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Innovating for Resilience

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Guest writer: Nick King, director of Network Services, Network Rail

It’s a challenging time for everyone on the railway at the moment. Looking at it from the point of view of passengers and freight users, what the railway is actually delivering is less than what we would want and certainly less than they desire. 

Network Rail has the responsibility for providing the railway’s infrastructure – all the things that make it possible for train and freight operating companies to run their trains. That’s something like 24,000 passenger services a day, along with more than 600 freight services, so, when there are any disruptions on such a very busy railway, they have an enormous impact.

Twenty years ago, the railway used to run 5.2 million services a year. Today, it is more like 7.4 million services a year. As an industry, the railway carries double the number of people than it did 20 years ago. Looking just at those two amazing statistics, that’s a fantastic achievement.

But there is one more statistic, and it’s not so great. Performance over the last seven years has dropped, on average, in excess of five percent. Those three sets of numbers are out of balance. The first two are just fantastic, the third one is just a disaster, and it’s almost embarrassing to have to mention them. 

The need for resilience

Network Services is responsible for resilience on the railways across the UK and therefore has to ensure that the railway is available to move passengers and freight as and when required. It needs to work out how to make the railway more resilient to the types of events that stop it running smoothly – from a major flood or a fallen tree to cows on the line. Because all of these types of incidents, large and small, have an impact on passengers’ journeys and on the congested railway. Even the smallest incidents can have a big knock-on effect, causing delays for hours.

Replacing a point motor after flooding.

Climate change used to be a topic of debate about whether it’s real or not. It’s absolutely here, it’s not an “if” or a “when”, it’s actually happening. 

As an example, in my second week as head of Network Services, I had my first experience of a catastrophe for the railway. 25 July 2019 was, as you may remember, the hottest day on UK record – over 38 degrees. 

We knew it was coming. As an industry, we did a phenomenal amount of preparation, learning from experiences in the past. We did a huge amount of work on track and the infrastructure, our rolling stock colleagues worked on engines and on air conditioning, and the industry said: “We are ready to go.” 

We pre-planned and we cancelled a number of services on that day. We closed down something like five percent of the railway to enable us to move people into pre-planned places of work and we were all pretty confident.

On the day, the first six hours went pretty well, we moved thousands of people to work in London with no major problems.

But then, in the middle of the afternoon, things rapidly started to go wrong. What happened? We started to lose the overhead traction power. Had we talked about the overhead? No, we had not, and we ended up with nine catastrophic failures. 

As a result, we cancelled over 20 per cent of passenger services – that’s over 4,400 services across the UK. We affected unbelievable numbers of people and we cancelled more than 30 per cent of all the freight trains. In some areas, we actually had to ban freight altogether from midday, because we were uncertain about how the railway would cope. These are not really things that, as an industry, we want to have to do. 

So, I had the pleasure of being the ‘voice of Network Rail’ – it was my second week. I had to explain how we thought we were ready to go when we weren’t. 

After that, we started to put all sorts of reviews in place and we talked about resilience, we made new plans and reviewed old ones. 

Another blip

Then we got to 9 August. That was the day when two of National Grid’s power stations had a blip in the power supply, putting an unstable frequency into the overhead. In itself, it wasn’t a big issue. We did have some power outages in our signalling systems, but they were back up and running within two minutes. 

The overhead traction power supply didn’t go down at all, but, as an industry, we went into an absolute meltdown. Over 60 trains experienced the frequency changes in the overhead power and self-protected, shutting themselves down. That’s quite normal in modern systems, they have to protect themselves from damage. Once the frequency settled down, they should have rebooted themselves.

But what we didn’t know was that there were other algorithms hidden away in the train management systems that made it necessary for more than half of those trains to have technicians dispatched to restart them. So, passengers were stranded, and everyone on those trains took to social media, and we had a very bad press.

In both instances, we were confident about the resilience of our assets. But then crippling failures came out of the blue because we didn’t know enough to see the issues arising. 

To quote Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face.” So, we need robust resilience to be able to bounce back off the ropes when the network gets punched like it did on that day. 

Nobody’s talking

I’ve now been in this role for seven months and I’ve learnt something in that time – as an organisation, we don’t talk about resilience. Or, at least not in the way that I think we could – and probably should.

We talk about security, we talk a lot about incident management, but we don’t often talk about resilience, and particularly about the resilience of our assets. 

Both of these incidents have shown we have a lot to learn about improving resilience on the railway. Performance and resilience are inextricably linked. And if we want to add a third element to form a trinity – it would be performance, resilience and innovation. We need to innovate to improve resilience and to improve performance. 

Everyone remembers the old adage – proper planning and preparation prevents poor performance. This is particularly true of resilience.

One comment following the heatwave and power outage was that Network Rail is good at dealing with pre-planned disruption such as major engineering works, but is less good with unplanned disruption. 

So, what lessons can we learn? How can we work at recognising potential disruptive events earlier so we can start planning for them or escalate the response quicker?

Improving performance through innovation

Defining innovation is tricky, because it often defies simple definition. It is a word that gets thrown around a bit too easily sometimes and becomes attached to all sorts of things. 

Which is probably why the Ministry of Defence put a great deal of effort into writing a 60-page White Paper just trying to get to the bottom of what exactly it is. For them, successful innovation is the introduction of novelty that results in change that delivers value (where value is a measure of usefulness and cost-effectiveness). 

Then they distilled it even further ending up with the articulate and concise: “Innovation is gaining value from the exploitation of novelty.”

Just as it is tricky to define, innovation is even more challenging in action. This is why we need to differentiate between ideas that sustain and ideas that disrupt. 

Tree on the line a Four Ashes, West Midlands.

Sustaining ideas incrementally improve what has gone on before and make things better. Disruptive ideas can sometimes deliver worse performance, albeit in the short-term, but they offer a different value proposition and have greater potential for the long term. 

Both approaches are valid, but it is often easier to implement a sustaining idea over a disruptive one because sustainment follows the path of least resistance!

So, maybe it’s time to challenge that and not necessarily follow the path of least resistance, but instead, as an organisation, become systemically innovative. That’s a real challenge, but a worthwhile one that will deliver value – to us, to our passengers and to our freight customers. Another way to put them first. 

Innovation isn’t also just about the big, headline-grabbing developments. There are many small ways in which we can apply new technologies and processes, or apply existing solutions in a new way, that will help build a more resilient railway, both in terms of asset sustainability and operational performance. 

Some of what we need to do isn’t new. It’s things we used to do, but have forgotten how to. For example, we don’t need anyone to tell us how to run a railway. Thousands of people, working in the industry, know how to run a railway. However, we have lost the art of collaborating and pulling together to do so. 

In putting the passenger and freight user first, Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines is setting about creating a virtual vertically integrated railway, so we all work together to achieve our goal – better performance for the customer.

21st Century Ops

Network Services is busy in other areas as well. Our 21st Century Ops Programme aims to bring focus back to operations and put it at the heart of the rail industry. 

Operations exists to deliver a safe and reliable railway and is at the core of Network Rail’s purpose. By improving our operations capability and performance, 21st Century Ops will enable us to make sure that we are putting passengers first.

There has been a huge amount of progress in this. Highlights to date include:

Identifying “quick wins” to support operations managers, aligned to local requirements, such as having more people to support investigations and administrative tasks; 

Input from industry stakeholders to inform the Network Operating Strategy, so that it clearly defines how the network operates now, how the rail network will operate in the future, and the outputs and outcomes required by routes to improve train service delivery;

Developing the guiding principles for organisation design, specifically those focussed on operations, which have been agreed with heads of operations and distributed to route directors; 

Identifying ‘3 Squared’ as the preferred supplier for a new competency management system, with a pilot on the North West & Central, North route, to ensure it meets the needs of the user requirements, during the first three months of 2020 and, hopefully, a national rollout from April to December 2020;

Improving operational capability by defining career pathways and defining the training development needed in key roles across the operations community;

Working with the Institution of Railway Operators (IRO) to optimise the use of IRO learning resources and provide professional recognition for operators;

Reviewing, amending and introducing new tools and processes to support operations managers in the competence assurance and development of their teams; 

Aligning major stations with the 21st Century Ops portfolio to initiate five key work packages which will help stations to be viewed as a critical element to operations and to the improved passenger journey.

Flooding at Draycott, near Derby.


Another important workstream at Network Operations is developing a long-term deployment plan (LTDP) for ETCS (European train control system) digital signalling.

Since the publication of the plan in June last year, Network Rail has been working alongside the Department for Transport (DfT) to identify the strongest candidate areas for digital deployment and to establish where to start the rolling stock fitment. An assessment involving the DfT, operators and Network Rail regions has highlighted the opportunity to replace life-expired signalling assets with digital signalling in three key areas: 

West Coast North: commencing in the Warrington and Wigan area along the West Coast main line, with plans to continue deploying digital signalling further north to Preston and Carlisle and up to Scotland in the following control periods;

Midland main line: the Bedford area on the Midlands main line is a good location to commence digital transformation, due both to the large amount of rolling stock already fitted and to the digital capabilities of Thameslink, which runs along the same route to St Pancras;

Anglia: Ely to Peterborough and Kings Lynn digital deployment in the Anglia route will stem from the East Coast Digital Programme, which will deploy digital signalling in the Southern part of the East Coast main line from Kings Cross to north of Peterborough.

The routes have agreed to fund development and feasibility studies for each one of these areas. These studies will establish if these proposals are viable for ETCS renewals, after which the government can consider funding rolling stock fitment in CP6 to be ready for ETCS renewals in CP7. 

A memorandum of understanding between the regions and the DfT has been proposed that would enable both parties to plan their respective investments effectively, while the longer-term aim is for the LTDP to be fully embedded into any future strategic business plans for the regions.

Back to resilience

So, there is a lot going on in Network Operations. However, as I said earlier, one of our main challenges is that, as an industry, we have lost the art of being operators and of understanding what it takes to operate a railway. 

For example, on 25 October, there was a bridge strike in Lancaster – a lorry knocked part of a bridge onto the track (see below). Locally, this resulted in 25 service cancellations and 39 part-cancellations as the railway recovered itself, which doesn’t sound too bad. 

However, by the end of the day, a total of 622 trains were late as a consequence of that one event in Lancaster. It was West Midlands Trains’ largest delay event of the day, and they don’t even run services to Lancaster! 

In fact, the only part of the UK on that day that didn’t have late trains was Penzance. Everywhere else had trains delayed as a consequence of that one event in Lancaster. 

What this shows is that we’ve forgotten how all of the different parts of an integrated railway come together – it’s like dropping a pebble into a pond, the effects just spread.

So, one of the principal goals of CP6 is to restore that understanding, and work together to minimise disruption by improving resilience. 

Nick King is director of Network Services at Network Rail. He spoke on Innovating for Resilience to the annual conference of the Signalling Innovation Group, held at Bristol Temple Meads station on 11 February 2020.

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