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"Crossrail International" by Keith Wallace: 12 October 2023

Keith Wallace, Chairman, Crossrail Internationald

Keith Wallace, Chairman, Crossrail International

© Keith Wallace, Crossrail International.

When Network Rail's Sir John Armit said in 2006 that he didn't want innovation, only things that worked today, the rail industry was at a low ebb on West Coast Route Modernisation. However less than a decade later as ICE President he would call on the industry to innovate, and by this time it had created St Pancras International which Guilleme Pepy of SNCF hailed as probably the best station in the world.

Keith's arrival from BR at Scott Wilson made him its first railway engineer so it was in a curious role reversal that as chief executive he later acquired his old office in a process which showed him that culture is the key to successful acquisitions. Working on HSL Zuid Europe's first high-speed line taught him the challenges of restraining "propeller-heads" in a multilingual environment. The Borders Railway was about working with key influencers and helping local authorities up their game in a context where understanding trade-offs would be vital. The East London Line suffered from poor collaboration between non-players with constant changes by the client, and GoVia Thameslink Railway brought a three-way merger just at the introduction of the biggest new fleet which would culminate in the 2018 timetable crisis. But an interlude at Crossrail had shown the value of picking the best team.

Working overseas inspired in Keith the value of cultural awareness, at which the British are better than say the Americans. The challenge may be much more about problem-solving than just following codes or standards. British engineering consultancies may be a diminished presence on the world scene, but individual British engineers retain a reputation for being culturally aware, pragmatic and impartial. Knowledge of how government works breeds an appreciation of the presence in many countries of government agencies behind the scenes.

Experience of working on the Athens Metro, Western Australian iron-ore flows, Saudi Arabian rail development and even exploring the abandoned lines of Sierra Leone provided a backdrop for Keith's return to the London Crossrail scene, where the new Elizabeth Line's 200M journeys annually on 118 route-km with 41 new stations already represent an incredible one-seventh of all rail journeys in Britain.

The new agency that he has chaired in succession to Terry Morgan since 2021 to export the knowhow acquired on Europe's largest rail construction project has a team of just two non-executive directors, a chief executive and six Departmental heads deploying 60 Crossrail alumni. Its global reach has extended to most parts of the world except Europe and Africa, with particular successes being Israel's Tel Aviv Metro, Indonesia's Jabodebek light rail and Jakarta-Bandung high-speed line and urban rail development in Colombia.

The purpose of Crossrail International is to support the UK Government's "Global Britain in a Competitive Age" vision and the Department for Transport's strategic framework. It aims to increase the competitiveness of the UK's wide range of capabilities in the global rail market and to drive economic growth through increased exports. Its vision is to be the UK Government's global delivery partner of choice for complex infrastructure projects internationally. Its mission is to help clients around the world unlock the full potential of their rail schemes, creating opportunities to drive sustainable growth and deliver long-term social, environmental and economic benefits. It helps position UK businesses for rail project internationally, leveraging its role as a government-owned body and providing access to the significant knowledge, expertise and lessons learned from Crossrail and associated UK mega-projects. Thus it supports the transfer of innovation and good practice to help raise the UK's profile and influence globally.

Crossrail International's values are agility, creativity, collaboration, inclusivity and integrity. Since September 2017 it has awarded 55 commissions, including 12 long-term client frameworks. Securing work in 16 countries spanning 5 continents, it has become involved in worldwide transport schemes totalling more than £328bn, supporting partners to secure contracts worth £77M in the supply chain. With its Crossrail alumni acting as expert advisers, it has hosted 65 incoming delegations and participated in 25 outgoing ones to 32 countries.

Critical success factors have included CI's positioning, seen as part of Government so can it can facilitate Government to Government agreements. CI focuses on countries where both Governments want to trade, offering a private-sector approach but unburdened by any need to keep shareholders happy. Not being seen as a competitor to players in the supply chain, CI occupies what is a very much a "sweet spot" between public and private sectors. Key to its approach is identifying clients open to help, advising on what they need rather than what they thought they might have wanted. Having previously occupied senior roles in the rail industry or consultancy, CI people can give advice that is informed and tailored, rather than templated from some manual or playbook. Its impartiality, culturally awareness and collaboration are all yielding dividends.

Crossrail International has made a strong start in fulfilling a clearly recognised need. Its status makes it well-connected, supported, visible and agile. There is much to be levered from taking the lead in collaborating with other government programmes, and evolving to a more balanced portfolio of client-led and CI-created opportunities with a focus on leveraging its Arm's Length Body status will pay further dividends. A real opportunity exists to establish CI as a viable and long-term ALB that will be a central part of the UK infrastructure-export strategy and assist in strengthening the UK's position globally. CI is therefore a trusted intermediary with a bright future.

Most memorable experience for Keith has been the Chinese speed at doing things. He is unsure that HS2 curtailment will count against our reputation provided we are open and honest. When operating in politically unstable parts of the world, the most important thing is to look after the team. The key need always is to build quality because while memories of overspend or slippage will fade over time, poor quality will haunt a project forever.

Report by John Yellowlees. Photograph by Keith wallace, Crossrail International.


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