Network Rail is spending £40bn in the five years to 2019 on an ambitious plan to upgrade the UK’s rail infrastructure. Helen Hunter-Jones, Head of Group Risk at the organisation, explains how her team are building a risk platform to support the project.
When Helen Hunter-Jones joined the UK’s train infrastructure business Network Rail in 2012, she thought she had said goodbye to central government. The company was a quasi-independent organisation charged with keeping the country’s trains running, and planning and implementing major upgrades to the national system. She left HMGCC, a small government agency, after 20 years’ service where she had, among other things, developed and managed its enterprise risk management (ERM) processes.
But it was not to be. On 1st September 2014, the government brought Network Rail back under its wing in what many described as re-nationalisation. Hunter-Jones had been promoted to Head of Group Risk just two months earlier. She shrugs off the personal irony of the situation, but agrees that the change in the business’ status has thrown up some anomalies and opportunities.
“Our key product is a fully functioning, fit-for-purpose railway infrastructure system,” she explains when I catch up with her at the company’s national office in Milton Keynes. “And our biggest pressure is our ability to get access to the network to actually repair it.”
In some areas of the country, engineers have a window of only three hours per night to do their repairs. That means having all of the necessary kit in place and the right people ready to work for a very limited period per day – which hikes up the cost of repairs and the amount of days needed to rectify problems. While the company can plan major enhancement projects years in advance, if a tree falls on the line anywhere from Land’s End to John O’Groats, it has to react quickly. Any delays to trains caused by a failure of its infrastructure – or from external causes, such as acts of God – means the company having to pay compensation to a train operator, such as Virgin or Stagecoach.
“It’s not going to be easy, but I think everybody is realising that this penalty approach which can lead to a tense, blame culture, needs to change, and there are lots of conversations to be had about what needs to be done,” she says. “We have to work better together and for me it’s all about sharing risk and collaborating because we are all here to provide a service ultimately to the passengers.”
While she would like to see the system revisited, reviewing the impact of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union on the business is a more pressing item on her to-do list. “We are currently going through a piece of work to understand all of our principle risks and what the potential impacts will be, but more, actually, on what the opportunities are,” she says.
One of the main risks for Network Rail is that the European Union is a major funder of large infrastructure projects. On the other hand, some European legislation, for example on endangered species, and interoperability – (the idea that all rail gauges should be uniform across the EU) could change, making projects like the planned North-South rail link HS2 potentially easier to build.
Given that capacity crunch on the railways, Hunter-Jones says the imperative is to find a way of making space to run more trains. What is needed, she says, is to introduce modern digital signalling technology which will allow trains to run much more closely together, thereby enabling many more trains to run while using the same amount of track. At the moment, a train cannot run on a piece of track between two signals if another train is already present. It is the only safe way to make sure trains do not get too close to each other. Digital signalling does away with that restriction because each driver knows where he or she is in the system in relation to the other trains. The Victoria and Jubilee lines on London Underground use this digital signalling technology which has delivered a huge increase in capacity – more trains and more seats for commuters.
If good risk management is important now, it will be even more critical with perhaps twice as many trains running on the system – with all of the potential problems that exist today from weather and infringements on the track to breakdowns both of the infrastructure and the trains.
Hunter-Jones and her team have been busy innovating on the visualisation of risks – a project that won her a gong at last year’s Institute of Risk Management’s annual risk awards. This provides a much better picture of the relationships between individual and systemic risks. She is hoping that improved data analytics across the network on how well the organisation’s assets perform – track, signals, and other hardware – can inform its planning and increase the amount of proactive management that is possible.
Through an innovative project, ORBIS, tools have been developed to support intelligent data analytics. A team within the Safety and Technical Engineering function has developed a topographical view of the network, which shows, for example, where embankments are, how steep they are, where the trees and culverts are, and so on; a map of its assets and their expected life spans; and, a map of the weather conditions. The aim is to be able to overlay these views in real time so the team can begin to see and predict where the flash points are and act in advance of problems becoming catastrophic.
“We have done a lot of work using data analytics and we want to be able to use our predictions to move on to more risk-based maintenance schedules and to move, eventually, into true risk-based maintenance,” she says.
None of this will be possible without a sound ERM system in place and, needless to say, Hunter-Jones has been working hard to implement just such an approach. Given the complexity and size of the organisation, operational risk in health and safety, major infrastructure enhancements and other mission critical processes were already strong when she arrived. But collating and escalation all of that data on risk into something that could be used by the board and the executive team as a strategic tool was a key aim.
And when Hunter-Jones did start the process, it was not easy.
“It was a real challenge and the credibility of the team was low,” she recalls. Hunter-Jones found herself with a team of two – which she has grown to seven today. In addition, there are about 30 risk co-ordinators in the business, which employs about 35,000 people, and a team of 80 that work in the Risk and Value team supporting the multi-million pound enhancenment and renewals portfolio.
Hunter-Jones treated the ERM initiative like a change project. She wanted to create a culture within the entire business that was aware of risk, so that people knew who to go to if they suspected there was a problem. “You can put all the tools in place you like, but you won’t get the output you need if people do not think in the right way,” she says. “It took a long time and it took lots of conversations, but it was good because it brought together a risk community throughout the business and that hadn’t happened before.”
In practical terms, that meant putting together a design authority for the project – a committee that met every month to thrash out what issues needed to be addressed and how they could do so. One of the most important streams to the programme addressed the issue of competency and training, the other addressed culture. Some of her staff have sat IRM qualifications – and Hunter-Jones was herself IRM Diploma Student of the Year in 2012. On the culture side, the team went around the organisation and talked to everyone from the board and the executive, to management and frontline staff.
“I needed to get everyone around a table to make it a joint development so it wasn’t just me telling them what to do,” she said. “I was dreading trying to build risk appetite into the business and nobody understanding it, but because of the approach we took, when we got to that point, everybody said, ‘thank God – we’ve been wanting this for years’.”
“It was fantastic and I couldn’t have built the risk framework or the risk appetite without the input of those people,” she adds. “They all helped shape it, so ultimately everybody owned it – and if you all own something, you are less likely to moan about it and not do it.”
Stage two involved embedding risk management throughout the business. That involved creating some training sessions and a lot more travel for Hunter-Jones and her team. They built on a previously created team of risk co-ordinators – a community of people within the business units who both ensured that risk was being managed within those divisions, and supported the reporting process back to the central team on more strategic risk issues. Then, she introduced a final layer at the top – business assurance committees, chaired by directors and supported by a secretary generally drawn from the finance area who have a good grasp of the business and its goals. They were forbidden to bring their risk managers to the meetings, so there was a lot of embarrassment at first because some found they were not as up-to-date on risk as they needed to be.
“The conversations are brilliant now – the view from two years ago to now is not comparable,” she says. She says the organisation has gone from being very reactive, to being one where anticipation and challenge about risk among management is normal.
“The truth is that in an organisation of this size and complexity, a small number of risk managers cannot manage all risk,” she says. “The people that understand the business have to do that and they need the right tools and have to be accountable and responsible for making decisions.”
The risk management team now also works closer together than before. Hunter-Jones wants to develop a broader community of risk professionals both within the organisation and beyond. She is a member of the government’s risk improvement group, for example, and a cross-industry risk group that comprises businesses local to Milton Keynes, including Mercedes and Rolls Royce. She has just been involved in a benchmarking exercise with Airbus entailing reciprocal site visits. “I’m really keen on learning from others and developing a profession,” she says. “After all, risk changes all the time and you have got to keep learning to stay ahead.”