In the post-privatisation era, RSSB has become part of the rail industry’s business support network. It too has evolved, from its roots in safety and standards to today supporting the sector in meeting its objectives across the range of challenges; reducing cost and carbon, increasing capacity and customer satisfaction and doing all this within a context of understanding risk. Perhaps for this reason, although a part of the industry for many years, RSSB is one of the lessunderstood components.
Chris Fenton immediately recognised this fact. He was appointed as RSSB’s new chief executive last year, and officially took over in March and has been getting up to speed since joining the company in January.
‘Over the past few weeks I have tried to meet as many people as possible across GB rail, both inside and outside RSSB. I know I have still a lot more to meet, but already a common theme is only a partial awareness of the scope and purpose of the activities that the industry asks us to undertake. We can better explain what we do and why.
‘How we work with our members and stakeholders is critical. From Boards and sub-committees to their expert input into the many industry groups, we can step up how we make our work relevant and how we communicate the outcomes.
A core principle is ‘by the rail industry, for the rail industry’. This is all the more powerful when we communicate effectively.’
Strategy into action
Chris takes over RSSB at a time when industry’s investment in vision and documenting intentions is moving on to a point when strategy is being put into action.
‘Indeed, RSSB has supported a lot of the forward agenda for rail today,’ Chris reflects, ‘there are many examples, some headlines include: the research which helped put electrification back on the agenda for investment; raising the profile of sustainability as a cross-industry issue; and demonstrating the need for a dedicated innovation enabling capability.
‘Individual company plans such as Network Rail’s Strategic Business Plan, or the whole system vision such as the Rail Technical Strategy have been prepared. Industry is now setting off on a new control period, which triggers changes in the way we view major issues such as cost, asset management and franchising.
‘So GB rail is now at a point when the activities, financing and vision for the whole industry have been agreed and we need to support industry making that strategy a reality. RSSB also needs to reflect this change and embed itself as part of that support. I am really looking forward to leading RSSB through this change.’
So why is Chris the right person to take the helm at RSSB right now?
It’s easy to see from his CV why Chris was appointed to the role. He has built his career on working at interfaces. Whether these span different functions from operations to finance, from marketing to commercial, geographic interfaces with significant international experience or the relationship interfaces across joint ventures and working between public and private sector, he has first-hand experience.
It’s also clear that Chris is no stranger to organisational intricacies or the transport sector generally. As a managing director at Amey, he re-established its Business Services activities as a profitable and key activity, before taking responsibility for the company’s interest in Tube Lines in a complex period of political change and economic challenge.
Prior to that, he was managing director for the testing and inspection division of BSI, after an early international career in chemicals at Courtaulds.
‘I like working in complex environments,’ Chris outlines, ‘with a view to finding a way through the complexity, and getting the most from the organisation through clear goals and by building strong teams.’
Chris is no stranger to technical or safety critical settings either: he trained as a material scientist, and spent most of his career in technical and engineering led organisations. Alongside his role in RSSB he is also a non-executive director at the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.
So why is Chris attracted to RSSB?
‘This is an exciting time for the rail industry. The new control period brings many of the challenges into focus and I am delighted to be leading RSSB to support its members as they tackle these challenges.
‘The organisation was originally set up the help the whole industry and its supply chain work together to improve safety,’ explains Chris, ‘From here RSSB quickly became the natural base for Network Rail, operators, ROSCO’s and suppliers to get together to make evidencebased decisions and share a combined knowledge hub of data, analysis, research and initiatives.
‘RSSB has strong credentials,’ Chris continues, ‘it’s cross-industry, it’s evidence-driven, and it boasts an impressive range of technical experts. The significant legacy is a testament to my predecessor, Len Porter and all the staff for the results they’ve achieved over the last 11 years.’
So what now?
‘I need to carry on listening and learning, but the number one priority now is to turn strategy into action. The next step will be to outline to the Board and the staff how we’re going to deliver for members.’
Chris is talking to both in the next few weeks but he’s made no secret that he wants ‘strategy into action’ to be the overarching theme. Alongside this motif, he is adamant that he wants the organisation to sustain and improve its technical excellence but also do it more effectively and efficiently.
Chris goes on to say this isn’t about flashy marketing but simply making sure people understand what we do, why we do it and how it can help.
‘Don’t tell people you’re funny. Make them laugh’ is an oft repeated expression by Chris, and it sums up his approach and his passion and focus on delivery. To support this, early into the next control period RSSB will be launching its new website which will convey the meaning and substance of activities with more impact.
‘So I’m looking forward to getting started,’ Chris concludes, ‘and help GB rail generate the tangible outputs and realise its goals.’