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Delivering excellence in major rail projects

Delivering excellence in major rail projects

Author: A panel discussion between Sue Kershaw of Costain, Stuart Calvert of Network Rail, David Hughes of Transport for the North, Alasdair Reisner of CECA and David Bennett of HS2, hosted by RIA.

With an ever-increasing pressure to deliver major rail projects that not only meet but exceed expectations, we have a golden opportunity to improve the way projects are delivered in the UK. In this article, members of an expert panel convened by the Railway Industry Association, discuss how excellence in delivery requires getting the very best out of the supply chain and ensuring an agile and focused approach. Ultimately, we always need to put the customers who pay for rail infrastructure at the heart of our thinking.

“Excellence in project delivery should always be about delighting the customer, everything else is secondary. By customer we mean those paying the bills, whether the Treasury or private investors, and the end users, our passengers and freight users. When we look back at the arc of history, 99 per cent of users are delighted with the assets we’ve created but we need to continue to delight by delivering excellence in the short term.”

Alasdair Reisner, CECA

Stuart agrees: “Project excellence is all about delivering the right project, which is perfectly designed to meet the passenger or freight customer’s needs. Our focus needs to be on getting the project right.”

Closer supply chain collaboration right from the outset of a project helps cultivate a culture of innovation and alleviates risk by enabling optimum early design. Assembling the right project teams not only by skills and knowledge, but also by behaviours, is critical.

It’s very clear that early contractor involvement is absolutely essential in delivering this excellence. Alasdair: “Investors look for project certainty and the best way to get this is to include those involved in delivery early on. If we go to those with the detailed knowledge and collaborate, we can give confidence to investors that our product is well designed and viable.” David Hughes agrees: “The closer and sooner that client organisations can engage in detail with the supply chain, the better placed they are to develop excellent products and meet the challenge of delighting the customer.”

HS2 has moved away from traditional style ‘transactional’ contracting to a more fluid and engaging approach. David Bennett: “We work to get the absolute best out of our supply chain, delivered against common objectives in a very collaborative way. We are an enabling, facilitating, assuring client and try to put the supply chain front at the front of delivery.

“Behavioural assessment is a really important consideration in our procurement process. We want to work with organisations who can partner with us rather than just being a supplier. When you think of the size of the contracts at HS2, each one is like a major national programme in its’ own right. You have to go into procurement recognising a different kind of relationship is required and make sure you choose people to work with who grasp that.”

Collaboration and adequate time and review are essential to ensure a smooth transition between design management, procurement and project delivery. It’s critical that enough time is spent designing in an integrated way with the delivery team before works start onsite. David Bennett: “The key is for the construction teams to work jointly with the designer in line with clear client objectives, to ensure they are detailing the optimum answer that delivers best value.”

Incremental delivery, where new approaches and technologies are tested and risks are quantified, is essential in providing investors with certainty and delivering best value for money.

It’s important not to try and ‘build the cathedral’ on day one, but rather build out the project from the perspective of what is essential and workable. The focus should be on technologies and systems that work and deliver the right outcomes, therefore establishing the project on a sound footing and avoiding costly mistakes.

David Hughes: “It’s essential to anchor delivery in a strong, coherent project narrative; getting this right can be instrumental in establishing robust specifications and thus avoiding some of the deliverability issues from which mega projects have sometimes suffered.”

The panel agreed that we could learn lessons from other sectors in project build-out. In mining, for example, the concept of ‘first ore’, where project scope and cost are kept focused until ore is discovered and project costs covered.


“We need to take a systems approach to delivering projects and not hang on to the traditional functionalities and divisions. Integration is key; understanding the responsibilities of each party and how they can best work together to deliver the outcomes needed by the client.”

Sue Kershaw, managing director of transportation at Costain

Governance is an enabler and can foster innovation if it is implemented correctly to ensure a project can flex and evolve within guiding boundaries.

In the governance of major projects there is always a natural tension between a desire of sponsors to maintain control and ensuring the management team have enough freedom to meet the end goals of the project.

Sue Kershaw: “Governance shouldn’t be seen as a hurdle, it’s really there to help you make the right decisions in the best way. We should celebrate good governance and make it fit the projects we are working on; it can be a big enabler if it flexes with the nature of the project.”

David Bennett: “At HS2 there is a level of empowerment and delegation within the combined management teams in our Integrated Project Teams that allows them to make more strategic delivery decisions. We’re not telling our supply chain how to do things; they are the source of innovation.”

While a major project’s commercial model is there to minimise schedule and cost, it should also include high qualitative standards, set as KPIs, around factors like community care, health and safety and training. Inherent to project excellence is a recognition that leaders must look after their teams, suppliers and local communities.

There is a huge complexity of need in major projects. Stuart: “Excellence needs to include meeting expectations for suppliers, such as making some money, having development opportunities and the chance to introduce new methods of working. The people around us on site want to go home safely and that now includes the need to work in a socially distanced way. They also want to have some career development and progression. Our projects also have a massive impact on the people living in the areas we are working in. We really need to be aware of this at all times.”

Sue believes these qualitative factors are critical to project excellence and the project’s reputation: “When project teams fade to grey and the last concrete is poured, it’s all about the end users and communities, and how they feel about their experience. We are under intense scrutiny on these public sector rail projects. You have to remember that you are the advocate for the project and for your company.”


It’s clear that collaboration and early supply chain involvement are key if projects are to be delivered effectively. We’ve seen how caution should be taken in digital implementation with workable and tested solutions built into projects to start with and expansion later. Good governance is critical in excellent project delivery and should be looked at as an enabler. We always need to be mindful of the complexity of project delivery and keep the needs of all stakeholders in focus throughout our project delivery.

Our sector is short on the number of skilled people we need, but there is a bank of thousands, impacted by the Covid-19 epidemic, who stand ready to retrain and be part of the solution. Let’s bring that diversity into the fold. The UK faces an enormous rejuvenation in the coming years and infrastructure development and our transport networks will be right at the heart of the challenge of rebuilding our country and economy. Let’s ensure we are ready to deliver excellence to our customers.


Note: Since the panel discussion took place, David Hughes has taken on a new role as Director General for Rail Infrastructure at the Department for Transport.


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