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Colas Rail: Sense of identity

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From rail grinding to freight, on-track plant to train maintenance, it’s difficult to know where to start with Colas Rail. A series of acquisitions and mergers over the last decade have given the UK subsidiary of the French construction giant Bouygues its own distinct identity.

“It’s like a family. They really look after you,” said Clyde Schwartz, head of delivery for Colas Rail’s Freight division.

Freight sits within the Rail Services side of Colas Rail, which also includes On Track Plant, Rolling Stock Maintenance, Pullman Rail, Rail Grinding and Design & Surveying. Alongside Rail Services is the Rail Infrastructure business, which covers Colas Rail’s involvement in the S&C South Alliance and the Wessex Capacity Alliance. Sitting outside these divisions is Colas Rail’s work extending Birmingham’s tram network as part of the Midland Metro Alliance.

Tracey Creamer, head of HR; Ken Scotton, rail grinding operations manager - services; Andy Skitt, head of operations and standards; Peter Graveling, plant services director.
Tracey Creamer, head of HR; Ken Scotton, rail grinding operations manager – services; Andy Skitt, head of operations and standards; Peter Graveling, plant services director.

Challenging and rewarding

Clyde, who is six months into the role, is responsible for the day-to-day operation and long-term planning of the freight haulage business. Clients include Total, Tarmac and Network Rail, for which Colas operates its infrastructure monitoring trains, among other things.

Colas Rail drivers deliver aviation fuel to airports, parts to car factories and transport timber for Kronospan from Carlisle to its site in Chirk – a contract it has delivered for more than 10 years.

“It’s not boring,” said Clyde, who rejoined Colas Rail from Network Rail, where he was transferred when High Output was brought in-house. “There is a lot of diversity and different things to get into, which obviously makes it challenging but rewarding at the same time.”

With so many roles requiring knowledge of specialist equipment, Colas Rail has established a training school in Crewe to provide it with an in-house resource to train and upskill staff. The company has also invested in a route monitoring app which provides a modern solution to managing train driver route knowledge and competence.

Within the Freight business, there are also opportunities for candidates with no previous driving experience to train on the wide range of locomotives within the Colas Rail fleet, which includes Class 37, Class 56, Class 66, Class 67 and Class 70 units.

“There’s lots of opportunities and training opportunities to develop yourself, your career,” Clyde added.

Daily grind

Rail grinding is one area in particular where Colas Rail is looking to recruit and train over the next few months. Network Rail has recently renewed its partnership with Colas Rail to deliver plain line rail grinding services across the country using Network Rail’s fleet of rail grinders. The new contract is for three years, with an option to extend up to five.

“It’s a massive operation,” said Ken Scotton, who has been managing the rail grinding contract since 2016.

Although there are only five grinders in the fleet, the support team required to deploy them around the network is vast.

“They’ve all got a role to play for that machine to go out that night,” said Ken, explaining how in one shift a machine could be required to travel from one side of the network to another. “If somebody doesn’t do their part it won’t work.”

Network Rail has made a multi-million investment in three new grinding trains. Introduced into service in 2017, the 150-metre long trains are extremely reliable, cheaper to run and are able to deliver a higher output.

Seeing the job through

In addition to the investment in the fleet, Colas Rail is looking to strengthen its grinding team. While the company is looking for experienced in rail grinding operations, the business also runs what it calls its ‘street-to-seat initiative’ which seeks to recruit and train talented candidates, albeit those with less experience.

“Rail grinding is literally a one-off,” said Ken, explaining what he enjoys about the job. “Although it’s a continuous operation – every night we work – every night’s a different night.”

He added: “It’s a very rewarding job because it’s different every time they go to work.”

Andy Skitt, head of operations and standards, joined Colas Rail’s predecessor, Seco Rail, in 2005 after leaving the RAF. He’s been with the company ever since and is extremely thankful for the opportunities he’s been given.

“The transition from the Royal Air Force to working within Colas Rail has been really good for me,” said Andy, who joined as a plant operator and maintainer. He later became a driver and was offered numerous opportunities to train and progress.

In his current role, Andy ensures the competency management policies and procedures are all up to date and in line with rail industry standards across the Rail Services business. “The thing I like about it is it’s more of a family atmosphere,” said Andy. “We are focused on collaborative working; working together to achieve results.“

“We’ve always got the can-do attitude,” Clyde added, describing the special mentality he recognises in his colleagues. “We’ll always make it work for the customers and that’s part of being a family. Everyone comes in and they want to make it work and they want to make it succeed because it’s getting the pats on the back and seeing a job through to the end and getting that satisfaction.”

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