Rail 917: Network Rail’s not invented here syndrome

Network Rail has rediscovered research. One of the great losses to the industry at privatisation was the rapid sell-off and subsequent disappearance of the BR Research Division which was responsible for such wonders as the InterCity 125 and the 225 as well as the rather less successful Advanced Passenger Train.

This outsourcing of all research into railway technology left the industry at the mercy of private companies, who consolidated into a small number of huge multinational corporate, a cartel which constrained choice. Worse, without a research division to inform them, railway managers lost the expertise to select the right technology or to back winners and ignore losers. However, in a little known part of the settlement for Control Period 6, the rail investment cycle which runs from 2019 to 2024, Network Rail has £350m available to spend on research projects to improve the railway.

This is serious money. Of course, in the intervening quarter of a century, everything about the industry has changed dramatically and the focus will be completely different. For example, it is unlikely that a public body could design a new train from scratch as BR was still able to do in the 1980s. Whereas the BR Research Division focussed a lot of work on heavy engineering, nowadays it is work on software that is likely to eat up the largest part of available funds.

This became clear to me when I came across a project to develop software to help identify areas of the track where vegetation needed to be cut back. This was an idea developed by a small start up called Hack Partners, which organised ‘Hackathons’ on trains, in which a group of people would brainstorm to come up with ideas to improve the railways. One of the questions that participants were asked to address was how to ensure that vegetation did not cause delays to trains. The conventional method of examining the track for potentially dangerous incursions by vegetation was little changed from the days  of the Big Four as it relied on visual inspections from a train cab, supported at times by local on the ground checks.

Participants in the Hackathon came up with the idea of putting a basic camera in the cab which films a whole section of track and is then downloaded with a software programme called Hubble that identifies all kinds of incursions and failures, including dirty signs and potentially dangerous trees. This seems an ideal product to be used around the network and Hack Partners chief executive, an enterprising Glaswegian called, River Tamoor Baig, managed to attract around £100,000 from Network Rail. This relatively small sum, supplemented with about half a million from the company’s own resources resulted in the development of what looks like a very effective and cheap tool. The cameras themselves cost barely a hundred quid and by using existing train services, as they can be fitted to any type of train, the whole thing seems very cost effective.

However, sadly, what seems like a quick success story gets more complicated as a Hack Partners have come up against the difficulties of dealing with a behemoth like Network Rail. Baig and his team have found Network Rail resistant to adopting its technology despite its simplicity and effectiveness. After Baig and his team toured round the country to demonstrate his scheme, two of Network Rail’s routes, Anglia and Southern, have adopted the technology but he has found considerable resistance from Network Rail HQ in Milton Keynes to adopting the scheme across the country.

The resistance by Network Rail seems to come from the fact that it has its own project to deal with vegetation issues, that is being developed in house. Called digital lineside inspections (DLI), this is a much more complex solution involving helicopters, lots of consultants at £500 per day and various bits of hardware. It will cost at least £4m to develop and is part of a much bigger £40m programme.

When I put all this to Network Rail in a conference call, Martin Frobisher, who bears the rather unwieldy title of  Group Safety & Engineering Director, Technical Authority was at pains to argue that Network Rail is open to SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises) entering the market but DLI was better than Hubble for several reasons, notably that it pulls together data from various sources, is better able to process it  and that the helicopter spots potential problems with ash trees (which are dying from a disease) earlier. There were issues, too, with how the information from Hubble could be uploaded to Network Rail’s system.

Network Rail’s spokesman also suggested to me that surely using its own project, developed in-house would please me since I have always been a sceptic of outsourcing? That may be the case but Network Rail cannot be expected to always come up with the best solution at the optimum price. In particular it must be wary of the ‘not invented here’ syndrome to which big companies are prone. Network Rail is a monopsony (the sole buyer in a particular market) and must be careful not to exploit that position.

This is a complex story and while there is not the space to go into all the detail, it does beg fundamental questions about the role of research in the industry, the relationship between the routes and the centre. I was not entirely convinced by Network Rail’s response even though I welcomed its openness in discussing the issue. It does seem that there is a natural inclination to use its own scheme, irrespective of the fact that the one developed by Hubble could be much cheaper and simpler. Bigger is not necessarily better. Flying helicopters, perhaps quite unnecessarily, to assess the problem hardly seems an idea that hardly fits in with Network Rail’s green agenda.

The fact that two routes have been using the technology and have been supportive suggests that there is a lack of a coherent approach. Frobisher’s colleagues stressed me that Hubble was only a demonstration project and not yet fully functioning, whereas Baig insisted that this was not the case and Hubble was already proving its worth as a fully fledged system by highlighting dangerous vegetation. He also dismissed the data issue, saying that this was easily resolvable if Network Rail had been more co-operative.

It is Network Rail’s reluctance to endorse the system centrally and to help with its development that has most upset Hack Partners. Speaking to me about the scheme suggests they have reached the end of the line in terms of trying to persuade Network Rail to adopt a more open approach.

Bag is convinced that some people in the centre tried to stop routes from adopting the Hubble system. He told me: ‘If Network Rail had actually helped Hubble’s development when they knew about it in May 2019, it would now be deployed across the network and would have saved taxpayers money. Additionally, risk for passengers would have decreased as NR would have prevented more incidents across the network.’ He raises a key issue about the future of devolution in Network Rail, questioning whether sufficient leeway is given to the routes: ‘Is the centre supposed to help routes or hold them back?

This story poses difficult questions about how best to introduce technology into the railways at an efficient price. While I recognise that in an ideal world, much of the innovation would be come from in-house, nowadays it is often small fleet of foot start-up companies that come across the best solutions. In the post-Covid world where money is inevitably going to be tight, Network Rail’s must overcome its reputation for overspending on investment projects. In particular the organisation needs to be able to respond to this new era of technical development in which the focus, as mentioned above, is often on software rather than hardware.

Competition v co-operation

I was watching one of those rather unfocussed railway journey programmes presented by Tony Robinson and he randomly ended up ended up in Denmark, talking about happiness. Why he asked a couple of young researchers, were the Danish happier than the rest of the world and how did one measure this?  The answer was trust. The Danes inherently believe in each other, expecting the best from their friends, relatives and work colleagues.

Now what, you may ask, has this got to do with the railways?  Simple. The government is struggling with trying to work out a new structure for the railway and at the heart of the debate is the extent to which commercial arrangements between the various players in the industry are required rather than the old collegiate system based on trust. I am currently just starting work on my latest book, the story of how in its later years British Rail became the most efficient railway in Europe and the one thing that people who worked there at the time all emphasise is that the key to this success was the collegiate and cooperative atmosphere that existed in the organisation. They were working for one organisation and trusted each other to do the best. Sadly, this has not been the case in the privatised industry where companies are deliberately set to fight against each other, with batteries of lawyers and consultants,  and where nothing is done on the basis of trust. Everything has to be written out in contracts at vast expense.

The ideological commitment to commercialising arrangements within the industry, first developed at privatisation, is at the root of much of the extra expense and inefficiency that has resulted from the structure created in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the Department for Transport, has no awareness of the downsides of its obsession with competition which inevitably leads to a loss of trust between the various parties.  So the government is ploughing on regardless of the lessons of the past and inevitably it seems set to create yet another structure that fails to recognise the importance of cooperation.