Sam Sherwood-Hale spoke to Elaine Clark, CEO of Rail Forum Midlands (RFM), about The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail and what it could mean for the private sector companies that support the running of the railway

Elaine Clark is CEO of Rail Forum Midlands (RFM). A Chartered Engineer, Elaine spent a number of years in the chemical industry before joining the power sector immediately post privatisation. As a senior member of the Ratcliffe on Soar management team Elaine was involved in major change programmes followed by heading up Powergen’s commercial training business. She then spent 20 years in training and skills including as Managing Director of a leading SME training provider growing the business from £1m to over £7m turnover. Elaine leads the RFM team and is responsible for our strategy, delivery of the rail sector deal initiatives and ensuring we are supporting our members across our range of activities. RFM is a national industry body with strong regional connections including supporting the nationally and internationally important rail supply chain cluster across the Midlands; RFM has over 270 members providing products and services across all aspects of the industry. RFM actively supports the national rail agenda and strategy, encouraging collaboration, promoting members’ capabilities, leading a number of regional skills initiatives and supporting innovation and export priorities. RFM is owned and governed by its members with a Board drawn from member companies.


What was your response when you first read the ‘Plan for Rail’?

20th May saw the publication of the long awaited Williams Review; with a revised title of The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail. And so ended the waiting….or did it? The Plan included the creation of the ‘industry guiding mind’ that everyone was expecting but it was light on detail and I wonder, having read it, how many people were left thinking ‘be careful what you wish for’?

I don’t want to go through the ten key outcomes or the six key problems identified by Keith Williams. Nor am I going to focus on customers; which are quite rightly front and centre in the document. Instead let’s consider how the Plan might affect the many hundreds of private sector companies that support the running of the railway.

It’s worth remembering that the supply chain was never a major feature for the Review. Driven by the May 2018 timetable issues and franchising failures the focus was always going to be on passengers and freight customers and hence how the railway could be run better for those end users. But clearly the Plan, and how it’s brought to life, will have a major impact on the supply chain so let’s explore some of the key opportunities and risks.

When established, Great British Railways (GBR) will be a very large and powerful entity with much of the authority and decision-making at regional level. The immediate assumption, and the way that most people will envisage GBR, will be to think of a bigger version of Network Rail that incorporates large numbers of people from the Department for Transport. It will also absorb numerous existing Train Operating Company activities. The leadership and culture of this new organisation will be critical for the success of the Plan and for the supply chain.


The Plan hints at a step change in performance, how do you think we will achieve that?

We need a GBR that embraces new contracting strategies, including a greater focus on output and performance-based specifications. Put simply GBR needs to trust the supply chain to do the job they are being asked to do and let them get on with it. This approach would lead to a stronger and healthier supplier base; but it will require a significant investment in the skills development of the teams responsible for procurement together with those in contract and project management in the new GBR.

The Plan commits to producing a 30-year strategy that will set longer- term priorities. Whilst work on this is already underway it’s not due to be completed until 2022 and the implementation won’t really start until, say, 2024 with the commencement of CP7 and following the formal creation of GBR. This intervening time period is incredibly important to suppliers. We shouldn’t allow planned projects to be delayed whilst we wait for the strategy to be finalised. Suppliers, both infrastructure and rolling stock, need a reasonably steady stream of work. This helps drive productivity and quality improvements, investment in innovation, new technology and skills and ultimately means companies survive and thrive.


What do you expect to happen during the intervening period?

The two-year National Rail Contracts may provide some stability for the rolling stock/passenger operations market but again it will be important to ensure that planned projects aren’t shelved in the short term. With evidence building that the rolling stock supply chain is under some stress as work starts to dry up; time is of the essence.

If the wait for the 30-year strategy is allowed to become an excuse for delaying investment this will have a hugely detrimental impact on the industry’s ability to deliver what the Plan is striving to achieve. On the flipside a long-term strategy (with shorter-term certainty on investment) would be welcome news to suppliers who yearn that clarity when it comes to visibility of the pipeline of upcoming and future work.

The ‘route to market’ for suppliers will be a key issue when GBR is created. With so much devolved to regional level suppliers will have to adapt to dealing with multiple contacts across these regions. This is already underway on the infrastructure side of the railway following the introduction of Network Rail’s devolved structure but who will be responsible for passenger fleet specification, maintenance and refurbishment? Who will manage depots? Whilst the Plan is silent on much of this the clear inference is that GBR will be in the driving seat and this will be a significant change for suppliers. Not least because GBR procurement will fall firmly into the arena of public sector procurement rules. This provides a real opportunity for the UK supply chain who are well placed to respond to increasing emphasis on issues such as social value and localisation in tender bids.

And what about responding to the customer? Will we ever see the return of Monday to Friday peak commuter volumes? Will freight be prioritised over passenger services in some circumstances? Significant activity on the railway is predicated on carrying out engineering work at weekends and bank holidays. What if those times are the new peak times for passengers? The opportunity to rethink how we do things is enormous; from access arrangements and how we employ and deploy people to the use of new technologies to drive a step change in productivity. The supply chain can make a great contribution to these discussions.


What role does this leave for SMEs?

The Plan talks about improved engagement and more opportunities for local suppliers including SMEs. SMEs are still all too often overlooked; yet they can bring enormous value especially when it comes to agility and really striving for that excellent customer service that the Plan is so focussed on. GBR can benefit by finding more opportunities for SMEs to contract directly with them across all aspects of the railway. The new GBR, and indeed any interim shadow organisation, should take the opportunity to drive better and more meaningful engagement with all suppliers creating a new culture of collaboration. Whilst Network Rail has started on this journey we can and need to do much more if we are to truly deliver a GBR that we can all be proud of.


What will be necessary to ensure Great British Railways is a success?

It is a massive challenge, and a fantastic opportunity, for the industry to make things better for our customers, our teams and our businesses. So, what’s the single most crucial factor in ensuring that Great British Railways becomes the next great success story? Just two words… enlightened leadership. That journey starts now during this interim planning and preparatory phase and everyone needs to play a part from Network Rail and Government to current operators and freight companies, oh and yes, suppliers too!