McNulty backs rail ingenuity

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Andy Milne considers the thinking behind the McNulty report.

When the River Derwent flooded back in 2009 cutting off Workington in Cumbria, the railway bridge was the only way into the town from the north.

Jo Kaye, director of Network Rail in Manchester, saw the aerial footage of fields under water and marshalled the rail industry together. A temporary station was built and within a few days an emergency train service connected Workington with the outside world. Network Rail, Direct Rail Services, Northern Rail, various railway engineers, surveyors and scaffolders came together and achieved something rail’s detractors would argue usually takes years.

Greater responsibility

Jo Kaye herself said later in an interview with RailStaff, ‘The railway can do anything if it puts its mind to it. If we could actually maintain that level of focus on what we’re trying to do then the rest of the time we could achieve a whole lot more.’

This is what Sir Roy McNulty has spotted. Railway people enjoy running railways, at all levels, and they are very good at it. Their genius cannot be frozen in group standards or quantified by lawyers and bean counters. ‘The rail industry needs to be given, and needs to accept, greater responsibility for its own future,’ says Sir Roy.

A Donegal man, Sir Roy McNulty, has chaired the Civil Aviation Authority and led the Olympic Delivery Authority – where he worked with one, David Higgins, now of this parish. Sir Roy’s wide ranging career in transport includes building supertankers for Harland & Wolff, a spell with Chrysler and the aerospace company, Short Brothers.

He was educated at Portora Royal School in Fermanagh. His suggestions therefore carry more weight than the industry is used to. Lessons learned in the riven society of Northern Ireland, where co-operation can be a matter of life and death, are perhaps not so readily understood in the relaxed board rooms of middle England.

However, McNulty has made official what railway people have long argued. Separating track and train is expensive and doesn’t work if the people involved have an external focus on shareholders, ministers and masters. Look out for each other and real savings can be won.

Amidst the predictable pronouncements on trying to hold down fares is the welcome argument that cuts to branch lines are hardly helpful in an expanding industry which needs extra capacity. Less welcome perhaps was his observations that rail wages have risen faster than those elsewhere.

The reason for this is two-fold. Under BR staff opted for stability. Wages were low but you’d never be out of a job, even if you ended up a UBA (Use to Best Advantage). The pension was good and you had free travel for life.

Since ’96 wage demands have ramped up to make good the difference. Moreover the expanding network, the fastest growing in Europe, means it is difficult to attract and retain qualified, motivated staff. Thus wages rise in a classic supply and demand conundrum.

However, McNulty has rightly spotted the rise in automation and the attendant scope for better staff productivity. Buying tickets online and by text will increasingly become the norm reducing reliance on ticket offices. Nevertheless passengers will always expect to see guards on trains and dispatchers on platforms.

Getting rid of front line staff is foolhardy

The industry tampers with staff visibility at its peril. Crime is high and anti-terrorist agencies tell us they’re still on red alert. Getting rid of front line staff is foolhardy. The answer here is to change job descriptions to accommodate new technologies whilst recognising traditional responsibilities.

Shop floor suggestions will help. It is no solution to simply keep negotiating problems. Pay railway staff what they are worth rather than what you think you can get away with. In return unions must stop blocking change.

McNulty points out that railways in Britain are 30% more costly than they ought to be. Running short formation trains off peak when empty doesn’t help. Comprehensive timetable commitments were part of the privatisation package designed to ensure privateers were unable to cherry pick remunerative runs. Running longer trains less frequently would now be wiser.

Private sector operators will have more flexibility and longer franchises. This should make investment and financial risk taking more rewarding.

It’s all about access

In his interview this month with RailStaff – see centre page spread – David Higgins, says the biggest single cost is access. It’s all about access. Network Rail is in the bizarre position of having to pay train companies for access to its own assets, the railway. This has to change and the culture of point scoring be done away with.

New culture of cooperation and the focus on cost reduction

The Secretary of State will be addressing this divisive aspect of current railway economics in the weeks ahead. So should we expect to see the cessation of attribution billing and compensation payments? If that’s what it takes to reduce the cost and add value to railways then depend upon it; it’s coming. Hammond expects the rail barons to co-operate, slash costs or get out. Make no mistake about this.

The press may have missed it but at the end of his statement to the House of Commons Philip Hammond said, ‘I want to send a clear message that the new culture of cooperation in the rail industry, and the focus on cost reduction, is here to stay and it is mandatory, not optional.’

Those who drag their feet will be sent off. Hammond goes on, ‘As a matter of policy for all future franchise competitions, a significant part of the assessment of bidders’ capability at the pre-qualification stage will be evidence of success in collaborative working and driving down costs.’

Essentially the players will be judged on what they achieve in access cost reduction over the next few months.

Workington North may have passed into legend but it has an oddly prophetic postscript. Less commonly known is the charity charter train a group of drivers involved in Workington organised,when the floods had receded.

Several drivers came together and borrowed the train to run a charity special to York. Tony Kay (DRS), Tony Molyneux (Network Rail) and Allan Hedley and Alistair Grey (Northern Rail) set up the Solway Viking Charity Rail Tour. ‘We’re just a group of lads who work on the railways and we thought we could use this DRS stock that is not being used at weekends to raise a bit of money for charity,’ said Alistair Grey.

Network Rail granted free access and Spitfire Tours helped out with booking passengers in. The trip was by all accounts a great success and remains a fine example of how the industry can work together when it is allowed to.

The new Rail Delivery Group, sets out to achieve just this. The RDG is to be chaired by the highly respected Tim O’Toole, chief executive of FirstGroup, joined by David Higgins and the main players at the head of Britain’s railway companies.

Will it work? What non-rail analysts and journalists can never quite grasp is that the cap badge never mattered much to railway staff anyway. It should work if the bosses see themselves as railway men and women first and foremost just as those they serve always have done.

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