NR Wales Route MD

NR’s Wales Route MD ANDY THOMAS looks at the ef­fect the new fran­chise in 2018 will have on fu­ture rail op­er­a­tions.

Rail (UK) - - Contents - RAIL pho­tog­ra­phy: JACK BOSKETT

Wales is a unique na­tion in many ways. But for the pur­poses of this fea­ture we’ll stick to its rail­ways, where elec­tri­fi­ca­tion has proven to be as fan­ci­ful as the red dragon that adorns the na­tional flag.

In fact, Wales has the du­bi­ous dis­tinc­tion of join­ing just two other Euro­pean na­tions in be­ing en­tirely bereft of elec­tri­fied rail­way to date - the oth­ers are Al­ba­nia and Moldova.

That won’t be the case for much longer. Elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of the Great West­ern Main Line is due to reach Cardiff by De­cem­ber 2019, although no longer the ad­di­tional 42 miles to Swansea as orig­i­nally planned.

That also means new trains for the two cities, as Hi­tachi’s In­ter­city Ex­press Pro­gramme bi-mode trains be­gin to en­ter ser­vice on the route from Padding­ton next month.

No one could be more pleased by this than Andy Thomas, who re­turned to his na­tive Wales in Au­gust 2016 to be­come only the sec­ond ever Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor of NR’s new­est Route, fol­low­ing its for­ma­tion in 2011.

Born near Tenby in south­west Wales, Thomas left al­most 30 years ago for a ca­reer in the Royal Navy, fol­lowed by stints at the Na­tional Grid, ABB and Trans­port for Lon­don.

He then switched to sun­nier climes, help­ing to run metro sys­tems in Hy­der­abad and New Delhi in In­dia, be­fore work­ing in Aus­tralia for Trans­port for New South Wales.

Thomas then switched from New South Wales to old South Wales, and quickly set about mak­ing his mark from the more tem­per­ate set­ting of his new of­fice in South Glam­or­gan. This in­cluded get­ting to grips with the Route’s di­verse range of stake­hold­ers in­clud­ing Trans­port for Wales, the Welsh As­sem­bly, Trans­port Fo­cus and a host of op­er­a­tors in­clud­ing Great West­ern Rail­way (GWR), Ar­riva Trains Wales (ATW), CrossCoun­try and Vir­gin West Coast.

“Get­ting the op­por­tu­nity to come back here and in­flu­ence how the rail­way op­er­ates was a fan­tas­tic op­por­tu­nity,” he tells RAIL.

“I’m very pas­sion­ate about the Wales and Bor­ders re­gion, and so the first thing I did was to travel right around the net­work to meet peo­ple, learn what our cus­tomers want, and see what ser­vices we are pro­vid­ing to de­liver that.”

The sec­ond most im­por­tant task on his to-do list was to de­velop a wide-rang­ing Cor­po­rate Plan, to plug the gap be­tween the Route’s strate­gic busi­ness plan pub­lished by his pre­de­ces­sor Mark Langman in 2014 (at the be­gin­ning of Con­trol Pe­riod 5, CP5) and the CP6 plan that is still in de­vel­op­ment prior to its com­mence­ment in 2019.

Thomas’ new three-year Cor­po­rate Plan pro­vides the frame­work for how he and his team plan to de­liver an im­proved pas­sen­ger ex­pe­ri­ence as part of a closely in­te­grated part­ner­ship with the Route’s ex­ter­nal stake­hold­ers, each of which have dif­fer­ent and some­times con­flict­ing in­ter­ests in the rail­way.

He ex­plains: “What I put to­gether very quickly was the Cor­po­rate Plan, be­cause in the in­ter­me­di­ary (be­tween 2014 and 2019) we had noth­ing to bring the or­gan­i­sa­tion to­gether and state our vi­sion - what we are try­ing to achieve, and our role in that.

“We are an as­set man­age­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion, but ev­ery­where else I have worked - whether pub­lic or pri­vate - has had track and train op­er­at­ing to­gether. Cus­tomers don’t care who does what, they just want to get from A to B as safely and quickly as pos­si­ble. So bring­ing ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­one to­gether was re­ally im­por­tant, and then putting the end-cus­tomer at the fore­front of that.”

The plan has five strate­gic themes. Th­ese in­clude in­creas­ing safety for both pas­sen­gers and the work­force, and in­vest­ing in the skills and de­vel­op­ment of the Route’s staff. There is also a ‘growth’ head­ing that says the net­work will con­tinue to grow its con­tri­bu­tion to the Welsh econ­omy and sup­port in­creased de­mand from pas­sen­gers.

Un­der the head­ing ‘Cus­tomer’, the Cor­po­rate Plan com­mits NR to work­ing col­lab­o­ra­tively with its cus­tomers to de­liver ‘one rail­way’, but also (more in­trigu­ingly) that its stake­hold­ers should have trust in its abil­ity to de­liver.

This part of the plan taps into the strong de­vo­lu­tion­ary forces at work in the coun­try, which has un­doubt­edly strained re­la­tions be­tween NR’s Wales Route and the coun­try’s de­volved Gov­ern­ment.

Welsh Min­is­ters have been granted pow­ers to award and over­see the next Wales & Bor­ders fran­chise that be­gins in Oc­to­ber 2018, but they have re­peat­edly called on West­min­ster to also de­volve re­spon­si­bil­ity for Net­work Rail, as is al­ready the case in Scot­land.

Cit­ing its con­cerns that rail in­fra­struc­ture is be­ing un­der­funded in Wales, the Welsh Af­fairs Com­mit­tee went pub­lic again in

We’re all com­pet­ing for a pot of gov­ern­ment money that we all know is de­pleted, and hav­ing one voice for that money will max­imise the po­ten­tial that we get it. Andy Thomas, Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor, Net­work Rail Wales Route

Jan­uary with its re­quest, only to be re­buffed once more by the UK Gov­ern­ment in March.

Thomas is pre­dictably diplo­matic in his views on the mat­ter, and ever the prag­ma­tist in the re­sponse he gives to RAIL.

Ac­tions of­ten speak louder than words, and so Thomas has made it his busi­ness to re­build ties with the Welsh As­sem­bly - and in par­tic­u­lar its Econ­omy and In­fra­struc­ture Sec­re­tary Ken Skates - by prov­ing that NR can be trusted to serve Wales’ best in­ter­ests un­der the cur­rent sta­tus quo.

That un­en­vi­able task be­gan al­most im­me­di­ately for Thomas af­ter his ar­rival in Au­gust 2016, when the Sev­ern Tun­nel was closed for six weeks from Septem­ber 2016 as part of the Great West­ern elec­tri­fi­ca­tion pro­gramme.

Re­open­ing this key cross-bor­der eco­nomic artery on time and lim­it­ing dis­rup­tion there­fore be­came an early marker for how well Thomas would be re­ceived by Welsh Gov­ern­ment, and set the bar for fu­ture ex­changes.

He ex­plains: “We must have strong re­la­tion­ships with our stake­hold­ers, and if we don’t the next step for me is to set up suc­cess for CP6. We’re all com­pet­ing for a pot of gov­ern­ment money that we all know is de­pleted, and hav­ing one voice for that money will max­imise the po­ten­tial that we get it.

“For me, it’s about achiev­ing the right out­come for peo­ple in Wales. And while it has its sim­i­lar­i­ties to Scot­land, it also has its dif­fer­ences - there shouldn’t be a stan­dard­ised ap­proach for across the UK.

“We’re work­ing very closely with Ken Skates, and I now see him just about ev­ery week. But it’s fair to say that the re­la­tion­ship with Welsh Gov­ern­ment was prob­a­bly a bit prickly at the be­gin­ning of my time here, and so we’ve got to build con­fi­dence in our abil­ity to de­liver.

“When I got here, re­turn­ing the Sev­ern Tun­nel on time was pretty cru­cial. I re­mem­ber Ken say­ing to me ‘your suc­cess in this role will be de­liv­er­ing that back on time’, so no pres­sure there then. That was pretty im­por­tant to our stake­hold­ers and pas­sen­gers, and we need to demon­strate that we’re get­ting the right out­comes.”

De­spite Thomas’ best ef­forts, ten­sions will have surely resur­faced fol­low­ing Sec­re­tary of State for Trans­port Chris Grayling’s con­tro­ver­sial an­nounce­ment in July that elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of the line be­tween Cardiff and Swansea had been can­celled ( RAIL 832), and that IEP trains will in­stead run be­yond the

wires in diesel mode. Thomas once again points to the need for unity to make the best of an un­for­tu­nate sit­u­a­tion, and to place the coun­try’s rail­ways on the sound­est foot­ing to re­ceive in­creased in­vest­ment in CP6.

“Clearly in Wales a num­ber of our stake­hold­ers were dis­ap­pointed with that out­come. We cer­tainly need to re­cover our po­si­tion. We need to sit down with them and work out what’s right go­ing for­ward, and what we can do with that money that will have a far big­ger im­pact for the Route.

“We can sit and talk about what a bad thing it was and how up­set we are, but at the end of the day we’ll end up with noth­ing. It’s about how we re­group and po­si­tion our­selves in prepa­ra­tion for CP6. But as I’ve said to the stake­hold­ers, CP6 is go­ing to be chal­leng­ing. We will fight for what­ever money we can, but we must put for­ward cred­i­ble plans and stand shoul­der to shoul­der with our stake­hold­ers.”

With the Welsh As­sem­bly likely to re­new its call for greater ju­ris­dic­tion over Net­work Rail at some point in the fu­ture, can Thomas fore­see such a sce­nario?

His re­ply is con­cil­ia­tory in that re­gard­less of po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion-mak­ing, it is the in­ter­ests of the pas­sen­gers that must come first. This has to be the case on both sides of the bor­der be­tween Eng­land and Wales - the bor­der is cur­rently merely sym­bolic, but there are con­cerns that de­vo­lu­tion could lead to the Welsh Gov­ern­ment tak­ing de­ci­sions that are prin­ci­pally in its own in­ter­ests.

“There are com­plex­i­ties as­so­ci­ated with the Scot­tish model, and ob­vi­ously we would need to build our re­quire­ments into what­ever was de­cided - whether that be an al­liance, joint ven­ture or some kind of part­ner­ship ar­range­ment.

“What we’re look­ing for is some­thing that meets the needs of Welsh Gov­ern­ment, but they them­selves would have to meet the

Cus­tomers don’t care who does what, they just want to get from A to B as safely and quickly as pos­si­ble.

PAUL BIGLAND/ RAIL.

Ar­riva Trains Wales 143625 calls at Pon­typridd with a Val­leys Lines ser­vice on Au­gust 18 2016. This heavy rail route could be con­verted to light rail or tram-train use un­der the next Wales & Bor­ders fran­chise, which be­gins next Oc­to­ber.

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