Network Rail guilty of ‘restrictive and inflexible’ working practices, says new report


Network Rail has fallen behind other industries such as water, aviation, energy and roads in the way it uses people, a new study has found.

The study which was published on July 13 was carried out by specialist infrastructure consultancy, Nichols, with a focus on how the maintenance of infrastructure and key assets is undertaken and how this compares to d other industries in the UK and across Europe.

Sectors such as water, aviation, energy and roads are ahead of Network Rail in the way they use team members with the report highlighting improvements Network Rail could make to free up the efficiency such as:

  • Introduce individual rosters to use staff more efficiently
  • Upgrading specialists and cross-functional teams with broader knowledge to enable first responders to fix most breakdowns and get trains moving faster
  • Increase and accelerate the use of technology to keep employees safe
Rail vs comparative sectors // Credit: Network Rail

Andrew Haines, Chief Executive of Network Rail, said: “Britain deserves a modern, 21st century rail maintenance regime. It is in no one’s interest to impede vital changes that make the railroad and its workers safer and improve the reliability of the services we provide. With common sense and compromise, our proposals can generate millions of pounds in savings which we can then translate into a better pay offer for all of our employees. It’s a win-win. »

The study also suggested that increased productivity and efficiency could be found by ensuring that maintenance is carried out when needed, by the correct number of employees who have the right skills and that would mean an individual roster.

Nichols’ study suggests that productivity and efficiency gains can be achieved by ensuring that maintenance is performed at the right time, by the right number of employees with the right skills.

Individual classification:

Current contract terms mean team leaders must agree rosters up to 52 weeks in advance and form teams together. As the workload is variable and unpredictable in the railway environment, it can be difficult to adapt the lists, especially if more than one crew is required for the job.

Network Rail’s current registration practice has proven to be less flexible and more restrictive than other comparable organizations which generally list staff on an individual basis with shorter registration cycles which are centrally managed and have no problem deploying staff as needed.

Network Rail wants to create more flexibility to independently assign individual staff with a focus on the size, nature, location and timing of work. These changes could be accelerated by a centralized resourcing function responsible for overseeing overall business needs.

Network Rail is confident that the necessary changes can be implemented without compulsory redundancies. Around 1,800 jobs will have to be cut, but the voluntary departure desired by hundreds of employees alongside natural waste, redeployment and retraining, Network Rail believes there will be a job for all who want it.

Presentation of versatile and multifunctional teams:

The current responsibility for Network Rail’s maintenance is split between Network Rail’s 14 routes and again into maintenance delivery units. The units are organized into three distinct disciplinary teams which are Track, Signaling and Telecommunications, and Electrification and Plant (E&P). A standard team consists of up to three to four people, including a team leader, technician(s) and operator(s), who are trained in skills that are only needed in that specific discipline . When the teams receive a job, the whole team will go to the site despite the size of the task. When a job requires more than one discipline like signaling and lane, more than one crew will be present but will generally work sequentially. These practices result in a great waste of time, with team members waiting for work to be completed by other disciplines before they can begin their own work.

A more efficient and productive way of working would be to create joint multidisciplinary teams instead of individual disciplines, which would lead to a reduction in the number of employees needed to maintain the network and the associated costs. The introduction of such teams would ensure that work could be carried out across geographical boundaries. Current working practices within the rail industry mean that crews on one route will not assist another in a neighboring area, even if they have the capacity to do so.

Increase in technology adoption:

The railway in Britain is the safest major railway in Europe and huge efforts have been made to improve safety over the past 20 years. The safety measures implemented have often come up against the initial reluctance of the trade unions which, even today, tend to thwart efforts to appropriate technology on the railways.

The study acknowledges that although Network Rail has made substantial progress in the use of the technology, further improvements could be made as the roll-out of this technology has been slow. The information in the table below reveals how a dozen key technological improvements have been blocked by the RMT for over two years.

Technological introductions blocked
Technological introductions blocked // Credit: Network Rail

Analysis carried out by Network Rail reveals that current scheduled maintenance tasks could be reduced by around 50% by using technology and data, reducing the number of manual inspections carried out by maintenance teams and improving safety . A recent McKinsey report focused on rolling stock maintenance and suggested that remote condition monitoring could reduce manual inspections by at least 60%, reducing costs by more than 10%. The changes could be compared to replacing a quarterly manual meter reading with a smart meter.

In order to get the most out of the deployment of technology, Network Rail needs to have flexible and responsive working practices like other sectors do.

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