisfaction with the railway – delays to projects, the inability to run all the trains in the timetable, demands for renationalisation, and falling customer satisfaction. Many of these are consequences of trying to carry passenger volumes that our predecessors could never have anticipated.

“Our network is increasingly congested,” he admitted. “I mentioned the North London line earlier as an example where service frequency has dramatically improved. Across the national network, some 4,000 additional services operate every day compared to twenty years ago – with almost 1,300 more a day planned within the next three years.”

Indeed, it is issues with providing additional capacity that has led to the current “challenging times” – late running electrification, industrial disputes around modernising job roles and timetable changes that have not worked out as intended. Even Crossrail – until recently seen as a model for big infrastructure projects – will be nearly a year late. Once delivered, however, they will all deliver enormous benefit to their customers and the UK economy.

Andy anticipated that demand will continue to increase, despite recent small indications to the contrary, and customer and society’s expectations for the railway will continue to evolve. He referred to three areas from the Rail Delivery Capability Plan in his predecessor’s Chairman’s Address (issue 156, October 2017) – cost effective electrification, Digital Railway and decarbonising non-electrified routes, saying “in the case of the latter, it’s certainly been an eventful last six months since Jo Johnson’s ‘2040 challenge’ back in February 2018.

“This led to the establishment of a cross-industry task force, who will be delivering a preliminary report by the end of September 2018. Direction from the Minister is that further electrification is not in scope for the initial response and options being considered are therefore likely to include bi-modes, batteries, hydrogen fuel cell combinations, and other lower or zero carbon fuels.”

Andy highlighted three more themes from the Rail Capability Delivery Plan, all of which fit perfectly with his day job running SWR.

Running Trains Closer Together will increase the capacity of the railway and allow the railway to accommodate higher passenger numbers. Andy said that moving block signalling will help, but this needs to be accompanied by a new operational philosophy of consistency in everything, whether by design or through on-the-day operation; variance is bad! This includes homogenous fleets with predictable and dependable braking rather than having to contend with a variety of rolling stock types with varying and poor, by modern standards, performance characteristics.

Andy added that “predictable door positions and locations of other on-board facilities, such as wheelchair and cycle areas, will also support active platform management and promote consistent delivery of reduced station dwell times, to be taken as either more capacity or network resilience. The Japanese have been doing this for years – despite upgrading its rolling stock more frequently than we might otherwise do, train length and door positioning remains a constant on the Shinkansen”.

He also highlighted the importance of predictable and dependable braking as a means of enabling closer running. Attitudes have changed over the years, and it is increasingly unacceptable to live with the safety and performance risk arising from leaves on the line. Wheelside protection is not enough, on its own, to overcome slippery leaf debris and Andy was “pleased to play a part last year in providing otherwise spare modern rolling stock – in that sense a welcome by-product of electrification delays – to undertake what some have since called the most significant piece of research relating to on-train sanding.” (issue 163, May 2018). Andy urged that rapid progress be made to implement the results of the research.

The second issue from the Capability Delivery Plan, Services Timed to the Second, is another area where heavy rail needs to improve. Providing a signalling system and rolling stock to achieve reduced headways will come to nothing if train planning/timetabling allows no more granularity than the half minute. “The right train needs to be in the right place at the right time at the right speed,” he stated.

Furthermore, understanding variances in performance will have to be much more extensive. Fresh insight into why trains are not where they should be will be required. On a congested railway, seconds really do matter and it is no longer acceptable to only consider the impact of delays of three minutes or more. The cumulative impact of time loss from what might historically have been considered as minor irritants, such as speed restrictions, under-performing rolling stock, slightly extended station dwell times and defensive driving, can no longer be ignored as headways get tighter. All of this investigation will be useless unless the results are implemented and, moreover, the operation is designed to be able to recover quickly from minor delays.

There is a risk that none of this may happen as the ORR’s draft determination for ‘pump priming’ R&D funding in CP6 included only £100 million for infrastructure and nothing for the rest of the railway system, compared with the £440 million that Network Rail had requested on behalf of the whole industry. Encouragingly, the Railway Industry Association and others are actively campaigning to redress the balance.

A More Personalised Customer Experience was Andy’s third theme. He said that it’s not just about raising the game with the on-board experience, but customers do expect air conditioning, toilets, electrical sockets and Wi-Fi to be working. These aspects of the on-train experience need to be matched by the off-train experience. This is as much about culture as design and maintenance.

Andy said: “Whilst rail is seen as a vital engine of growth and can spread wealth, we are failing to deliver the promises we make today on punctuality and value for money. We have to work hard to keep up with the progress being made in other areas of people’s lives and must be more agile, so as to meet the changing needs of passengers, communities, society and our economy.”

Challenging Times – Engineering Profession

The second part of Andy’s address considered the engineering profession, saying “without the right people we will get nowhere”. He highlighted the industry’s drive to make engineering in general, and railway engineering in particular, attractive to youngsters, citing the example of his son’s school where some seventy 11-year olds were asked to say what job they would like to do. Only one said engineering and another seven, just 10 per cent, referred to a STEM related job.

Continuing, he highlighted the IMechE’s November 2017 report “We Think It’s Important But Don’t Quite Know What It Is”, The title sums up the problem, the point is not about the children but about the adults who give them guidance, who often don’t know enough to encourage children into engineering. He outlined the report’s recommendations and described some of the research underway to see what needs to change to make a difference.

He made particular mention of the practical approach of the London Transport Museum which, despite what the name suggests, does not just tell the story of the past and present but has, for a number of years, done a lot to think about the future. A lot of this is undertaken in conjunction with industry sponsors.

A good example is the museum’s “Great Summer of Engineering” promotion, which ran for the school summer holiday. In each of the six weeks, there was a different theme with STEM-related interactive challenges to develop young people’s creative and problem-solving skills – as well as some storytelling and demonstrations.

Andy added: “It was great to be able to visit the museum in my RD Chair capacity and meet some of the volunteers involved in the project. I know this is only part of the great work which the museum and its partners do – something which the wider industry and engineering profession could learn from in terms of how we try and better engage and inspire the next generation of engineers.”

Andy also echoed both his predecessor’s and the IMechE’s immediate past president’s concerns at the poor representation of women in the engineering profession (8-9 per cent) and railway engineering (4 per cent). “This issue needs to be addressed at every step along what appears to be a tortuous path,” he said. “As well as actions by schools and universities, as employers we have to continue to work on some of the enablers including how we measure organisational culture, behaviours and business processes which will encourage, address and ultimately maintain diversity.”

Andy concluded his address by calling for more collaboration between engineering institutions and railway professional organisations, referring to the success of the Young Railway Professionals. He also paid tribute to the incoming President, Tony Roche’s reaffirmation that “the IMechE is, first and foremost, a membership organisation and it is crucial that we remember that our object and purpose under the Royal Charter is to ‘promote the development of mechanical engineering and to facilitate the exchange of information and ideas’”.

All at Rail Engineer wish Andy Mellors a fulfilling year in this role.


Read more: Mark Carne looks back on his time at Network Rail