Rail Professional interview: Patrick Hallgate
At 38, Patrick Hallgate is the youngest of Network Rail’s new devolved managing directors with one of the biggest, and most disruptive, investment plans to oversee on the Great Western. Katie Silvester meets him
Despite his youthful appearance, Patrick Hallgate has already racked up 13 years of experience at Network Rail and its predecessor Railtrack. A combination of managing major projects and running the Sussex and Anglia routes had given him a good background to take on the devolved Western area, with its looming plan for electrification and a resignalling programme already underway.
‘The spend is equivalent to about three times per mile what was spent for West Coast, but a lot of that is Crossrail,’ he says.
‘We’ve had an efficiency drive since the West Coast, so the pounds in the ground are working a lot harder. There are 13 major projects taking place on the route.’
A psychologist by training, Hallgate stumbled into a career on the railways almost by accident. As part of a project to improve recruitment for the police, when he was working at the Home Office, he had to look at graduate training schemes used by other professions. He came across the Railtrack scheme, liked the look of it and a friend who worked in HR at Railtrack persuaded him to apply.
‘I think if someone had said I’d be in the rail industry 12 years later, I’d have probably shot them! If someone told me now I’d still be here in 11, 12 years time I wouldn’t mind. It stays fresh – every day’s a fresh challenge, it’s like a new job. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else at the moment.’
The reason for Network Rail’s devolution of its routes into separate units with managing directors at their helm, as opposed to the old route directors, was so that the routes would be more closely aligned to the corresponding Tocs. Costs for the devolved companies should, in theory, be more transparent, instead of being part of larger Network Rail programmes whose costs were not easily itemised.
So how is it working out on the ground?
‘Principally, for us, it’s meant bringing together 11 different disparate teams, all of whom were located in the region, but many of whom didn’t come together until they reported to a board member at King’s Place [Network Rail’s London headquarters]. In a way I can understand the frustrations of our stakeholders that led up to devolution. When you look at renewals plans, for example, if you’ve got six different assets, there would be six different plans, six different spreadsheets, different reporting systems. Now we’re trying to say, if there’s one Western, let’s look at what all the costs are and try to get one plan that gives best value for money.’
The aim to increase transparency is a work in progress, he admits, but it is improving.
‘I’m not going to say that it’s there yet, but we’re in a much better position than we were before. From an internal position, we’re starting to get a much better idea of what each area’s contribution is to the central overheads. We get an income from the station, obviously, and an income from running the trains, but what does it cost to run the business?’
The Western region runs from Paddington station down to Penzance and Newbury, bordered by Worcester and Oxford to the north and Wales to the west. Tocs that run through the region are First Great Western, Heathrow Express and CrossCountry, as well as several freight operators.
How does Network Rail’s relationship with these Tocs work now? ‘The requirements of the Tocs, at the moment, are quite different. CrossCounty crosses every route, bar Kent, I think. So they we feed into another Network Rail team, as they want a central body and not day-today contact with us. First Great Western is obviously where most of the relationship is, but the franchise renegotiations have started, so we’re talking with the four shortlisted bidders. That has changed the dynamic on that route. So we don’t all meet altogether, unless it’s something topical.
‘We have a Level 1 meeting with FGW monthly about safety and performance and I speak to Mark Hopwood [FGW’s MD] at least twice a week.’
The current Great Western franchise ends in April 2013, with electrification beginning in 2014. So the four shortlisted bidders for the new franchise – FirstGroup, Arriva, National Express and Stagecoach – are all trying to get a realistic idea of how much disruption the electrification programme will cause, so that they can build it into their bid.
‘We’ve gone more than a generation now without a wholesale electrification programme. So the first thing we’ve done is go out and find those that did the East Coast and understand a little bit from them about how it was done to make sure we’re not missing a trick,’ says Hallgate. ‘Some of the processes they employed, such as standing on trains without safety harnesses, I think we’ve moved beyond! We’re currently looking at specs for the electrification train and making representations to the bidders about the amount of disruption there will be so they can bid about that. And we’re looking at the closures we’ll need.
‘There’s a couple of tunnels on the western end of the patch that look like they’ll need up to six week closure, but there are fairly minor diversions. We are talking to the bidders at the moment as to whether it’s better to close in and get it done in one go or to have lots of little closures. I was on Anglia when we closed Anglia tunnel for six weeks. Once you’ve worked out that there is no other way, then it’s the quality of the contingency and the diversions you put in place. We replaced a section of the track because it was closed for six weeks, so we were able to communicate to people that we’d maximised the work while the line was closed and that that can be better than worrying about an overrun every Monday morning for two years. Much of it is around the quality of the communication.
‘With West Coast, the trains were already there, but the journey times improved. This will be a new offering that people haven’t seen before on the Western, so hopefully people will think that the wait has been worth it.’
The need to have plans in place to speak to bidders about has made Network Rail have to plan further ahead than it otherwise would have, admits Hallgate, which he says will be helpful in the long run. He and his colleagues are already starting to look at diversionary routes that will be used during the work to see which parts may need upgrading to deal with the volume of traffic expected.
A major resignalling programme is also taking place, primarily to get the route ready for electrification, with some elements also needed for Crossrail. The work at Reading and Paddington has already been completed, with Bristol due to be upgraded in Christmas 2015 and Oxford in 2016. In his previous role as programme director, Hallgate was in charge of both signalling and electrification work, so he understands the issues from every angle.
‘It’s bread and butter stuff, with the aim being to have everything in place to be able to switch between computer systems in a weekend. The worst of disruption is already over. We’re trying to refine our working practices so it becomes like shelling peas. So if we’ve got 50 bridges to do, we learn all the lessons on the first and second rather than thinking on 49th and 50th “we’re getting really good at this now!”’
One of the main problems that the Great Western franchise currently has is overcrowding. Commuters complain of being crammed into carriages during the peak, with weekend services also very full on some routes. This will be eased after the electrification programme when capacity is increased and new Intercity Express trains are rolled out in 2016/17.
Will there be much increase in capacity before the electrification is complete?
‘The Swindon – Kemble track will be doubled this year, the signalling goes in next. Reading – Didcot is where the capacity constraint is and the reality of that is that it doesn’t really get alleviated much until 2015, then there’s an explosion in capacity in 2015, 16, 17. It significantly increases the intercity movements into Paddington. What we’re doing at the moment is looking at the remodelling work around Paddington to maximise the number of mainline platforms we can get. It’s all aligned to 2017 and making the best use of the new trains that are coming.
‘We’re talking to the DfT about how to maximise that capacity because we need to share it around between the new Great Western franchisee, Heathrow Express and Crossrail.’
Network Rail is under pressure from the Office of Rail Regulation to reduce its costs, with annual efficiency targets to meet. The McNulty value-for-money report argued that the rail industry had to work together to reduce costs across the board. Part of the rational for the devolution was so that Network Rail’s new self-contained regions could work more closely with the Tocs on their patch to look for joint efficiencies. However, the first region to devolve – Wessex – had to double its staff from 1,500 to 3,000 to take on work that used to be done centrally. It’s hard to see how this could lower costs. Has Hallgate seen some costs rise?
‘There’s an element of it,’ he admits. ‘But there may be situations where additional staff are needed in the short term, but can be rationalised further down the line.’
There are areas where he believes there will be overall cost savings in the future, though.
‘We’ve already seen areas where we’re aligning planning into CP5. So if you’re replacing a bridge, you could replace the track as well. We’re having much more long-term conversations about things like that. We’re looking, too, at getting best value from an industry perspective. So, if the revenue from running trains more than outweighs the cost of the cancellation for engineering works, can you put the revenue of the train towards the cost of a more inefficient way of doing the project and say it’s worth running the trains? At the moment everything’s geared to lower project costs, even if that means putting people on buses.’
He is already talking to the shortlisted bidders for Great Western about savings that could be made by working more closely together. These negotiations are all confidential, Hallgate stresses, but he gives a generic example of the way stations will be tackled in future.
‘We are looking at stations – how we can take out the cost duplication of stations. I don’t have an ideal way of doing it, but, at the moment, we go through repainting a station every few years in different colours for the shorter franchises. Everyone is agreed that it’s not the right thing to do and we could take costs straight out of the industry. If you can align objectives through the franchise model, you can align objectives on a day-to-day basis.’
Hallgate seems to be enjoying his new job, though he’s only properly been in post since the end of last year.
‘If I was to write a perfect job spec for a job I knew I would love, this would be it! You’ve got the elements of control you require, we’ve also got a very supportive board saying if you do want to do more or you want to challenge us more, please do let us know what you need.’