Looking at the railway industry today, we see many instances of inadequate designs, long project delays, cost overruns and poor system performance. For more than 20 years, since the break up of the railway for privatisation, there have been regular instances of serious project failures. The Great Western electrification project is the most recent large scale project to show how badly things can go wrong but there are others like the West Coast Main Line upgrade, the Edinburgh-Glasgow electrification, the IEP rolling stock programme, the East Coast Main Line franchise fiascos and the Class 700 design. I wondered why these failures continue to happen. Perhaps, I thought, it was because we fail to learn the lessons from history.
A railway has some unique characteristics that we need to understand when considering how railway projects can get into a mess. A useful way to describe a railway is that it is a transport system that uses a fixed guideway in a purpose-built, civil engineering structure. It is designed to carry passengers and/or freight at speed in trains of specially designed coaches or wagons. It has to work as an integrated system, so it requires constituents with a high level of engineering and operational integrity in order to provide a reliable and safe service for its customers. This high level of integrity is achieved only if the design, procurement, installation, control and maintenance of the system are carried out by organisations and personnel with the right level of education, training, expertise and experience.
A railway is an efficient and vital transportation system working within the economic and social structure of a country but it is expensive to build, operate and maintain. Railways cannot provide a commercial return on the investment required to build and maintain them and rarely even cover their operating costs, thus the railway needs the support of society, government and local authorities, politically and financially. This creates a diverse set of stakeholders.
Long Asset Life
The complexity of the railway system and its need for high integrity engineering leads to high construction and equipment costs but these are mitigated to some extent by many of the assets having a long life. Thus, civil engineering structures may last for 100 years or longer, buildings for 60 years or more and rolling stock for 40 years or more. This longevity results in a need for good asset management and for a thorough understanding of the original designs and subsequent changes to the assets and to their operation. In the past, there had been a culture of career-long service for staff within the railways which aided the development and retention of experience over long periods. Largely fortuitously, this resulted in a body of tacit corporate knowledge that allowed informed management of assets, their maintenance and their replacement. Sadly, today, such life-long commitment to a single industry has ceased to be common and, thus, corporate knowledge is no longer created by default. We need to find ways of retaining corporate knowledge.
In Britain, when the main line railways were de-nationalised in the mid-1990s, what had been a holistic system was fragmented and train service operators were separated from infrastructure managers. Mainline operations were broken up into separate commercial franchises while the infrastructure manager acted as the railway system’s landlord. As a result, there were many changes to management and personnel across all disciplines within the business and many experienced staff left the industry or took on new roles that did not align with their experience. A similar loss of tacit corporate knowledge befell London Underground because of the failed Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) and subsequent reorganisations, principally aimed at reducing the cost base of the organisation.
In addition to the loss of experienced personnel on the railways over the past 20 years, there has been a shift in employment expectations, away from long service with one company towards employees spending relatively short periods in one job in an industry or with a single company. This has led to much movement of staff into and out of the railway industry and between companies within the industry. The apparent result has been a loss of corporate knowledge and experience and this may have contributed to some major project failures.
Even day to day railway operations have come in for regular criticism. Chris Green, a well-known, long serving, professional railwayman and former chief executive of Virgin Trains, once said: “The collapse in professional delivery has been the biggest surprise in rail privatisation. Simple things that railway people once did without thinking have now become a major crisis.” In this statement, Green expresses a perception commonly held amongst experienced and long-serving railway professionals in Britain that, since privatisation, the quality of railway management has been diluted by the influx of a new breed of ‘business managers’ most of whom have no railway experience or training. As a result, simple mistakes are being made that have caused and still cause serious problems for railway system performance and that, in some cases, have led to the deaths of passengers or staff, e.g., in the Hatfield accident of 17 October 2000 and the Grayrigg derailment of 27 February 2007.
Fortunately, stricter safety management has helped in giving better safety performance over the last 10 years but it is still widely held that existing corporate or tacit knowledge is often seen by new or incoming management as ‘old railway’ or ‘not the way we are going to do things now’ and, as a result, it is ignored or allowed to fade away, only to be found to be essential again shortly thereafter.
All these issues point to one common feature - the lack of acknowledgement that a system with a long asset life, like a railway, needs to have its history retained and understood and that there are many lessons that can learned from history that can inform future projects and provide valuable guidance for railway business development.