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Planning for a smooth ride on the railway
PATRICK Hallgate is in no doubt he is in the right place to play a key role in Britain’s railway renaissance, in charge of a slice of the network stretching from London’s Paddington to Bristol, Plymouth and Penzance and via Oxford to Worcester.
At 38, he is the youngest route director ever appointed by Network Rail and, apart from a brief spell as a police psychologist — he has a masters degree in the subject — has worked for the rail infrastructure firm and its predecessor, Railtrack, since 1999.
He says some people were surprised by his decision to take on his current role last November, given the scale of the task ahead, with a £5bn investment programme to bring the Great Western main line into the 21st century — including electrifying the routes from London to Oxford, Newbury, Bristol and Cardiff and installing a £350m signalling system — at the same time as spending £400m a year on regular renewals of track and other equipment and keeping one of the busiest parts of Britain’s rail network running smoothly.
He said: “There’s nowhere else on the rail network I would rather be working at the moment than Western.
“There has never been a more exciting time to work on the railways, simply because of the level of investment we’re undergoing at the moment and the rate of change — the fact it’s such a growth industry, with a 60 per cent increase in freight and 40 per cent in passengers over the past 10 years.
“No other industry has those kind of growth figures and if you put that with the level of investment the Government is currently putting into it, it’s a fantastic place to be.”
'It’s basically like trying to repair a battleship while it’s still at war'Patrick Hallgate
The graduate trainee who joined Railtrack at the end of the 1990s wasn’t initially sure that was the case.
He said: “I joined the training scheme principally to gain a grounding of general management experience.
“I think if someone had told me that I would still be here 12 years later, I would probably have been surprised.
“If someone told me now I would still be here in 12 years’ time, I wouldn’t be.”
But he isn’t starry-eyed about what lies ahead — “trying to deliver an improving railway at the same time as looking after Europe’s biggest building site” — as he and almost 2,000 Network Rail staff working for him, plus countless contractors, go about creating a 21st-century railway on the 19th-century foundations left by the pioneering engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, while keeping 200,000 passengers a day on the move.
“My current analogy is that it’s basically like trying to repair a battleship while it’s still at war. That’s how it feels,” he said.
“Telling people it’s going to be great in five years isn’t something that’s tenable in many respects. They want to know what we’re doing day in, day out.
“What I can say is that from a Network Rail perspective in the year just finished, ([the company’s management year runs from April to the end of March), our delivery in terms of passenger delays has been about 8.8 per cent lower than in the previous year and we have done that against a backdrop of ramping up the delivery of engineering work (such as completion of a £67m track redoubling project on the Cotswold Line between Oxford and Worcester) — so it can be done.
“The challenge is to keep that going for the next four years as the level of investment ramps up still further.”
Network Rail is also under constant pressure from the Government to help bring down the costs of operating and maintaining the railway, which have soared since privatisation in the mid-1990s.
Looking back at his early days in the industry, Mr Hallgate recalls a resignalling scheme on the West Anglia route from London where potential capacity enhancements were being cut out to try to keep within a fast-escalating budget.
“Things have changed since then,” he said “Firstly, costs are under control. We recognise as an industry there are strides in efficiency we can still make but we are significantly more efficient than we were six, seven or eight years ago.
“The Government has seen the direction of where we’re trying to go with efficiency and seen therefore that it’s worthwhile investing more money in rail.”
Keeping control of costs and driving them down amid the capacity enhancement investments is “not an easy process, but we have signed up to a five-year programme”.
He added: “We are starting year four, so we have two years left to hit our efficiency targets, which we’re on track to do, so the cost of running the Network Rail element of the railway will be 22 per cent more efficient at the end of the five-year period than at the start, on the back of even tougher targets in the previous five years.
“The challenge at the moment is meeting the efficiency targets while improving our service delivery.
“What we have seen over the past 18 months is that growing that performance once you’re putting more trains on the network means we’re struggling now with capacity constraints, making it harder to recover from incidents.”
Mr Hallgate concluded: “We have to be mindful of this challenge on a daily basis and I’m acutely aware people pay an awful lot of money to travel from A to B.
“Me saying there will be jam in five years’ time isn’t something that people want to hear, so I completely accept that we have a role to improve the service.
“But we must also deliver investment on an efficient basis that gives us something fit for the 21st century.”