Rail Project Development – Is it timely to renew focus?

In recent months the rail industry has done a remarkable job in showing its flexibility in transforming working practices and procedures to keep staff and customers safe.

As the country looks to recover from the devastating coronavirus pandemic, many upcoming essential schemes, programmes and projects will require a timely resurgence of the often overlooked ‘project development stage’.

Thorough preparation is essential to success and the development stages of any project are key to shape its success.

Damien Gent is Managing Director of CPMS Infrastructure, experts in delivering complex rail projects in the UK, offering professional services in a wide range of areas such as engineering, design, construction and commercial.

He’s written a piece for railbusinessdaily.com sharing his experience of successfully delivering complex infrastructure rail projects and stressing the importance of the project development stage.

“As I celebrate 20 years in the rail industry this month, it seems timely to take some time out and reflect. Currently, like millions of others, I am undertaking my 9 to 5 sat in front of Microsoft Teams, season ticket for South West Railways sat idle in a desk draw. These unprecedent times have demanded a huge change in how the workplace operates and as such, how the rail industry operates. The unquestionable commitment of the individuals working within our sector means that trains have remained clean and running for key workers, essential maintenance and renewals works have been undertaken despite the challenges of social distancing. The “behind the scenes” essential project planning, developing and designing activities have all continued.

As lockdown eases, I suspect, alongside others, that the industry is going to be tested by the consequences of reduced demand, changes in working patterns, the impact on farebox and ultimately the translation to funding and future infrastructure investment. This impact might not be felt immediately as we roll into Network Rail’s second year of CP6 but its ripple effects on the franchising process and the fleet, depot and station upgrades due to be delivered by the train operators might be visible sooner.

I don’t doubt the industry will need to change and respond to its future life. Pencils that had already been sharpened as a result of the various governmental reviews will be applied with far greater pressure now. This change will come with renewed focus on making sure the industry is doing all the right things. Therefore, it is extremely positive that during this whole crisis, the industry has managed to continue developing and designing projects. Outside of HS2, there is a world of essential schemes, programmes and projects that are needed and I would suggest a timely resurgence and a strengthening of the often overlooked ‘project development stage’ would be no bad thing when the test questions arrive around ‘sustainable investment’ and ‘downward demand forecasts’.

Over my twenty years within the industry, I have been lucky enough to work across disciplines, in differing roles spanning from the assistant’s assistant through to director. During that time, experience has taught me that these development stages of any project shape its success. A strong construction team should never be asked to resolve a fundamental issue that could have been addressed more efficiently and affordably in the early stages of the project. To that end, with the industry in flux, a renewed focus should be given to developing projects across the industry, whether from government, maintainer, operator, sponsor or funder. Whilst my ‘guide to’ developing projects wouldn’t be the most talked about publication during lockdown, it would cover the essentials to be successful, with chapters focusing on the need for a clear set of outputs/requirements, a consistent line of sight with a strong, unwavering

controlling mind, sensible collaborative commercial arrangements between all parties, a blend of compliance mixed with plenty of competence, stakeholder engagement and importantly, expectation management coupled with a rigid adherence to timescales. Continuously moving the resolution of issues to the right only does a disservice to those who cannot move the programme any further right and therefore frustrates and undermines confidence in the project.

But most importantly, the opening page of my guide would state the case for getting the experienced individuals involved early. A wonderful colleague of mine, a mentor as I’ve navigated my way through the industry, once said that ‘enthusiasm is no substitute for experience’. Now, as I look through the other end of that telescope, I can see his point. Whilst developing a project requires unfaltering effort, persistence and enthusiasm to cut through the grey and shape it into a solution, getting the experience of those individuals that have built and maintained the network from an early stage will save time and effort. From a concept sketch to a developed business case, a large part of converting that into a safe and successful project will come down to finding those people that have experienced and learned from the build phase. They will help guide the design, simplify processes, shape the organisation, drive the safety agenda, provide logic to the programme, detail stageworks, validate cost estimates and shout loudly about obvious, show stopping, problems. I have never found a railway professional that likes to repeat mistakes.

So as I plough headlong into my third decade in the industry, an industry that will certainly not be like before, I’m going to spend time with my team distilling the benefits of my experience and sharing my guide to developing projects as I expect the industry is going to be asked many difficult questions over the next 12-24months. Across the industry we will need to collectively defend why developing, maintaining and renewing the railway remains an essential, connecting part of the UK economy.”

Damien Gent is Managing Director of CPMS Infrastructure.

Visit www.cpmsgroup.com for more details.