Five minutes with... Ian Parker, director of rail at Costain
Author: Dave Songer, SmartRail World
“I would liken the digital transformation of signalling and traffic management on the rail network to the role of the UK’s smart motorways: in both cases, what it amounts to is getting better utilisation from our existing infrastructure.”
It’s fair to say that the rail industry relies on private engineering companies, and for good reason. Without them the infrastructure work on even the most minor projects simply wouldn’t happen and the mission to overhaul the Victorian-era infrastructure would hit the buffers. So it's great news that SmartRail World managed to feature Costain, one of the infrastructure solutions companies working on the front line of the UK's two largest projects – HS2 and Crossrail – for the latest 5 Minutes With…
Established more than 150 years ago, Costain has a major involvement in the transport industry and works in it, as the company itself puts it, to improve people’s journeys through the use of smart infrastructure products and services. The director of its rail division, Ian Parker, talks to Dave Songer about how Costain uses technology to help solve some of the industry’s most pressing problems, the inspiration he draws from a career outside of rail and why – for the most spectacular rail journeys – North Africa is where it’s at.
Dave Songer (DS): Hi Ian, can you begin by telling me about your role at Costain please?
Ian Parker (IP): Certainly. I lead Costain’s rail business, the team that is responsible, in joint ventures, for delivering the southern section of HS2 Phase 1 and is currently undertaking an extensive programme of enabling works in North and West London. We are also responsible, in joint ventures, for more than 12 contracts on Crossrail, including Bond Street and Paddington stations and the end-to-end tunnel systems contracts for this programme. Another big area of work we have been in involved in is the £1 billion redevelopment of London Bridge station – widely regarded as a flagship project for Network Rail – and we are close to completing electrification works on the Stirling, Dumblane and Alloa line in Scotland.
DS: You’re relatively new to the rail industry – what is it about it that you most enjoy?
IP: That’s right, I joined Costain from Mace a little over a year ago, where I had undertaken a variety of roles ranging from marketing, communications and strategic planning to the delivery of multi-billion-pound infrastructure programmes. While it’s true that rail is a new sector for me, the challenges and issues faced are very familiar and there are some useful parallels with other areas in which I’ve worked. What makes it interesting and exciting right now is that the rail industry is in a state of change – and we’re fortunate at Costain to be involved in two of Britain’s largest, most progressive rail infrastructure programmes. Having that has allowed us to stretch the boundaries of thinking in a sector which has traditions dating back to Victorian times.
DS: Interesting, so the highways-focused role you held before Costain helped with your latest position then?
IP: I led the smart motorways programme for Highways England and later headed-up their £6 billion regional investment programme. Working inside an infrastructure client organisation for nearly five years was incredibly insightful, as most of my career has been in consultancy and delivery organisations. Having had this different perspective helped reshape my thinking on the unique challenges and priorities that face a government organisation, which has to deliver infrastructure programmes in a highly regulated environment.
DS: The rail industry evolves at a great rate; where do you believe the next major changes will come?
IP: Passenger levels are forecast to increase in the rail industry over the next 20 years so capacity is bound to be one of the biggest changes. I would liken the digital transformation of signalling and traffic management on the rail network to the role of the UK’s smart motorways: in both cases, what it amounts to is getting better utilisation from our existing infrastructure.
The other big change we face is that the expectations of rail passengers continue to rise as people demand more productive and better-connected journeys. Trains have become workplaces and travellers are buying access to a service which must make them more efficient whilst on the move.
Mobile telecommunications are critical to this aim, but we all still have some way to go to provide speed and reliability to all. Journey connectivity is also important – for most people the actual mode of travel is less of an issue than the overall experience on the journey, so changing modes needs to be more convenient and more seamless than is often the case today.
DS: What’s been your biggest professional challenge?
IP: I spent several years as health and safety director of a PLC earlier on in my career and transforming the culture of that business to make workforce safety, health and well-being an absolute priority for everyone required a fair amount of tenacity and persuasion along with a good programme of education and training – and some top-class communications. Our industry has improved tremendously in the last decade and I’m proud to have played a small part in that transformation.
DS: What advice would you offer someone looking to get involved in rail?
IP: It’s a great industry with an exciting future for people who want to help improve the lives of commuters and other travellers. My advice would be to think ‘solutions provider’ rather than ‘constructor’ because the biggest future wins will almost certainly be in situations where we can make people more productive and better connected by providing the right environment, the right information and the best end-to-end journey experiences.
DS: Part of Costain’s MO is developing and implementing innovative technology. What’s your personal favourite innovation the company has employed?
IP: Costain is currently developing a system known as Meerkat to save lives at unguarded pedestrian level crossings across the rail network. We are using our product development experience gained from having worked on the highways to develop a fully automated, self-sufficient solution that detects approaching trains and warns pedestrians using visual and audible signals. It’s a simple but effective solution that we hope to have in service within a year at sites across the rail network, preventing accidents and making a real difference to the safety of pedestrians.
DS: What’s your favourite rail journey – anywhere in the world – and why?
IP: Many years ago, I took a train from Tangier to Fez, having reached North Africa by ferry from Tarifa in Spain. Not perhaps the most comfortable or even the quickest of train journeys, but certainly one of the most memorable because of the amazing scenery and eclectic mix of sounds and smells along the route. For visitors to Morocco I can’t think of a better way to get a first experience of the country and I thoroughly recommend it!
DS: Thanks very much, Ian.
This article first appeared in SmartRail World