Community can take many forms, and in times of great stress the power of community can be immense, says Lucy Prior MBE

Successful communities cooperate. Successful communities learn to adapt to situations, to use new tools, or use existing tools differently. It is probable that none of us have experienced any stressor greater than the COVID-19 pandemic. However, thanks to the power of community, and WhatsApp, I now know the name of everyone on my street and who amongst my neighbours is more vulnerable and may need the help of others. 

In the business community I have seen countless messages on social media urging manufacturers to support the Government’s call for businesses to help produce NHS equipment from ventilators to wellbeing apps. Overseen by the High Value Manufacturing Catapult huge names such as McLaren and Nissan responded to the ventilator call, and bodies such as MAKE UK urged the wider manufacturing supply-chain to support further. Only a week in, and new prototypes were already under test. Attesting to the exponential power of collaboration. 

Within rail, arguably one of the most community-minded industries we have, this sense of cooperation has truly taken hold. For example, Network Rail released a plea to locate retired signallers and to ask them to offer their support to help keep the railway running in ‘these unprecedented times’. Within 24 hours over 150 responses had been received. 

A cast of thousands

The power of collective cooperation is enormous, and in rail we have access to a huge community. Whether referring to our own professional networks, or to an organisation’s network, it is arguably more important now than ever before to recognise how and with whom we can cooperate for the benefit of our wider community. 

At 3Squared we are members of several trade associations and interest groups. Generally speaking, we use these memberships, and their respective communities in isolation of one another. Each membership offers its own benefits and offers a unique community within which to discuss questions or concerns or to provide a focussed network around a specific issue or topic. I believe that the unfortunate conditions created by COVID-19 will act as a catalyst to help the railway community come together even further and to rally support for the entire industry.

When I first thought about writing on the topic of collective cooperation, I intended to write a generalist piece on the value of memberships in their own right and as a means to potentially collaborate on a wider scale.

Since the COVID-19 imposed lockdown I have experienced first-hand the power of catalysed collective cooperation. Our railway trade associations are coming together more than ever before, to help to address the collective needs of their members, and those of top-tier clients. Network Rail, Government departments, notably the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Railway Minister, Chris Heaton-Harris are holding regular calls with the supply-chain community through various forums.

One example of this is the Railway Industry Association’s SME Group. This weekly call led by John Chappell, the chair of the SME Group, and Kate Jennings, RIA’s policy director, brings together a huge number of SME-members, Elaine Clarke of Rail Forum Midlands, Network Rail, BEIS and the DfT. The purpose of this call is to systematically advise the supply chain on measures rolled out by Government and Network Rail, and to enable our SMEs who are crucial to the success of the UK economy, to air their concerns, ask direct questions and to receive consistent updates. Network Rail is demonstrating through these groups and calls that it is doing everything it can within its power to ensure that planned projects are not delayed, that its sub-suppliers are supported and that all front-line staff are able to work in complete adherence of safe-working guidelines. Notably the speed with which invoices are paid to SMEs, once approved, has shifted from five working days to immediate.

As a result of these combined efforts, SMEs are benefitting from an enhanced line of communication into Government. This is also of benefit to the national economy, as well as to individual companies. Mike Noakes, Head of Rail at BEIS, actively encourages SMEs to be vocal through these groups, saying ‘we are asking you to keep us informed of any difficulties with payments (from top tier companies) as this continual feedback loop is enormously important to us. Policy has never developed so fast, and it’s because of the high quality, consistent feedback.’

He adds ‘the various schemes that we have in place can only be tweaked so far, or they become unmanageable. With the Jobs Retention Scheme, the three-week minimum will stay – if we start including workarounds for rail Easter work, every sector will be demanding something, with equal validity, and we will run the risk of hampering the main focus, which is to get money to the bulk of companies as soon as possible, which the scheme does, or will do, for the April pay run.’

Cooperation is vital, now more than ever. In a widely circulated letter Andrew Haines stated, at the beginning of lockdown, that Network Rail’s ‘current plan is to proceed with all major work across the Easter weekend for which we have planned in excess of 3,200 worksites across more than 800 planned possessions’. At the same time (21st to 22nd March) the Rail Delivery Group confirmed that the nation will see train services halved, and those services still running will be timed to best suit keyworkers’ needs and to enable rail freight to maintain logistics services.

As an industry we face a truly challenging scenario: reduced services could mean more possessions, but with a reduced workforce (reduced through availability and because safe working necessitates a lower staff density on-site). Reduced passenger services potentially free up time to problem solve, but simultaneously puts an obvious risk on revenue and thus suppliers. 

At the time of writing this article there is not yet certainty around any of this, and understandably so, but those involved are working around the clock to respond to an ever-changing situation. I hope that as a community we really can come together, and we really can harness the power of collective cooperation. Now is a time for organisational culture to be about the bigger picture, not the balance sheet. In the same letter Haines also stated that: ‘We want the railway to be at its very best when the country emerges from this crisis….I have asked my colleagues to consider where there maybe opportunities to bring work forward, to make the most of additional access, given the reduction in train service. If you have any specific thoughts on this, then please do get in touch with your contact point in my leadership team.’

The railway community really is a cast of thousands. As individuals, we each play a bit-part. But if we each consider our roles within the wider context; can we spot ways in which we can collectively cooperate and help the railway be at its very best?

Lucy Prior MBE is Business Engagement Director at 3Squared, a specialist SaaS provider to the transportation and construction markets. Lucy has been recently appointed vice-chair to John Chappell of the RIA SME group, and continues to support the Rail supply Group export workstream and is a member of the Executive Committee of the Northern Rail Industry Leaders (NRIL). Most importantly she is a full-time working parent to two young children who hear an awful lot about just how cool the rail sector is.