Sam Sherwood-Hale spoke to Johnny Schute, the new Chief Operating Officer of the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB)
Johnny Schute joined RSSB in May this year, prior to that he was the Deputy Chief Inspector of Railways and Deputy Director of Railway Safety at the Office of Rail and Road. Before joining ORR in October 2015, he served for 34 years in the British Army as an infantry soldier, undertaking operational tours in Northern Ireland, Southern Arabia, the Balkans and Iraq.
How have you enjoyed the first few months of this position and what are your early impressions of RSSB?
It’s been great fun, I’ve found it hugely stimulating. I feel like I’ve been drinking from a fire hose with all the information that’s coming at me, but it’s been very rewarding.
In terms of first impressions, it’s clear from the professional nature of the organisation and its dedicated workforce how hugely important RSSB is to the rail industry. When I was in my role at the ORR I led the team that conducted the quinquennial review of RSSB, everything I’ve experienced since May has chimed with what we discovered in that review.
We reported on RSSB in November 2016, but the process began back in May. The RSSB constitution requires a review to be carried out by an impartial third party every five years, so when the time came around in 2016 that’s when the ORR did it. We were able to go quite in depth, I think I ended up conducting 57 different interviews with everyone from the CEO of Network Rail downwards. We also carried out a survey which drew two hundred responses and the resulting database formed the review.
I had no mind to move from ORR at that time but it’s inevitable when you’re carrying out a detailed examination that you think subjectively about how you would work within the structure you’re reviewing.
How hands-on do you plan on being and have you made any changes to the way the RSSB operates in the three months you’ve been there?
It is in my nature to be a hands-on person, I relish working closely with colleagues, as COO your role is to have a grip on all the activities that are going on in the organisation. I want to help and leverage the experience that I’ve picked up over many years so I’m going to be getting absolutely stuck into everything we do and offering my advice to improve our performance.
In terms of activities, I’ve made a business plan for 2018/19 and we’ve got clear timelines and deliverables, it’s important the subscriptions are used in the most efficient manner which will allow us to deliver at the top of our game.
When your appointment was announced you spoke about making RSSB ‘more customer-focused’, what do you envision when you say that and how is that working out?
Customer centricity is something we are working on, what’s encouraging is how RSSB has taken it to heart that it needs to become responsive to its members’ needs. I don’t think there will be a point where we can say ‘job done’ because developing relationships is a dynamic process.
RSSB was formed following the Ladbroke Grove tragedy, how do you think the organisation has evolved since then?
I’m a new recruit to the rail industry, but from talking to colleagues and from my experience at the ORR, it is obvious that RSSB has really developed above and beyond what was envisioned in the report. It’s core identity is absolutely focussed on what came from that report, but to be functional in the 21st Century you need excellent evidence and data that shows how you manage risk in the sector.
Its matured and become more sophisticated to the point of being indispensable. I believe other countries look at RSSB with a degree of envy. One of the things I found interesting is how we look at risk and how much we adopt a pragmatic rather than dogmatic approach in how we deal with risk. The different legislative landscape in other countries might prohibit such a pragmatic approach.
Blind adherence to a rules-based structure is dangerous because you’re not judging risk on the context, so having intellectual heft means one can come up with sensible solutions to deal with risk that comes along.
Membership increased from 69 in 2016 to 80 by November 2017. How do you plan to grow further?
We want the RSSB to be an indispensable part of how our customers do business, we want them to say that being a member is essential to their future commercial success. We are constantly going to be looking at ways of enhancing the offer we make to our customers, so they really do get the best.
Do you believe in expanding RSSB’s remit to help facilitate industry participation in existing UK, European and International standards development?
I think I have to be wary of this, so much depends on the relationship we will have with other countries following the UK’s exit from the European Union.
The RSSB is doing a lot of work scoping potential options that might exist, so we’re ready for whatever happens to allow us to jump whichever way necessary. It’s not beneficial to speculate, we need to see what emerges and deal with it on its merits and make sure we are able to adapt and meet whatever emerges from those negotiations.
Before you joined the Office of Rail and Road, what was your interest in the rail industry?
Actually, not an awful lot. I was an army officer for 34 years and my interest was in safety. I served in Iraq, Northern Ireland, the Falkland Islands and Southern Arabia. On operations the risks are high and, as a Commanding Officer, I was always looking at ways to minimize risk for my soldiers, so safety has always been an interest to me.
I have found safety in rail fascinating because the rail industry plays such an important part in people’s lives. I’m so impressed by people who work in rail and their commitment to the industry, how can you not be drawn in to that as the years go by.
I started off in planning at ORR first and then moved to operations, having been a newcomer I’m now fascinated by the whole thing. My enthusiasm for RSSB was born out of that review in 2016 and the more I work in rail the more interested I become in it.
You were responsible for setting safety policy in the British Army, do you find any similarities with your work on safety for the ORR?
Funnily enough I wrote an article for Rail Review where I drew a comparison in the way risk was assessed in the army and how it’s done in rail. We invested time in the analysis of risk and understanding who is impacted by the various control measures, there are great similarities and the culture is very similar to the rail industry.
I suspect in the rail world the standards are more intricate than the army, what with the way that risk gets considered around decisions. The professionalism in the army and in rail is quite similar, people are committed to delivering a quality product. Rail has gone through some tough times recently but nevertheless the people involved in the day to day running of the network are committed to providing an excellent service.
What made you seek a career in rail after leaving the army?
The army is a young man’s game, so when my time came to a close it felt natural and the opportunity in rail emerged at the same point, it was a happy coincidence when it came around.
Clearly the rail industry is going through a period of change, technology is constantly evolving, and I see the RSSB as being involved in customer centricity. We are looking internally at developing our own capability, I suspect in the past that RSSB might have been a little remote and that is changing fast and we are there to make sure we are fit for purpose.