‘Open for Business’ and New Ideas: Why the Rail Industry Should Accept Network Rail’s Standards Challenge

David Clarke, RIA

By David Clarke, Technical Director, Railway Industry Association

On Thursday 12 April Network Rail (UK) announced a new initiative in their ‘Open for Business’ Strategy: The Standards Challenge. Rail suppliers are invited to suggest how amendments to technical standards can boost innovation and creativity in the rail industry whilst also reducing the cost of maintaining the network. David Clarke, Technical Director for the Railway Industry Association, tells Railway-News how they view the challenge.

The Standards Challenge initiative began following the publication of the Hansford Review into contestability which contained a number of recommendations as to how Network Rail could take a more business-focused approach and secure more third-party funding. In the words of Network Rail, the aim of the review was to help it transform and see how “the public-sector organisation can behave like a private-sector business,” allowing for quicker uptake of new innovations, ideas and processes, and truly become ‘Open for Business’.

The Challenge

The Railway Industry Association (RIA), which represents over 200 suppliers to the UK’s railways, was supportive of Professor Hansford’s findings and Network Rail’s overall transformation plan, and was keen to assist in ensuring the rail industry had a greater say over standards. Many of our members told us that they often found standards or their interpretation too rigid, which often meant they had to over-engineer projects, increasing costs for taxpayers and passengers and stifling the ability to bring new technologies into the industry.

RIA began by bringing suppliers and industry stakeholders together with Network Rail for two workshops in late 2017. The workshops provided a forum for the industry to discuss the issues they had with current standards and how a process could be developed by which the industry could feed in changes to Network Rail.

Crucially, the process would need to ensure Britain’s high rail safety and performance levels are maintained, whilst allowing room for greater innovation. An example of an early challenge has come from British Steel, who have engaged with Network Rail regarding the potential for simpler and more cost-effective design of some overhead line masts. The standards challenge process will build upon the great progress that Network Rail has already made through updating 400 of their standards over the past 18 months.

The Rewards

A key ingredient in making the Standards Challenge process work will be the use of incentives. It is only right that those that suggest changes to standards, which in turn save Network Rail money, benefit from their ideas. The workshops identified several potential incentive mechanisms such as corporate recognition, assessing contract performance in relation to suggested standard changes or sharing a proportion of the realised savings. Network Rail are currently considering which incentives can be used in which circumstances and are working closely with RIA on plans for their progressive introduction.

Getting Involved

Network Rail have taken a step forward in opening up technical standards for the industry to suggest changes. Now, it’s time for the suppliers to get involved and show what can be done when we have the flexibility to innovate. For those that do suggest changes, they will not only be able to benefit themselves, but will also be improving processes that could radically change the way we work in rail – reducing costs on the way.

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