CHRISTIAN GREEN HEAD OF TRANSPORT AT CARTER JONAS

Christian Green is Head of Transport at national property and infrastructure consultant Carter Jonas, based in the firm’s Snowhill office in Birmingham. He has been a trusted property advisor to the transport sector for over 15 years and has a huge amount of experience working on large-scale schemes for clients such as Network Rail, HS2 and National Highways.

 

What is the most exciting area of rail transportation?

Technology, artificial intelligence and data are probably the three topics that unite the industry in terms of having the greatest potential to make a real difference to conceptualising and delivering a project now. You could take this down to a granular level to an engineer being able to design a component of the project in a more sophisticated manner to, from our own holistic point of view, how to assemble the land to facilitate the route.

Data capture and manipulation is the transformational piece – some of the tools that are being used now to aid decision making have the potential to move us light years ahead. A good example of that would be the ability to build a 3D digital twin of a large-scale project. One of the first examples of this was the construction of the Shard where every component was created digitally. That process is the benchmark for what’s possible and something that we can follow in the rail sector. Being able to create a real-time flow of information about how the property is running and being used by people is so valuable and adds a new dimension to what’s possible, both when designing and running a project.

Another exciting area is how our geospatial team is using drones to explore potential routes and then sharing the information for scrutiny across various platforms. The major benefit here is high capacity data capture and the management of that data. Using a range of sensors our drones can see through canopies, measure various ground characteristics, detect heat, water and so on. This can reduce the number of teams required on the ground who may be more limited in their access to land or their ability to measure all these crucial parameters.

 

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in how major rail projects are handled over the past ten years?

There have been many changes but, for us as a firm involved in the delivery of rail infrastructure projects, it’s been how clients use our skills and knowledge. You could say we used to be the boots on the ground at the end of a project, sorting out the issues. But we’re now involved from the outset of a project because that’s where our expertise and experience is best placed. For example, we are now engaged from the outset of the GRIP process, through to completion.

To emphasise how much things have changed, we have team members embedded into projects from trainees through to sponsor level. We’ve got programme managers and property professionals sitting within businesses advising them, using our whole firm’s experience to help clients. Our involvement with the delivery of HS2 has elevated our capabilities and knowledge to ultimately be one of the critical stakeholders suggesting improvements. When you’re exposed to the challenges of such an enormous project, you learn. We’ve certainly learned. We’ve adapted and we’ve evolved. We’ve got specialists who deal with compulsory purchase orders sat next to programme managers who sit next to rural specialists and so on.

The team is more dynamic as a result, which makes decision-making and problem solving more efficient for the client. The key thing is one of understanding; understanding what the engineers are trying to achieve and how we then translate that into the practicalities for affected parties and stakeholders. Our greatest skill is that we’ve learnt to manage change. This improvement comes irrelevant of scale. This formula is just as valuable in smaller infrastructure projects as it is in the largest. The benefit is the same.

 

Are there opportunities for the rail industry to be greener?

In short, yes, but the way it becomes greener is probably the more interesting point to consider. Operationally, the potential is there; moving away from diesel to electric trains, electrifying the network and so on. But there is also the huge potential to use assets more effectively.

The Department for Transport (DfT), for example, holds great swathes of land to operate the railway, and that’s got a value. There is a strong movement towards carbon offsetting and biodiversity net gain, for example, and there is an opportunity to use green assets equally as credibly as the physical asset of the track. Surplus land could also be used for power generation, and a greater collaboration with neighbouring landowners and farmers could lead to a quick revolution in terms of the DfT’s approach to becoming greener. There needs to be the appetite there, but we see the opportunities.

There are barriers to overcome of course; the maintenance of the railways and the access to land is governed by legislation that is more than a hundred years old. We have seen with the rollout of the 5G network and the introduction of the Electronic Communications Code that the necessary changes can be made in order to benefit the public and the country, so this could be the same for rail.

 

Does Carter Jonas struggle to find new staff, and what does your firm to do attract and retain staff?

I think most property consultants would say that recruiting staff is a challenge, which I personally feel stems from a lack of understanding of what a career in the property industry can offer. If you say you’re a chartered surveyor, how many people would know what that means? The fact that you could join a firm like ours and work on some of the largest infrastructure projects in Europe, playing an integral role in designing and delivering a transport scheme which will benefit the population and the economy, is not immediately visible.

So there’s a challenge around that. We need recognised industries that people relate to, to help promote what we do which will ultimately benefit them by bringing in a greater pool of talent to work in the sector.

In terms of a surveying skills shortage, this is a challenge that requires buy-in from across the industry. The engagement needs to start far, far earlier. Engaging with students when they’re at secondary school to show them what career paths are available is a great opportunity that we, as Carter Jonas, are taking, but as a wider industry there needs to be improvement. At the age of 14, 15 and 16, their minds are not necessarily made up about what they’re going to do. If you were to go into school and explain that a career in chartered surveying can lead you to helping deliver huge engineering projects which have a real impact on society – from city centre regeneration schemes to green energy projects – more people might be interested in looking at the property industry to see what options there are. More recently, the apprenticeship approach is seeing that traditional recruiting ground change, but we need to do more of it.

We’re proactively getting in front of a potential pool of people that is so much broader than we ever have before. We’re not just going to people who have gone to university to study land management, but trying to talk to people earlier, going to people who haven’t chosen to go to university to study something else. This is a new level for us because we are looking at a talent pool we’ve not considered before as a business and, more importantly, we can help mould them to know the Carter Jonas firm and its clients through and through. As a business, we’re also driven to address equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and this is bearing fruit. We don’t want to see one view of the world and change is being brought about across all of our divisions.

 

What should the future of major rail projects look like?

There are perhaps two key areas we feel need to change for the execution and efficacy of rail project delivery to improve. The first is a more strategic approach to the planning of these schemes. It’s not enough to plan and deliver a railway – it needs to tie together the needs of the whole transport network. If we can create better railways, we can sort the roads out, then we can sort the inner cities out. This is a huge undertaking, and when politics and infrastructure are so heavily wedded, nothing is so straightforward. But it’s clear that a piecemeal approach isn’t achieving a great deal.

The second imperative is for greater collaboration between organisations, allowing the private sector to drive projects forward. The DfT needs to allow a corporate structure to form in the private sector and let them – within limits of regulation – deliver it. There will be a nervousness, of course, because there will be concerns about where the private money is coming from, but at the same time there’s a balance between that and getting a better transport network.

There’s very little that can be done with the current structure, but in an ideal world there would be collaboration and boundaries between government bodies and the private sector. Ideally, you just want somebody to say, ‘we need to improve the transport network’, and we think the private sector can then step in and just deliver it.

 

What is the greatest challenge facing the development of new railway infrastructure?

The speed of development in technology is both an unmissable opportunity and a major obstacle. In the past decade alone we’ve seen the way people shop, the way they socialise, the way they interact and, thanks largely to Covid, the way they work completely change. While these are just evolutions in society, when thought about in the context of a major rail project, they pose huge challenges for anyone planning a project. It might take five years to plan a new rail project, then at least the same again to build it, and during that decade so much can change to completely undermine the business case for it.

It’s similar to the way technology is going for driverless cars – to build a new road now has to take into account the requirements of an auto-piloted vehicle years before they are properly on the road, and hydrogen vehicles which are not even being manufactured yet. You can see projects being overtaken by technology in the blink of an eye. To flip that on its head, what the same technology will allow is better information and decision making around the maintenance and improvements of our existing network. You should be able to operate everything with a 3D model, but it goes further than that. You should know every section of track, how it is constructed, how old the material is, when it was last checked, when the embankments were mowed, and so on. Having live data available to you is huge because once it’s live, it’s constantly updated and becomes interactive.