Chairman’s address to the IMechE Railway Division 2019
Graham Neil CEng FIMechE FIET is the 51st chairman of the IMechE Railway division, taking over from 2018/19 chairman Andy Mellors. Almost his first official duty was to give his chairman’s address, which he duly did at the Institution’s headquarters in London on 9 September 2019.
It is traditional for new Railway Division chairmen to talk about their careers. Partly, this illustrates the diversity of paths to senior roles and, partly, it provides the authority for them to talk about the future and challenges they hope to tackle.
Graham has worked for Transport for London (TfL) and its predecessors since 1971 – a mere 48 years. He started as an indentured electrical apprentice in the apprentice training centre at Acton Works, passing a plaque with words to the effect that anyone starting an apprenticeship could aspire to become the chief mechanical engineer.
That post was abolished long ago but Graham became professional head of rolling stock for London Undergound in 2004, the nearest contemporary role. He was appointed professional head of vehicles for TfL in 2018, which added to his portfolio vehicles from London Overground, TFL Rail, London Trams, DLR, London Buses, Dial-a-ride Taxis, the Emirates Airline, Bicycles, River Boat Services and the Woolwich ferries!
He has achieved this position over five decades, so summarising 48 years into a few words is not easy, but taking each decade in turn:
1970s – Graham’s 4-year apprenticeship included fabricating his own tools, and his first proper job involved repairs of unreliable electronic train components. Those of us of a certain age recall 1970s electronics and are glad reliability has dramatically improved.
1980s – Graham was promoted to the design department and became involved with specifying many of the electronic systems for the 1983 tube stock and 1986 tube stock prototype trains, including the very earliest electronic train control systems, the embryo of the Train Control and Management Systems of today.
He inflicted the first automated public address system on unsuspecting customers. It was nicknamed Sonya as in “get ‘S on ya’ nerves”.
More seriously, Graham represented LU on a joint British Rail/LU/Railway Industry Association initiative to produce standards and specifications for train electronics to overcome the unenviable reputation they had for reliability. These standards were the forerunners of today’s Euronorms and ISO standards.
He was also nicknamed “Mr ATO” for his work developing a replacement for the original, obsolete Victoria Line ATO controllers.
A further promotion saw Graham leading the rolling stock electronics development section, where he was able to set up facilities to test and evaluate equipment designed to comply with the new electronic standards.
1990s – With a reorganisation and with his experience of creating standards, Graham led a team creating and or updating standards for all LU rolling stock sub systems and critical components. This was followed by becoming effectively the internal Independent Competent Person for acceptance of new rolling stock at a time when privatisation of the main line railways had led to the acceptance and authorisation regulations becoming more formal.
He also led the work to improve understanding of the risk from, and protection against, arcing in DC power circuits caused by double pole earth faults on LU’s 600V floating-earth traction supply system.
Following yet another reorganisation, Graham was put in charge of a team of about 25 rolling stock engineers supporting the Central, Northern and Victoria line fleets as well as a small team of noise and vibration engineers and a team that routinely surveyed the track at line speed, capturing still images from passenger trains at a frame rate of 25 pictures per second.
Later he was appointed as project engineer for the 1995 tube stock Northern line trains being produced and brought into service by a Public Finance Initiative contract that was, at the time, ground-breaking.
2000s – The Public-Private Partnership preparations led to the overwhelming majority of LU’s engineers being distributed amongst the “shadow” companies that would be taken over by the PPP bidders. Graham was assigned briefly as the chief engineer for rolling stock for the Jubilee, Northern, and Piccadilly, before being promoted back into LU as control systems engineer and deputy to the then LU head of rolling stock engineering (modesty forbids me…!).
During this period, Mr ATO came to the fore again, supporting the introduction of ATO in the open areas of the Central line where there was a particularly challenging requirement to deliver a service braking rate of 0.7m/s2 in some areas of known poor adhesion.
He also advised Metronet BCV on the replacement of the Victoria line ATO controllers, as the first replacements (see 1980s above) were now obsolete and could not be kept going until the new trains due in 2010 were introduced.
In 2004, Graham became head of rolling stock engineering with, inter alia, the role of accepting that the new trains obtained by the PPP contractors were fit to enter service. He made a significant contribution to the technical architecture of the future deep tube lines trains, the first of which has been ordered for the Piccadilly line.
2010s – Graham is an active participant in the Union of International Public Transport Operators (UITP) and is now the chairman of the UITP’s Metro rolling stock group. He has also been a member of the IMechE board since 2011 and has presented at many IMechE events.
He is a member of the IMechE’s Skills Task Force and contributed to the early drafting of the Level 5, 6 & 7 (T&RS) Apprenticeship Standards for railway engineering that are now starting to be used.
It was Graham’s work with the Skills Task Force and with the National Skills Academy for Rail that highlighted the first of the five gaps that Graham explored in the next part of his address.
Bridging the Skills Gap
Over the last 10 years (at least) most Railway Division chairmen have highlighted the skills gap in the industry. Graham commented that those of us who already work in rail engineering know how endlessly fascinating it is with, usually, new things to learn.
The challenge, therefore, is to get that message across and attract youngsters into roles that will engage them for life, overcoming the common portrayal of a staid, old fashioned industry.
Rather than spanners, hammers and oilcans, we need to show students that work with computers, even artificial intelligence, and working in ordinary work clothes, is now more often the norm. His was a call to arms for all of us in the industry to “do our bit” to encourage young people and to seek a more diverse workforce.
Bridging the BREXIT Gap
Graham’s take on BREXIT focussed on economic and people impacts. But, with events on the political stage moving so fast (or is it so confusingly?), between drafting and publishing this article the situation might have changed.
With that health warning, Graham said: “As I see it, the long drawn out BREXIT process has, and will have, a profound impact on the future of the UK rail industry. From a purely rolling stock engineering perspective, our train builders come from Europe or the Far East and those train builders source the component parts for their trains from either within Europe or from within the UK – the choice for them is one of cost, performance and logistics.
“The uncertainty surrounding BREXIT and its impact on UK trade and sourcing from UK suppliers must affect their purchasing decisions. Will BREXIT cause currency fluctuations or excise taxes that will increase costs?”
He added that he had yet to speak to anyone who thought BREXIT would have a positive impact in the short term, that it could be disastrous for SMEs who rely on trade with Europe and he is already seeing signs of far fewer EU applicants for UK rail engineering jobs.
Bridging the economic gap
Provocatively, Graham talked about the bad old days “when, frankly speaking, railway organisations were treated as ‘cash cows’ for some monopoly suppliers to milk to their hearts content, where prices were agreed and profits were boosted by contract variations.”
Perhaps this was stretching a point, but many will recognise the general principle. Graham went on to emphasise that funding is generally in short supply or, to put it another way, each pound spent had to deliver maximum value.
He referred to the changes in his own organisation, where engineering headcount has been reduced by around 12 per cent, and TfL, like Network Rail, is working with the supply industry to challenge its own standards and streamline its processes.
As was shown in a recent RAIB report (Overspeed at Sandy South Junction, Bedfordshire, 19 October 2018), the challenging of standards needs its own carefully considered process as changes to standards can increase risk unexpectedly.
Of course, optimising maintenance and renewals, and making informed choices whether to do work in-house or have it done by suppliers, are all part of the mix. Graham wondered aloud whether the efforts to make the industry leaner and fitter are happening fast enough.
Bridging the technology gap
Graham said: “We are at a tipping point in our industry, where advanced digital railway systems and the technology they use – more common on high-density metro systems like London Underground – need to be applied to our main line railways to overcome challenges with passenger capacity, especially at complex junctions and to deal with the forecast increases in passenger ridership.”
He went on to explain that, whilst the metro systems cannot be transferred directly, as individual lines using proprietary closed systems are unsuitable for mixed traffic lines and non-compliant with Interoperability Regulations, “the same professional skill sets, knowledge and experience present in high density metro railways can be shared and, where used appropriately, can bridge the technology gap to give UK mainline railways a real advantage in developing solutions that deliver the required outcomes efficiently and ‘right first time’.”
Bridging the IMechE/railway gap
Graham referred to his predecessor Andy Mellors who, last year, spoke about Challenging Times (issue 168, October 2018). “Well, I have to say, times are still challenging,” Graham said, adding: “We have had a very difficult 18 months or so in the IMechE. That has resulted in significant change and my theme this year is all about building bridges.” Graham is seeking to build new, closer and more collaborative working relationships between all areas of the IMechE – the volunteer groups, the Railway Division and the other divisions and groups, the Trustee Board, Council and IMechE staff.
Graham said that delivering engineering change is second nature to him, but, in this role, he will be delivering people and organisational change, which is a new skill he is developing. He said he is lucky to be supported by “a very experienced team of Board members, past chairmen and volunteers, and I shall be calling on their support heavily if we are to make the changes we need for our Division and Institution to become more dynamic and inspirational, driving, motivating and inspiring even more professional engineering engagement within our railway industry”.
Graham said that it is his objective to provide more relevant events to allow learning and informal discussions over the coming year and to grow attendance. He hopes that this initiative will encourage the railway industry to work more collaboratively with the Railway Division in areas such as attendance and sponsorship.
Graham explained that the Institution offers the opportunity for people from across the industry to come together, at the events organised at headquarters and at centres around the UK, on neutral territory and discuss matters of mutual interest when competitive pressures can at least be put partially aside – so-called ‘learned society’ events.
With £50 billion committed to renewals Control Period 6, Crossrail, HS2 and possibly Crossrail 2, together with 7,500 new main line vehicles and well over 1,000 for metro and light rail, electrification and Digital Railway, there’s lots to talk about and lessons to be learned.
Graham added that, against the background of all these technical developments, the pattern of travel is changing. Whilst passenger numbers and big city populations are predicted to rise, companies are increasingly allowing their staff to work more flexibly. Although this trend might be helpful in depressing the loads during the peak of the peaks, the shoulders of the peak are likely to extend for longer.
“Indeed, on some London Underground lines we already run a near peak service for most of the day, in between the rush hours,” he said.
The London Mayor’s Transport Strategy also aims to improve the air quality in London with the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which introduces a daily charge for all road vehicles with petrol or diesel engines that exceed certain exhaust limits operating within the London Congestion Charge Zone. The ULEZ is to be extended to cover everywhere within the North and South Circular roads by April 2021.
Whilst this is likely to give a significant improvement in the air quality within London, it is also likely to increase ridership on the capital’s public transport systems and put pressure to provide carbon-free propulsion on the last all-diesel rail terminus at Marylebone.
Rounding off his address, Graham concluded: “I started my career 48 years ago as a rolling stock apprentice, destined, at that time, to become a rolling stock maintainer.
“Along the way, I met and worked with some really great people, many of which saw in me greater potential than I saw in myself. Those people shared their knowledge, skills and experiences with me and made me a better engineer by doing so, thereby helping me to deliver professional engineering activities that have resulted in my being where I am today in the IMechE, the IET and at TfL Engineering.
“I’ve often said ‘you’re only as good as your network’, because it is impossible to know everything and this ethos means that you develop a very wide group of friends, colleagues and experts, that you can trust mutually to give good, sound advice when it is needed, and thereby help to make reasoned, informed decisions when they need to be made.”
Graham advised anyone joining the rail industry to listen and learn as much as possible, as early as they can, from those that have the experience, but never forget that learning everything is impossible and to cultivate those career long friendships and seek out the advice of experts when you need to. It is this type of ethos that will make you a professional engineer, a good team player and eventually a good leader.
Thanks to Graham Neil for his help in preparing this article. Note the views in this article are the Presenter’s own and are not necessarily those of TfL.