Comments on the "Far North Line Review Team Consolidation Report - August 2019"
In August 2016 I was commissioned by FoFNL to carry out a performance study on the FNL to give them an independent view of the problems being experienced regularly on the line at that time. I carried out the study throughout the route during one week in early October 2016 and issued my report later the same month. In addition to the insightful briefings that I received from FoFNL itself, my study would not have been possible without the assistance of the many exceptionally willing and committed staff from within ScotRail.
My report was discussed and my recommendations and their progress regularly reviewed at a series of most useful ScotRail meetings commencing in November 2016, to which I was invited. Also, I presented it formally to FoFNL at their AGM in Inverness on 23 June 2017.
It is most encouraging to see that continuing work by all interested parties has now culminated in the "Far North Line Review Team Consolidation Report, August 2019". All of the initiatives contained therein are well-considered and will be of great value to this far-flung route with its unique operational challenges. There has been much activity in recent years investigating ways to reduce the escalating costs of work on the UK railway system. Having been a railway professional for almost 50 years in the UK and Internationally, I have a number of observations on this issue.
Network Rail is funded through regularly reviewed agreements with Government on a 'not for dividend' basis - but that is not synonymous with 'not for inefficiency'. In recent years, much focus appears to have been directed onto the costs of systems, but it is not evident that the costs of processes has been analysed with similar rigour. It is striking how some small companies can achieve so much with so few resources because actual work takes precedence over prevarication. All organisations, especially large ones, need to question thoroughly the actual added value of any internal processes that surround productive work, and adjust accordingly.
The UK culture is notably unique. As an example, in my time in International R&D and manufacturing - and this dates from way back in the 1990's - we wanted to see how practicable an LED railway signal would be. The UK reaction was that committees of learned people would need to cogitate for some time before producing an outline specification, leading to the formation of a working party to formulate detailed requirements, followed by the production of a comprehensive safety case and then preliminary consideration of R&D funding etc etc - timescale estimated to be at least a year. The US approach was similar but somewhat shorter. The reaction of certain other European country reps was . . . to disagree on everything, possibly because of protecting National interests! However, the response from my antipodean colleagues was "It's Monday, so tell us what you want and we'll get a prototype working by Friday, then we can refine it afterwards"; they achieved their objective and in practice very little modification was needed to the basic design because the people doing it knew their stuff and were not impeded by others. This is reminiscent of a mathematical technique known as "Newton's method" essentially whereby, if a problem is just too difficult, then take a stab at it, look at the result and reiterate until a plausible result emerges.
The most successful commercial approach is to determine for any specific functionality actually what can be afforded, covering the entirety of the project - the physical items AND their surrounding processes. Then to use ingenuity (from which the word "Engineering" is derived) to produce the affordable solution. This is precisely how AMSTRAD quickly and overwhelmingly gained market share in the early days of PCs.
Within the "Next Steps" at the end of the Consolidation Report is the item "Lentran Loop Development". This will probably be the single most costly item listed. As an exemplar, through open-minded collaboration it would be a welcome step forward if the focused might of cross-party ingenuity led to an economically optimal and affordable result for Lentran.