Sam Sherwood-Hale spoke to Peter Lindley about his signalling career, how SigTech came to be and what the company’s journey has been like so far
You have been with SigTech Rail since its founding in 2016, what has the journey been like so far?
Tough, big learning curve and lots of juggling! It’s been challenging, seeing a world I know so well from a different perspective (as a director) was a bit daunting, it has also been very exhilarating. It has been rewarding, especially when you go on sites and see other people wearing PPE with your company name on their backs doing the job right and professionally. I’ve put in my reputation (good and bad I suppose), nearly 30 years of railway signalling experience, personal finances and many, many hours in the office all into getting SigTech to where it is today.
What was the inspiration for starting the company?
My passion for railway signalling and knowing I could do things better and more efficiently. I believe there’s room for improvement in the industry, and SigTech has an important role to play.
You became Managing Director in January 2019, how did your role and day-to-day work change?
It just got more intense, there’s a lot more to do now and I am having to focus more on the management side of things. This is great because we are busy, but bad because we’re not quite at the level where I can go out on track to see the workforce in action.
You have extensive experience in trackside signalling work, when did you make the leap to a management role and what was that transition like?
The first two years were all about learning the office side of things, but I had to keep one foot on track and the other in the office. That’s because I know I have to be able to see things from both perspectives to be effective in my management role. This third year has proved that thought process/decision to be a good one. It hasn’t been easy I must say, very challenging and also enjoyable?
Your signalling career goes back nearly 30 years – how has the technology changed in that time?
Computers, Internet, remote monitoring of signalling, high speed data transfer and fibre optic communications. There weren’t mobile phones back when I started on the railway as a trainee technician with British Rail. No online repository of readily accessible information like standards and handbooks etc. Don’t get me wrong you had handbooks back then, but they were at the depot not in your pocket or on a mobile device. Technology has done amazing things for signalling and telecoms and I strongly believe it could do more. Taking on new ideas and implementing new ways of doing things should be encouraged.
There is still old technology about like the old school semaphore signalling throughout the rail network. These are still going well, and we’ve had involvement with several projects relating to this aged technology. Although the signal structures themselves are nearing their expiration date, they are still being renewed like for like.
What other significant changes have you seen. Have any of these informed decisions you’ve made at SigTech?
The bigger the company the slower they can be to adapt to new ways and methods of working. The smaller companies have the added advantage of quick adaptation of new processes, systems and technology, whilst at the same time complying with the standards and specifications defined by Network Rail, manufacturers and other relevant organisations. I’ve always wanted to adapt and do what I wanted to do, and to some degree, SigTech has enabled this to happen.
Over my time and especially in the contracting world, mentorship and helping others grow in the signalling industry has diminished to now be non-existent. Education and proper hands-on mentorship is what SigTech is all about. Most people these days either don’t have the correct knowledge to pass on, or simply don’t see a reason to, why? I’m still trying to figure that out.
SigTech applied to the RISQS scheme in October 2018, passing the audit in January 2019. Talk us through the process, what sort of criteria did you have to satisfy and how did you go about it?
I had no idea what to do at all at first but I knew it involved a lot and that we needed professionals to see us through, so I contacted PRB Consulting who provided great advice and guidance. They helped set us up and were on hand to lead us through the first year or so. We have made sure that we meet and surpass the criteria year in year out.
What was the catalyst for SigTech’s journey into providing railway signalling support?
When I left full time employment in October 2016 to go contracting, it was a scary moment not knowing if I was going to get any work, but after a bit of advertising myself with all the agencies, I found it was the opposite and I was struggling to get days off! Having the attitude of being self sufficient with all my own tools and test gear really helped me. Along with that, I found my passion for signalling really came out and I enjoyed going around from site to site, seeing different people and just getting the job done.
But what did jump out at me was when I could see it was only a select few contractors who had all the tools for their skillset. In addition, a lot of the individuals turning up on sites didn’t have a clue what they were on site for, they hadn’t been briefed by the agency as they themselves only passed on the information provided by the client. The contractors didn’t know what they were walking into job wise. Many times, the individuals were not even trained on the equipment, people were being churned out onto site to fill roles or do jobs they weren’t really qualified to do. That was frustrating and scary, and I saw that the clients were basically not getting what they wanted and were paying for i.e. skilled, trained, tooled up individuals to complete the works.
In all this I saw the need for a signalling company run by signalling personnel. We understand what is required with regards signalling. SigTech is not a contingent labour company and it has never been my intention to be as such. The client is undertaking a project and knows signalling is involved but doesn’t know to what extent. They give us a call and we extract the relevant information relating to the project from the client, scope the signalling aspect of the job, plan it alongside the main project, order the relevant tools and materials, then resource it with the correct level of workforce, both in quantity and skillsets. I had already set SigTech up with a vision of upscaling to a proper RISQS company, even had the logo, branded clothing etc., even though I was a one-man band. So, after two years of contracting, I decided to upscale and aim to do a better job.
SigTech’s work can be summed up as ‘building railways’ but how does that break down, what types of services do you provide?
It isn’t one person, company or division on the railway that builds railways. Each project has a combination of various parties to achieve the end result. We are one of those companies that contributes their set of skills to building railways. Building railways is a team effort. Our involvement entails us managing and undertaking the signalling aspect of the project.
- Plain Line Renewals Installation & Testing.
- S&C Refurbs and Installs.
- Civils Projects – embankments, drainage, bridges.
- Mechanical Semaphore Signalling.
- SMTH, G110 & New Works Testing.