Forget culture change, look for underlying causes. Lack of rail experience at the top is a serious handicap for Network Rail


It is no surprise, I suppose, that faced with the problems Mark Carne has at Network Rail and being at a loss at to what to do about them, he should decide to give the new boy’s speech. You will all be familiar with it.

He delivered it twice, once in February and once last Monday at the Railway Study Association dinner. They were slightly different but if you put them together, this is how they went.

He started with comparisons of safety with his previous industry; he complained about safety culture on the railway; he professed a passionate belief that safety and performance go together; he said he would tidy the scrap from the track, cut back buddleia, remove temporary speed restrictions, and hold managers to account with performance score cards.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I thought after a year in the job he might have got beyond culture change and management by score card. The former should have no place in his thinking. The latter is OK, but it does not get you very far – as he will discover.

The February version, the George Bradshaw Address, was billed as “lifting the bonnet on Network Rail”.

If, as he said then, he met a railway worker whose leg was amputated because of a fault which had been seen by others but not reported, his response should not be to moan about culture – which he did – but to reflect on the underlying reasons why that happened. May I refer to the “5 Whys”, Sakichi Toyoda, et al.

And moan he did. Here from one speech: “that safety and performance go together is believed in the oil industry but isn’t by too many people in the railway”. And from the other: “to really embed lasting change on the railway, you have to change the underlying culture… That is much harder to do, it takes much longer…”

This is desperate stuff, desperately wrong-headed. It is a misunderstanding of the railway and a misunderstanding of the art of management.

It is a mindset that clouds judgement: if something you want is not happening on the railway, is that because railwaymen have the wrong culture or, just possibly, is it that what you want is a very bad idea.

To embed lasting change, look for the underlying reasons for poor performance and put them right. If and when they are put right, the so called “culture” will miraculously improve.

Ten or so years ago Mark Carne was head of production from Shell’s North Sea fields where he achieved great improvements in performance. He refers to this experience. But, an experience such as this can easily lead to a mistaken mental map as to how to manage the railway. Though not obvious at first sight, in that job, however vast in scope and daunting to contemplate, everything is under your control. The task is big but it is not difficult.

Notwithstanding the hostile environment, it is well within the wit of man, building on past experience, to design and procure reliable equipment and, given the small number of locations all of which can be tightly managed, to develop and enforce effective management and safety systems. Once done, you would expect to get high levels of reliability and low rates of injury to workers. It would be odd if you did not.

Unfortunately, the railway is not like this. Well it is and it isn’t. It has been possible to put kit and systems in place to keep passengers safe; but for much of the rest of the railway, an army analogy not a North Sea analogy would be more useful.

I wish I could find the right words to make the point. In the army, training and equipment and planning and morale enhance your chances of success. But you still have to face the enemy and all the uncertainties you find on the way while looking over your shoulder to check that your government and allies are still on side and that defence procurement has supplied personnel carriers that don’t blow up, an early air warning system that works and enough helicopters.

Does that sound more like the railway than Shell’s North Sea platforms? I bet it does.

With a North Sea production mental map you will manage the railway in one way, with
an army mindset, another.

In the George Bradshaw Address, Mark Carne did not really lift the bonnet on Network Rail. If he had, the first thing he would have pointed to was the inexperience, in railway terms, of the management team at the top – and he could have pointed to a lot of other things you would rather not see. (I refer you to John Nelson’s article elsewhere in this magazine).

It starts with the chairman, clearly a remarkable engineer who rose to head technical development at Ford with 30,000 staff. But I do wonder what innovation he has in mind when he writes this in his last chairman’s statement:

“The next five years, if they are about anything at all, must be about how to harness innovation and technology in a systematic way to solve the problems we will face in the decades to come.”

Is it ERTMS or traffic management systems? That we do not have ERTMS or widespread automatic traffic management on the railway is not because they are innovative, they have been around for years, the former led to Railtrack’s bankruptcy, it is because they are DIFFICULT, difficult in ways that North Sea production control systems are not.

Better to have said:

“The next five years, if they are about anything at all, must be about forgetting innovation and other distractions and, instead, organising ourselves to deliver our existing work programme. (And, sadly, cutting it back to what we can deliver and afford).”

Below the chairman stands the chief executive, Mark Carne, also an engineer.
One of his first actions, egged on no doubt by the chairman, was to set hares running with the Digital Railway campaign – which I wrote about recently (PT105). I would love to know where this has got to.

Reporting to the chief executive, three important people:

The chief operating officer, Phil Hufton, till a few months ago the chief operating officer for London Underground. This experience might prove less useful than it seems.

The director infrastructure, Francis Paonessa. He was managing director of Bombardier, the train manufacturer, till June last year.

Jerry England, director digital railway. He at least, a mid-career joiner from Thames Water in 2007, has good rail experience.

The finance director, Patrick Butcher, and the strategy director, Paul Plummer, have been around for long enough.

Of the non-executives, none but Chris Gibb has any rail experience.

In parenthesis, neither the chairman nor chief executive of the Office of Rail Regulation – rather important jobs – had rail experience before their present jobs.

Of course, long rail experience is no guarantee of success. Think back over Bob Reid One, Bob Reid Two, John Welsby, John Edmonds, Gerald Corbett, Ian McAlistair, Iain Coucher, John Armitt, David Higgins. There is no clear pattern. The right person with the right attitudes will do the job.

But what is of concern is there being so many people at the top with short railway experience.

We have a chairman, chief executive, and divisional heads, all new or new-ish. There is little deep knowledge of the industry. These people are giving directions about things they have never done themselves. It is not healthy.

They are good people but they must find it difficult to judge what is practicable, anticipate problems, discover underlying causes, know what resources, organised in what way, are most likely to be effective?

All this is pretty obvious. So, why can’t we get more experienced people at the top? That is for another article.


This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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