Sam Sherwood-Hale spoke to Mark Phillips, CEO of RSSB about the independent body’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the advice and toolkits they have to offer, and what the industry as a whole is doing to keep Britain moving

What sort of guidance can RSSB offer to the industry around COVID-19 and how best to handle the situation? 

Traditionally the guidance RSSB provides tends to be long-term, but this situation has required us to offer more immediate advice. We are focussing on two aspects, the first is the health and wellbeing of staff and frontline workers involved in running the railway. We do this by running workshops with industry colleagues on how to protect staff who are still working in frontline positions such as revenue protection staff, train conductors and project and maintenance staff. Our concern there is the control measures that need to be put in place to minimise the risk of people passing COVID-19 from one to another.

We are working with the train operators, passenger and freight, Network Rail, ORR and RDG to agree a position on how those types of control measures can be put in place and how to minimise the numbers of staff involved in running the reduced service we’re currently running. We’ve also done a lot of work in the area of mental health and toolkits for individuals and managers to work with their teams to provide support to railway people who might be on their own and need tools to get through this difficult period. The mental health and wellbeing of staff is important alongside the obvious issues of COVID-19.

The second area is around standards, specifically operational rules which may require an aspect of railway operations to be done in a particular way but now might need short-term workarounds because the people aren’t available or the changes to the timetable force us to do things in a different way. 

We’ve been working with operators and infrastructure managers to introduce, speed up and extend deviations to standards. These are alternative ways of managing risk for a time limited period to help manage the risks that come about from doing things in a slightly different way. 

How does RSSB communicate with the industry at this time?

We convene twice a week with the Rail Delivery Group, Network Rail, DfT and operating owning groups on an industry conference call to discuss the principle issues of the moment. Each participant, DfT, TfL, Transport Scotland, or Transport for Wales will bring forward policy issues that need to be addressed.

How do you see RSSB’s role at a time like this? 

It’s all about how you adapt to the changing needs of your members. Up until early March we were very clear about what we were producing for our members in terms of standards work, safety assessments, and sustainability research. 

But obviously with something as dramatic and urgent as the COVID-19 pandemic we have to rapidly rethink what we’re doing and how that fits with what our members need now. So, we have adjusted our work programmes and activities to address these urgent needs as we have a role to play in the national effort.

Obviously, we’re not directly involved in frontline work but there are things that we can do to help those businesses that are. 

There’s been such a huge amount of activity these last four weeks, but the next stage is to look at the guidance we can provide to the industry when the time comes to get things back up and running. In many ways that’s going to be more complex is gradually reducing the service level.  People reacted overnight to the stay at home instructions, the return to work may well be more of a staged process. The likely pattern of travel is going to be different for quite a prolonged period, we need to consider how passengers will react to being close up to other individuals on platforms or crowded trains again. 

We can take some insight from those European and Asian countries that are a few weeks ahead of us, and we will need to start modelling to see where the peak flows are and where there are groupings that we need to be focussed on. 

What are the best resources for companies to find accurate information specific to their part in the supply chain?

It’s a case-by-case basis, and most companies have been able to make decisions most appropriate to their own situations. Everyone has had to adapt very quickly, stay in contact with their buyers, suppliers, partners and peers, and draw on resources from a range of sources, whether that’s government, ourselves at RSSB, or other supporting bodies, associations and agencies. In many cases the supply chain is adapting to the challenge. An obvious issue for many suppliers is ensuring work can be carried out without one person being in close proximity to another. Take the example of the weekend engineering work over Easter, Network Rail assessed all its programme of activity and was able to arrange for nearly all of the jobs to be completed because the contractors were able to come up with methods for keeping people apart. I think that until a vaccination is available, you’re going to have to plan in that way. Work may have to be carried out sequentially rather than in parallel so there are fewer people in a confined space. The fortunate thing to say is that a lot of rail work is still proceeding. 

What is The Driving for Better Business Covid-19 Transport Toolkit?

A lot of activities require moving rail staff by road, whether train drivers relieving other drivers or getting maintenance staff to site. The risk to the workforce here shouldn’t be underestimated, even without the pandemic making things worse. We have established a really strong relationship with Highways England and their Driving for Better Business Programme which is great, as we both have a mutual interest in protecting the workforce from the risk of work-related driving. We have a hub where we are collating advice for employers on how to manager those risks and have added to it with some additional guidance specific to managing Covid-19. This covers anything from cleaning vehicles inside through to putting in screens for workers who might be travelling to the worksite by taxi.

One important element that should not be overlooked during all this is mental health, what sort of health and wellbeing training should companies consider in order to prepare for similar situations in the future? And what should be put in place for returning workers in the months to come?

As in other sectors, great strides have been made in rail in ending the stigma and breaking down barriers to people being open about their own mental health.  The pandemic puts even more pressure on all of us, so it’s right that every organisation fully understands and manages the risk that poor mental health can pose.  Our members can access a lot of resources from our website.  This includes our guidance which specifically focuses on helping line managers and supervisors to identify where people are struggling to adjust and then what steps are available to them to help those people who are affected. There’s a toolbox of materials that people can download, which has a checklist of things that you might look for to identify where someone might be suffering from mental health issues. 

RSSB launched the Data Sandbox+ competition on 4th April 2019, what sort of data driven solutions to operational performance have you come up with in the year since then?

When we kicked it off Network Rail were really keen to come with us on it and contributed £650,000 to match the amount we contributed giving us a total of £1.3 million. We’ve got four big projects launched so far out of 60 applications that we had in. Those cover a range of activities, one of them is a performance model to support decision making. When there’s a problem on the network it develops a tool to help controllers and other responders to advise them on steps they can take to get the service back on schedule. One looks at delays that build up as result of the way the timetable has been constructed and how to fix those problems. Another provides customised information to passengers to meet their individual travel needs by tailoring advice for their specific journey. Those are long-term projects, so they will take a year or so to come to fruition. We haven’t decided yet if it will be an annual project but it does bring in new thinking so I think we will repeat it. 

What’s the criteria that potential applicants should meet and how can they apply?

For each competition we set out the challenge and those that submit an initial idea can download the materials which have a series of questions and those that provide the best answers get selected for the grant. 

Many of your 2019-2020 deliverables include collaboration with the industry, how has the disruption impacted that? 

The work that was due to be finished by the end of March was done on time, so we were pleased with that. There will be a bit of a delay now, particularly projects that required access to frontline people such as drivers, conductors and signalling staff as they are obviously doing important work and it isn’t justifiable to remove them from those activities to get involved in our research work. So, there will be a pause on that sort of work for the next two to three months. I will say that the majority of our work is being kept on track by using online conferencing apps so we can continue to keep collaboration going. This supports both the work we’re doing in the immediate response to the pandemic, and ensures we keep moving forward on the work we already had scheduled in our new Business Plan.

You started off at RSSB as Director of Research and Standards. That position involved shaping EU standards, how has the relationship changed now?

As of 1st January, we are no longer at the table of relevant and groups committees that form part of EU’s governance of rail standards. However, there are many other pan-European activities such as CEN, which sit outside EU governance of which we remain an active part. 

We have taken EU standards and relevant regulations and converted them into documents, known as National Technical Specification Notices (NTSNs), which are aligned to GB’s post-Brexit standards framework. Going forward we will try keep aligned with standards development in Europe because if you’re a manufacturer working in the UK you want to be able to supply both the UK and European markets. The framework is sufficiently flexible to allow us, if desired, to diverge from the European arrangement and do something uniquely different in the UK, for example, if it provides a better outcome. This could allow the GB railway to be more open-minded about how it meets the government’s public policy agenda on transport, such as reconnecting  some of the towns that lost their railways post-Beeching. Finding a low-cost solution might require a different set of standards and that is one of the opportunities that comes from not being bound by EU standards. 

You’ve spent four years as CEO of RSSB and spent many years at Network Rail and British Rail previously and are also on the board of BTP and TfL. How has that experience informed your work and has there been much cross-pollination between these different positions? 

Yes, there has. The railway is a close family and when we pull together it’s amazing what we can achieve, in good times and in times of adversity. Even during the current crisis, take the he British Transport Police, who are very engaged in policing the network at the moment. They are facing a lot of issues around social distancing and PPE, and the risk work that we’ve been doing is as applicable to police as it is to staff working for rail companies. Everyone is working very hard to manage this constantly evolving situation. You do find people can respond magnificently in these situations so it’s important to not micromanage when someone has it covered, people can rise to the challenge and it’s best to let them crack on and do it.