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Loosely speaking

Retiring as policy director of the railway industry association, peter loosley reflects on his time in the industry

I took the decision to retire in December after 17 years – almost to the day – at RIA. A mixture of circumstances led to this decision: some minor health issues, the need to play guitar like Frank Zappa and the fact I became the oldest person on the regular train commute into London Victoria by some margin (based on my own visual evidence and increasing offers of a seat from people who didn’t look much younger than me).

When I started at RIA in December 2002, two of the biggest supply chain issues were the lack of a stable and visible work profile and the fact that relationships between key stakeholders (mainly clients and suppliers) tended to be transactional (that is to say, confrontational) rather than collaborative. As a testament to the cracking job I have done, they are probably still two of the top issues.

But it would be wrong to say that nothing has changed in that time. Back in the 1990s, when privatisation was being implemented, not even the most pointy-headed of those involved expected rail to become successful – indeed, most predicted a managed rundown. So, we had a rail network, previously starved of investment by both the main political parties, which was suddenly pitched into a period of massive and totally unexpected passenger growth.

As a result, performance unsurprisingly began dropping off – indeed I remember organising the Department for Transport’s (DfT) first ‘Rail Summit’ in 2000, which had been ordered by the then Secretary of State because he felt that an overall performance of around 95 per cent was “a national disgrace”…

And then there were the reviews. All of them. Just as we were getting to grips with the jigsaw, someone would throw all the pieces up in the air and gave us a new picture to follow.

Some – if not all – of this led to significant change to Network Rail’s structure and operating model. I will remember Network Rail changing from a system of semi-autonomous satellites into a much more centrally driven command and control organisation. And now we are seeing Network Rail moving back to a regionally devolved structure.

But enough of the context. In my time at RIA I have seen a significant shift in how the importance of the supply chain in delivering our railway is perceived and understood. When I joined, RIA was viewed as a bit of a gentleman’s club, but, thanks to the largely below-the-radar work of its then director general Jeremy Candfield, it became a serious industry player. This was a major development, but RIA’s good work was not always visible to all.

The present day

So, more recently under new chief executive Darren Caplan, RIA has developed a much stronger lobbying and PR focus to publicise what we do on behalf of the supply chain, which has created several successful industry campaigns, particularly around a visible and stable work profile. However, neither of these two approaches can be applied in isolation – as with most things, a balance must be struck. I believe we now have that balance, but we need to ensure that it is maintained.

I retire with some regret that I didn’t help the railway industry improve as much as I would have liked. However, I believe the building blocks are now there. The industry needs a strong RIA, and I believe we have that.

Most of all, the industry needs to move towards a more collaborative culture. For an industry with so many moving parts, it is critical that stakeholders understand each other’s roles and drivers and use that understanding to inform their actions. Establishing that will go a long way towards improving the efficiency and performance of the railway for both customers and taxpayers, which is, after all, what we are all here to do.

The Williams Review will also be important. It seems to be widely accepted that one of the main outcomes will be the establishment of an arm’s-length body (similar to the old SRA – the Strategic Rail Authority) to oversee, inter alia, the franchising of the train companies and, in doing so, decouple from DfT some of its current micro-management of the railway. I believe this would be a sensible approach, but one of the main reasons the SRA failed was the blurring of responsibilities between it and the government. So, my plea would be that, in setting up such a new body, the respective roles of the two protagonists are made pellucidly clear and, more importantly, adhered to.

In summary, I think at least four key important things need to happen:

  1. Collectively, we need to keep moving towards a more collaborative culture;
  2. We all need to work together to ensure the new Network Rail structure settles in as quickly and efficiently as possible and that, as part of that, there is frequent constructive dialogue between Network Rail and its suppliers;
  3. That one and two above, in conjunction with the industry renewals roundtable process and the ‘Rail Sector Deal’, smooth out the volatile work profiles for both renewals and enhancements we have seen over every control period to date, which has been a constant thorn in the side of the supply chain and a huge barrier to more efficient delivery;
  4. The post-Williams arm’s-length body is set up as quickly as possible with very clear terms of reference which are understood, accepted and enforced.

Farewell, but not goodbye

I have really enjoyed my time in the rail industry and, despite its occasional frustrations, I have made many valued, long-term friendships – there are many people that I shall miss but I hope to stay in touch in a limited way in 2020. It’s rather like the Hotel California: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!”

This is a great industry, full of people with pride, passion, professionalism, expertise and integrity, which I shall miss very much. I wish it well and know that it will deliver.

Meanwhile, to paraphrase Mr Zappa, I will “Shut Up ‘n Play My Guitar”. Listen to him go.

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