Full steam ahead

It is hard to imagine a people development strategy of greater scope and scale than the one Network Rail has set for its 32,000-strong workforce. Network Rail – a private company run along commercial lines but, critically, without shareholders – was established three years ago to operate, maintain and renew the rail network’s infrastructure. It took over from Railtrack, the much-maligned listed company that failed and went into administration.

New start

The workforce Network Rail assumed from Railtrack comprised some 16,000 signallers, engineers and other operational staff. Railtrack also had responsibility for maintaining and renewing the rail infrastructure, but, ever conscious of shareholder expectations, it opted to contract out that side of its business to outside suppliers, such as Jarvis. This decision to outsource maintenance resulted in intense criticism from the media and the public, especially following high-profile rail crashes such as those at Paddington and Hatfield.

Not surprisingly perhaps, one of the first decisions made by the Network Rail board was to bring maintenance of the railway back in-house – a move that would see its workforce double to 32,000, and massively impact learning and development.

“We came to the conclusion this was a flawed concept,” says David Carrier, Network Rail’s head of competence and training management, describing maintenance of the 21,000 miles of track as a ‘key enabler’ of effective running of the railway, in much the same way as clean hospitals are critical to the NHS. To outsource such an enabler to a “third party who doesn’t share your core business proposition” just didn’t make sense.

Network Rail is now ploughing millions of pounds into a multi-pronged learning and development strategy in all areas of the business – for those that had not been outsourced, such as signalling, as much as for maintenance. Reflecting Network Rail’s insourcing approach, the heart of that strategy is the principle that training will be done in house, with Network Rail training its own people.

“Many skills in the railway [industry] are not used in any other industry,” says Carrier, citing signalling, track engineering, and electrification engineering as examples. “If we don’t develop people with these skills, no-one else will. Therefore we have to be very interventionist to ensure the training capability exists. We have to be prescriptive about what we need.”

Insourcing the training has a number of benefits for Network Rail, explains Carrier. “The scale we’re doing it on means we can do it more cheaply. It’s also a big enabler in setting the right culture and behaviours we need.”

Green light for signalling

Signalling is one of the areas to receive a massive boost. Railtrack, as British Rail before it, had always done its own signalling training, but Network Rail inherited the need to raise competence levels even in those areas that were not outsourced.

“Railtrack was very prescriptive on safety training [for signallers], far less on the technical training,” says Carrier.

To modernise the training it provides for some 500 new signallers a year, Network Rail recently opened two new £1m state-of-the-art centres in Watford and Leeds, and spent a further £11m on simulators and computer-based learning systems for both. Signalling simulators have also been installed ‘in the routes’ to allow practice in the real setting, where training for ‘degraded’ emergency situations will have greater impact.

To further embed learning and assure competence, Network Rail is putting a big focus on the role of line managers, who are getting qualifications in assessment so they can monitor signallers’ competence on the job.

“My role is to get signallers up to competence,” says Carrier. “It is line managers’ job to make sure that standard is sustained. That’s one of the reasons why these simulators are out on the routes. They can reinforce what people learned back in the centres. It’s about ‘over-training’ in a way, ingraining it in people’s minds.

“Signalling errors cost us millions of pounds a year,” he adds. “If we can reduce that, it’s money well spent.”

On the routes

Raising the competence level of the workforce and improving productivity and performance through training is now a priority – not least for maintenance operatives. Here again, Network Rail has inherited historic training gaps along with the new workforce – a reflection in part of forecasts made around the time of privatisation, and subsequently, that the rail industry was flattening out. And with maintenance outsourced to a range of suppliers in the post-privatisation era, competence frameworks for staff could end up neglected. With some dating back to the days of British Rail, Carrier and his team are now re-doing them all.

“We’re moving to specific competence requirements for specific job roles, in a singular way instead of eight different ways,” he says.
With the transfer of maintenance operatives into Network Rail, the company inherited eight small, poorly equipped training centres around the country, where all training was classroom based.

Reflecting the investment made in signalling training, the new approach under Network Rail couldn’t be more different. The existing centres are being re-vamped, and two new ones are being built. All 10 will be based near the ‘delivery units’ the staff work from – depots, in old parlance – with a 1,000-square-foot area of track, overhead lines and other equipment needed for practical skills training. Knowledge-based skills will be learnt in classrooms at the centres, with trainers travelling to the delivery units to run courses.

“We had eight contractors looking after their own patch,” says Carrier. “This is enabling us to rationalise.”

As with signalling training, Network Rail is paying increased attention to the role of line managers to embed their staff’s learning – in this case, the team leaders out on the routes who manage teams of workers.

“It’s a practical vocation,” explains Carrier. “Our view is you need to mix off-the-job training with reinforcement in the workplace.”
The company is also investing in apprenticeships to enhance the team leader role (see box, left).


Carrier and his team are also leading on development of the professional cadre of people that  Network Rail needs to carry the business forward, particularly engineers for the railway – a specialist need in an area of well-documented and longstanding skill shortages.

After Carrier joined Railtrack in June 2001, coming under Network Rail  the following year, one of his first projects was to put an engineering conversion programme in place to attract experienced engineers into the industry. It has been a success, attracting engineers with a track record and even management skills, and the average age of those coming in via this route is well over 30.

“We’ve not had a problem getting people to come,” says Carrier. “We’ve trained about 120 people in the past three years. A lot of people are up for the challenge of the railway.”

Because not all of its engineers need to be chartered, Network Rail has set up a foundation degree in railway engineering with Sheffield Hallam University. The new programme was created in collaboration with other rail employers such as London Underground and suppliers that Network Rail still subcontracts in to complete discrete renewal projects. Unlike the complex task of ongoing maintenance, explains Carrier, renewal projects have “a distinct beginning and end”, making outsourcing for this kind of work a practical option.

In fact, in an ironic reversal of roles, Network Rail has been contracted to provide renewal training for welders employed by Balfour Beatty – one of the suppliers that used to provide railway maintenance. But Carrier believes it is not necessarily the start of a trend. “Where it made strategic sense for us to do it, we would train our suppliers,” he says.

Making a difference

Having started his career as a civil engineer, Carrier moved into general management, marketing and technology before coming in to the world of learning and development, attracted to Network Rail not least because he “wanted to do something different and something that mattered”.

Overseeing a team of 350 people and reporting to HR director Peter Bennett, Carrier says he adds the “strategic and management view” to the expertise of his team. He exudes a genuine sense of enthusiasm when laying out the vision for improving productivity and performance in the organisation, and he has a strategic understanding of the role that learning has to play.

This new focus on learning is reaching every aspect of the business. Running parallel to the activities that fall under Carrier’s remit, the company is also investing heavily in a management development programme, and a leadership academy is also in the works.

Given the atmosphere of public scrutiny and expectations surrounding rail today, it is hard to believe that only a few years ago, it was forecast to be an industry in decline. The result was that learning and development hardly registered on the radar of rail chief executives, if at all. But that is no longer the case, says Carrier. Learning and development is now on page 1 of the chief executive’s agenda.

“The railway is important for this country, and we have turned a corner after a lot of bad things,” he says of Network Rail’s part in righting the well-publicised wrongs of the post-privatisation structure of the railway industry.

“Because of the gap that has occurred in the past, training these 32,000 people can make a real impact. I feel that’s exciting and really worth doing, as does the Network Rail board.

“There is less press scrutiny now,” Carrier adds. “There’s more public scrutiny, and that’s a good thing.”

Indeed, as a rail commuter into London himself, Carrier faces that on a daily basis. And not a day goes by when he doesn’t overhear at least one conversation between disgruntled commuters. But it doesn’t get him down.

“I know that things are getting better,” Carrier says.

The apprentice’s path to leadership

Network Rail is investing money in apprenticeships as part of its long-term talent management strategy.

When the company was set up three years ago, it inherited 420 apprentices from maintenance contractors. Not surprisingly, there hadn’t been any consistency in the training.

Network Rail is now planning to establish a single apprenticeship programme for maintenance operatives to be up and running from September 2005 to recruit 175 apprentices for a three-year programme. The intention is to develop 75 per cent of these apprentices to progress to the role of team leader – a unique, but equally critical role of managing mobile maintenance teams working in the open on the routes.

“It’s a tough environment, but the levels of accuracy required are very high,” says Carrier. “There’s a lot more [to it] than just developing their technical skills. It’s management and leadership, too. These are our sergeants. Sergeants make the army work, team leaders make the railway work.”


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