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.
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.
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.