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"Porterbrook: investing in rail's future" by Mary Grant, Chief Executive, Porterbrook - CILT Scottish Region Webinar on 3 November 2020

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Mary Grant, Chief Executive, Porterbrook

© John Yellowlees 2020

Porterbrook is one of the three rolling-stock companies between which the BR fleet was carved up a quarter-century ago at privatisation. Inheriting a fleet of over 4500 vehicles, it has invested over £3bn in procuring an additional 2500, in total carrying in preCoVid times 1.5M passenger journeys daily.

With a typical life of 30 years, a train is an asset which may require reinvestment several times in order that it may give full value. Thus what started off as a diesel train may provide an opportunity for investment to decarbonise it in a transition that brings in the skills of research and development specialists and academics, sustaining jobs in a supply chain of many supporting businesses, with Porterbrook investing £3M a week in jobs delivering repair and maintenance. Trains have a whole-life carbon footprint that goes from their manufacture through successive types of engine and traction, stretching way beyond the lives of individual franchises.

Transport accounts for 28% of UK emissions of which rail is just over 1%. Scotland aims to decarbonise transport by 2035, the rest of the UK by 2040, with the economy achieving net zero by 2050.

Porterbrook offers a stable business culture in which talent may grow and diversity thrive. When she joined the rail industry twenty years ago, Mary was to be one of its few senior women, but now success inspires success and greater talent is being attracted, with women accounting for 16% of the entire UK rail workforce but 33% at Porterbrook. This has been made possible by taking a long-term approach to investment in staff, attracting young talent out of university with an offer of career flexibility exemplified by Helen Simpson and Chandra Morbey jobsharing the role of Director of Innovation and Projects.

Seeking to expand recruitment from disadvantaged backgrounds, the National Skills Academy for Rail Engineering has overseen a change of industry emphasis from the automotive outlook of heavy engineering towards a focus on the digital world and software, enabling rail to rival Google and Amazon in its attractiveness to bright young minds for whom averting faults by predicting them before they happen may be more compelling than fixing them afterwards.

Electrification today accounts for only 40% of the British network, much less than in many comparable countries. An incremental approach is now envisaged to extending the wires, with use of discontinuous electrification and other technologies : Network Rail's decarbonisation plan envisages the electrified proportion rising by 11700 km, with 900 km of the rest operated by hydrogen and 400 km by battery trains. Scotland has been committed for some time, declaring that north of the border decarbonisation is spelt E-L-E-C-T-R-I-F-I-C-A-T-I-O-N.

Hydrogen trains are slower than diesel, and battery ones have limited range, but technology will evolve, and the purpose will be to extend the life of middle-aged fleets. In September the world's first hydrogen train took to the rails as a Class 319 refitted by the University of Birmingham, with tanks below a specially-fitted raft, conveyed guests including the transport secretary (who commented on how normal it felt) from the development site at Long Marston to Evesham, and there followed an announcement that Tees-side would become a centre of excellence for developing hydrogen infrastructure in partnership with Small and Medium Enterprises.

Other initiatives to repurpose displaced Class 319 electric trains have included fitting them with diesel engines as Class 769s for Northern and Transport for Wales and a tri-mode variant for Great Western Railway to operate over the Reading-Gatwick route from overhead wires and third rail as well as diesel. Fitting supplementary batteries could enable diesel trains such as on Chiltern to operate into main termini without producing fumes, and where there will be continuing reliance on diesel a train's performance can be made more environmentally efficient, with middle-aged Class 159s on South Western Railway enabled to emit 90% less carbon dioxide.

Climate change is a great driver of rail investment, but revealed its unacceptable side in the tragic derailment at Carmont, prompting Network Rail to have to examine the condition of its earthworks across the network. Scotland is already setting its own lead on decarbonisation, with Scottish Enterprise the University of St Andrews applying hydrogen technology to a retired Class 314 electric train. Porterbrook products with a medium-term future in Scotland are the Classes 170 and 158 diesels, with scope for repurposing and for an interior refresh : and on such projects her company aims to be a funding as well as an engineering partner.

The new Glasgow Queen Street may inspire the way ahead as Scotland's railway takes the next couple of years to recover from the shock of the pandemic. Porterbrook in common with many other employers learned to adjust rapidly to the unprecedented new circumstances: with its IT Department facilitating remote working through Zooms and Teams and its Human Resources team following up with wellbeing surveys that produced an 85% response rate with 98% reporting positive feelings. Rapid application of new ways of working instilled confidence in the supply chain which has seen new contracts awarded such as for refurbishment of GoVia Thameslink's Electrostar fleet.

The railway now faces a new customer profile in which the biggest peak may be at weekends, so that it may no longer be possible to do engineering work then. The industry must be ready to support implementation of the recommendations from the Williams Review, which arose out of a difficult timetable change two years ago but may now lead to new contractual relationships. The advantages of having a strong controlling mind can be seen at Transport Scotland, and the need for best value points to retaining the achievements of the rolling-stock companies in keeping many billions of investment out of the public sector accounts so as to protect spend on other public services while promoting best value throughout whole asset-life and supporting supply chains to deliver best value for both taxpayer and farepayer.

Pending the appearance of a White Paper, train operations are being protected by Emergency Recovery Measures Arrangements, but the Welsh Government has opted to take the Transport for Wales network into full public ownership. Once present circumstances are behind us, Long Marston will exemplify the future, on a 12-acre site bringing together SMEs to show to investors the value of working to algorithms embodying whole-life principles while always demonstrating that safety is in the industry's DNA.

With remote working, new skills may be attracted that no longer have to be bound by co-location, and it may be easier in future to retain and develop staff by offering a wider range of career-enhancing activity to keep people interested. Another new focus is on fitting the European Train Control System, starting with the Class 387s now used on the Heathrow Express and on the Great Northern route into Kings Cross. Freight will also be a focus in the years ahead, with more Class 319s repurposed to take lightweight logistics from places like London Gateway and middle-aged diesel Class 66s fitted with the MNOX programme to improve air quality in anticipation of their being needed to haul construction trains for new housebuilding programmes. And of course HS2 holds out prospects for the entire industry by its provision of extra capacity, releasing existing networks to meet new passenger and freight needs.

Notes and photograph by John Yellowlees


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