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The Welsh Transport Forum

In April, Cardiff’s Mercure Hotel opened its doors to the third iteration... 28 min

In April, Cardiff’s Mercure Hotel opened its doors to the third iteration of the popular Welsh Transport Forum. Appropriately taking place at the start of CP6, the networking dinner brought together more than 400 representatives to discuss the future of transport in Wales. Quadrant Transport brings you the night’s highlights alongside exclusive pre-event conversations

James Price doesn’t like to call his customers “passengers.” For the chief executive of Transport for Wales (TfW), the word ‘passengers’ can often feel distant; it’s almost like those who use Welsh transport services are mere bodies with no personalities, being carried around by rolling stock, rather than people with thoughts and emotions and the inherent ability to choose. “When you talk about ‘customers,’ they have a set of feelings and a series of choices they ought to make about whether to use a service or not,” he told me. “We ought to be, in my view, where people go to have that choice. We ought to treat them as if they do have that choice. It would feel very different if that’s what all management and all frontline staff had at their very core in terms of their engagement with customers.”

In a sense, this view, which James insists should not be taken as a controversial statement, perfectly encapsulates what the now-devolved Welsh transport network wants to become in the coming months and years. When I asked the CEO to describe his ideal transport network if he were to fast-forward 15 years and ride a train across Wales, Price said he’d like to feel like he was being cared about as an individual.

We ought to be, in my view, where people go to have that choice. We ought to treat them as if they do have that choice

“I would want to feel that I was cared about and that I was a valued customer,” he continued, “and that, even if something went wrong, people were looking after me all through it and I didn’t have to look after it myself. Our aspiration to service quality is really high, but I think the proof of the pudding is not in those basic things – such as running new trains to time, which I would really hope we were doing as a basic anyway – but when something goes wrong. Or even when a customer gets something wrong: for example, they buy the wrong ticket, get on the wrong train, or lose some luggage. How are they dealt with? I want the individual to feel like they’re getting the level of service they would get in today’s best retail or hotel environment. That’s the level we should be aspiring to.

“When you look in the automotive space, for example, you will certainly discover that the brands which have the highest brand value, and which people will speak most highly of, are not necessarily the ones that are providing the most reliable service. It’s to do with the feeling they give their customers around what they’re delivering,” James explained. “And even when something goes wrong, if someone deals with you exceptionally well and provides you with an exceptionally high-quality resolution, you feel good about that interaction. Potentially, you feel even better about it than if it had just gone right the first time. We want right first time, plus a very high quality of customer support.”

Luckily for Price, devolution can certainly help with that aspiration. In fact, it’s already showing clear signs of improved customer relationships. The brand KeolisAmey – the operator of the new Wales and Borders franchise – is effectively invisible, with TfW representing the joined-up delivery of services across the network as an umbrella identity. For the travelling public, there is now just one straightforward brand managing transport services in Wales; if something goes wrong, or if they need assistance, it’s much easier to know who to get in touch with.

When I asked James if he was aiming to establish something similar to the ScotRail Alliance, he insisted that they are looking at all examples of alliances in the UK, but ultimately, they’re forging their own way forward. “That’s not just for the sake of going in our own direction; we’re trying to build on what other people have done. My view would be that there has been lots of progress made in places like Scotland and others, where they had a go at what they call ‘deep alliances.’ I’d like to hope we can go beyond that, actually, and really create a series of teams who are working under different organisations but who have one plan and one goal in terms of delighting the customer. And that the customer doesn’t know who’s providing what part of the service, but equally, that the customer feels like they can hold someone to account.”

There’s statistics to back up the claim that this approach is already working. According to Price, brand perception scores show considerable recovery from last autumn. “Compared to other rail operators, we’re in a reasonably good place,” he explained. But not all is golden just yet: “If you compared us with someone like John Lewis, we’re not in a good place, and that’s because no rail operator is in a good place compared to John Lewis. If you were to ask me now what my aspiration would be, that’s the level of aspiration I think we should have. That’s a very high goal to set – but, well, aim high.”

Under one roof

James’ aspirations are so contagious that they manifested in every single interaction – from keynote speech to casual conversation – at this year’s Welsh Transport Forum. The black-tie dinner, which attracted 420 senior representatives of the country’s transport network to Cardiff’s Mercure Hotel, was a breeding ground for innovation, boldness, and positivity.

In his speech, which opened the night (after a well-deserved drinks reception, that is), Bill Kelly ran through the same ambitious commitments to deliver a much more customer-focused, service-driven organisation – a goal which he claims aligns perfectly with the vision of Network Rail’s new CEO, Andrew Haines. According to Bill, who is the managing director of Wales and Borders at Network Rail, delivering this will require relentless focus on cultivating a company that is easy to do business with and, most importantly, that puts its customers first.

There’s a feeling of change in the air, and there’s more to come

“From 24 June, we will be introducing a new operating model, which will see Wales and Borders continue to operate in its current form but with significant added extras,” he told guests at the networking dinner. “We will deepen devolution even further so that our capability will be strengthened, with our core business functions – currently run from central headquarters – devolved to us. These changes will mean that the Wales and Borders route can access even more expert operational and business services, to support and improve the route and TfW’s performance.”

The name of this transformation programme is aptly called ‘Putting Passengers First.’ Behind the scenes, Bill’s team is currently carrying out detailed work on the structure behind this vision, in consultation with staff and unions. “There’s a feeling of change in the air, and there’s more to come,” he promised.

In the meantime, though, the integrated delivery team is still hellbent on excelling at their day job by running an extremely safe and reliable railway. A couple of weeks before the event, which took place on 4 April, Bill gathered his team at Network Rail so that they could start to tackle some of their current challenges head-on. One of those challenges is making passenger-focused behaviours part of their DNA, a target which will be helped by Network Rail’s new joint partnership agreement with Kevin Thomas, CEO of TfW


Rail Services. But it’s not just about this more philosophical approach to improvement: as it stands, the £2bn CP6 plans for Wales and Borders are made up of over one thousand schemes. These range from more rolling stock and new electrification techniques, to upgraded signalling and improved infrastructure to combat weather adversities – and everything in between. To measure success, Network Rail Wales has rolled out new bespoke metrics which will focus on average passenger lateness and on-time performance at every single station, rather than just at the end of the journey.

“This renewed focus on passengers and freight customers builds on what we’ve done today on Wales and Borders, and we’re in furious agreement with what TfW is seeking to achieve over the coming years,” Bill noted. “In fact, I’d say we’re ahead of the game in our approach, working more closely together as track and train than ever before and taking joint responsibility for our performance. For me, this time of investment and change, with the industry coming under the microscope through the Williams Review, is a watershed moment; we all have a collective responsibility to seize this opportunity. Make no mistake about it: if we get this right, we will have achieved something genuinely ground-breaking in Wales and Borders, that can provide a model for a much wider transformation of the rail network across Great Britain and beyond.”

We’re ahead of the game in our approach, working more closely together as track and train than ever before

Speaking to me prior to the networking dinner, Mr Kelly said that part of this commitment to work more closely together could even potentially include pooling resources wherever it makes sense to do so. Talks are still exploratory, but Bill claims it could help in certain projects. For example, if Network Rail is booked to repaint a station wall in three months’ time, and TfW has plans to take that wall down to build a car park extension in nine months’ time, it makes sense for the two organisations to share their plans with one another to ensure they deploy resources – whether that’s money or boots on the ground – in a way that achieves the best possible outcome for both parties. “And that we’re not doing work that later will be undone just because we haven’t worked closely together,” added Bill.

“But it’s early days,” he pointed out. “The franchise has only been going since October. They’re doing a really good job of getting that stabilised, and we’re working closely with them on the Core Valley Lines (CVL). But I’m excited about what the future could hold for us.”

From later this year, anything related to the CVL will be the responsibility of TfW and KeolisAmey – the operator is taking control of roughly 9% of the network as the franchise’s new delivery partner – while the remaining 91% will stay under Network Rail’s domain. But for Bill, this is a flexible structure. “If, in the future, someone was to approach us about getting into some sort of joint venture on a particular project, whether it’s a renewal or an enhancement or some aspiration to do something different, we will absolutely look at that and consider it,” he revealed.

Happening as we speak

Taking the stage at the Welsh Transport Forum shortly after Bill, TfW’s North Wales development director, Lee Robinson, agreed that the two parties have embarked on a “unique, historic, once-in-a-lifetime journey, with ambitious plans to achieve.” Even further, he reminded guests that his organisation is not for profit, meaning any surplus will be reinvested back into the transport network.

Transport for Wales CEO Lee Robinson

We are on a unique, historic, once-in-a-lifetime journey

“Across Wales, there’s an £800m investment to replace every train by 2023; 95% of journeys will be made on brand-new trains. Over half of these trains will be assembled in Wales,” said Lee. “With the addition of new services, Wales will see a 65% increase in capacity, with a 22% increase in Sunday mileage this year. We also have an ambitious station improvement plan: over £200m in works across all our stations, with £40m to upgrade waiting room shelters, toilets, customer information screens, and CCTV; £20m to improve the catering and retail offer; £15m to improve accessibility and provide step-free access; £15m to provide 1,500 new car parking spaces; £10m to provide community spaces at stations; £15m for new ticket machines and smart ticketing equipment; and £10m to provide free Wi-Fi at all stations. On top of this, we have flagship investments at stations across the network.”

Some goals have already been achieved early-doors in 2019. For example, Lee said customers can now claim for delays of just 15 minutes via the Delay Repay system. And in March, TfW launched its first pricing initiative, with new advanced tickets meaning travellers can save up to 60% throughout the network on many new journeys. Early next year, his team will start reducing even more rail fares and introduce better options for young people. A major station deep-clean programme has also kicked off, with the aim of making all stations sparkle before the end of the year. And performance-wise, in the period between 6 January and 3 February, TfW was the most reliable TOC in the UK, with over 95% of services running to PPM. Passengers were on average just one minute and 46 seconds late – the lowest in Wales and Borders since 2017, and comparing favourably to the nearly six-minute average across the UK.

Wellbeing comes first

All of these achievements tie back to TfW Rail’s genesis. Right from the get-go, during the franchise procurement process, TfW submitted a bid that clearly demonstrated a firm commitment to improve the lives of its customers through well-defined route-maps of how the operator would meet the seven wellbeing goals outlined under the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. And it’s not been all talk, either: the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, a body set up to ensure organisations are meeting these legislative requirements, is excited about what TfW has already been doing to embed wellbeing principles throughout the rail franchise.

While none of the seven goals relate specifically to transport – they are broader in definition, focusing on catch-all elements like prosperity, resilience and equality, amongst others – they all contain a major transport element at their core.

For example, in TfW’s procurement bid, it explained that it would be aligned to the wellbeing goal of building a “globally responsible Wales” by investing in 100% zero-carbon energy for stations and overhead wires; developing 1,500 extra park-and-ride spaces to encourage rail travel; and investing £738m to electrify the Central Metro network. To help create a “Wales of vibrant culture and thriving Welsh language,” the TOC will promote the continued revival of the country’s language through bilingual customer information, fund all staff who want to learn Welsh, and work with Visit Wales to develop a new rail and tourism strategy. To encourage a “more equal Wales,” TfW will become an accredited Living Wage employer by 2021, to be cascaded through its supply chain, and will work closer with disability groups by setting up a new accessibility panel for ongoing input into projects. The list goes on, with several goals designed to create a healthier, more resilient and prosperous Wales – with cohesive communities at the country’s core.

Speaking to me before the networking dinner, Jacob Ellis, communications and public affairs lead at the Commissioner organisation, said these ambitions show what can be done “if you go beyond the art of the possible.” “I appreciate that sometimes, when we talk about the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, its goals, and its vision, it can all seem a bit abstract, or a bit ‘motherhood and apple pie.’ But here I think we see what we’re talking about,” argued Jacob. “Looking at how one project – the Metro, for example – can impact and improve all aspects of our wellbeing.

“The most important part of all this is the £5bn investment into Wales, into a service that has been underappreciated and undervalued – and not only doing that, but doing that through the lens of the Wellbeing Act, knowing that what they’re doing now will have an impact on the wellbeing of generations to come. That’s the type of approach that all of our planning and procurement decisions need to take. And if we’ve been able to see that at a very high level of £5bn, there’s no reason why we can’t see that in a lower level.”

Ellis also stressed the importance of thinking outside the box to address existing transport conundrums. For example, his organisation has looked across the pond for ideas, meeting with international transport reps in North America, France and Indonesia, for example, to see what they’ve been up to. In fact, Jacob ascribes a lot of the Commissioner’s thinking around highways and the Welsh Transport Appraisal Guidance (WelTAG) to the things they learned from TriMet, a sustainable transport provider in Portland, Oregon. The city of Surabaya, in Indonesia, also taught Jacob’s team that even wildly unconventional ideas – paying for bus tickets with plastic bottles – can both encourage public transport usage and drive home the importance of recycling. And soon, his team will be sharing with Cardiff Council the things they learned from France around active travel and electric vehicles.

Transformational change takes time, in theory. But the practicalities of ideas don’t

“The biggest things that we’ve had around transport so far have come from global examples,” he revealed. “We have this world-class piece of legislation, but we don’t have world-class solutions. We’re trying to share with governments and public bodies that the answers can be elsewhere. How do we draw from those international examples and bring them into a Welsh context?

“Transformational change takes time, in theory. But the practicalities of ideas don’t – the TriMet in Portland is a clear example of where we managed to influence the WelTAG and the planning policy in Wales. Are we likely to see buses that we can pay for with plastic bottles anytime soon? Probably not. But it’s allowing us to see that it’s possible to think differently when it comes to public transport, or to transport generally. We’ve got to put ourselves into that space of trying different things.”

Jacob also expressed these thoughts during the Forum dinner, whilst sitting on a debate panel alongside Design Commission for Wales CEO Carole-Anne Davies, Centregreat Rail operations director John Hannah, and Bill and Lee. During the panel, they debated audience questions submitted either via the Peloton app or asked in person, with a broad range of topics covered – from TfW’s new outcomes-based approach to procurement and more devolved decision-making, right down to social performance metrics, challenges in innovative infrastructure solutions, contentious rolling stock design, future electrification, and the importance of encouraging more women and young people into engineering.

How ongoing changes will affect suppliers

So the ambition, the targets, the vision, and the hunger are all there. And sure, there is more money in the pot than ever before, which is always a positive. But what does this all mean for current and prospective suppliers? How will your organisation be affected by all of these changes?

For James Price, one of the standout differences is a more flexible focus on outcomes rather than technical specifications, and the impact that this can have on future bids. “We did see that already through the bids for the franchise’s Metro and rail operation. We saw heavy rail bids, completely light rail bids, and a hybrid bid; in theory, all of them were able to deliver the outcomes that we had set,” he explained. “What was interesting was that conventional and consultancy advice said heavy rail would be unable to achieve what we were talking about, and that light rail was the only way. Well, I think the industry proved that wrong – and if we had ruled out other options, we would have ruled out a whole load of innovation. We’ve done that to date, but there’s a real challenge in continuing to do that going forward, and also making sure that everyone who is procuring on our behalf continues to do that, too.

If we always do what everyone has always done, we’re going to get exactly the same result

“One of the things I’ve noticed – and this isn’t meant to be critical of any individual – is that the rail industry as a whole, as a group of people and as the system and processes that guide it, seems to mitigate against change. It’s absolutely very risk-averse. We need to keep an eye on that so that we don’t just roll back to mainstream rail thinking. It’s an obvious statement, but if we always do what everyone has always done, we’re going to get exactly the same result.”

While not all contracts will be that flexible – for example, a straightforward electrification solution will require a certain level of specificity in order to suit existing rolling stock – Price said that wherever TfW Rail can be outcomes-based, it should be. And even with more technically precise products, there’s still an opportunity to think creatively – whether that’s around how things are built or how the contract itself is managed, for example. “It’s something I think we’ll need to keep an eye on, because it’s all too easy for everyone – including my own team – to fall back into detailed specification of input rather than focusing on outputs,” he suggested. “We absolutely want to be in the output space, not the input space.”

Speaking during the Welsh Transport Forum panel debate, Carole-Anne Davies of the Design Commission for Wales agreed that focusing on outcomes is the right way forward, but acknowledged the difficulties in making this the industry’s MO. “Everybody is looking at TfW to do things immediately, and for Network Rail to open up immediately, to respond to the spotlight under the Williams Review. It’s really quite hard to do that,” she conceded. “But if we put all this effort into this project and nothing changes positively for people, then we won’t have got it done. Whatever outputs or outcomes, whatever contracts are out there, whatever policies are in place – things have to change positively for people. That’s where the focus needs to be.”

If we create a framework of managed failure, so that it doesn’t affect the safety of people or of our infrastructure, then people are going to truly innovate and be creative

Bill agreed, stating that unless the industry is courageous enough to challenge the norm, nothing will change. “The reality is that some of this will happen quickly, but some of it will take time, and that’s where we need to collectively manage those perceptions. If we don’t, the view may be that actually, nothing’s changing at all,” he accepted. “The expectation is extremely high, and understandably so. But the reality is that we’re trying to change years of history in terms of the way we’ve operated and done business. For some, that will be difficult. I spoke to a couple of individuals tonight [during the event] and said, ‘Look, I’m really open-minded to any approach and any new ideas, but please, when we have those conversations, tell me what you’re going to bring [to the table]. Tell me what’s going to be different. Tell me how you’re going to help shift those dials.’”

Offering a supplier perspective, John Hannah of Centregreat stressed the importance of involving people at all levels of an organisation. “The best ideas usually come from a contracting background or from the people actually doing the work,” he pointed out. “But for many reasons they’ve been overlooked, and managers and leaders have made decisions based not on fact, but on what they believed to be the correct path forward. It’s about going out, talking to the workforce, making them feel engaged, and then factoring in those ideas into a framework.

“This is particularly true of innovation; I feel innovation is sometimes [limited by] the buyers’ fear of failure. As an industry, we are afraid to fail,” John argued. “If we create a framework of managed failure, so that it doesn’t affect the safety of people or of our infrastructure, then people are going to truly innovate and be creative, with no fear of a ‘blame game’ if that failure occurs. As an industry, we’ve been critical of feeding the past and starving the future; we need to have a change of mentality, where we sow the seeds of innovation today and reap the rewards tomorrow.”

Davies agreed. “It’s about the culture and what we’re asking people to make decisions upon. If all they’re asked to do is get things done on time, within budget and safely, then that’s the only decision they’re going to make. It’s about what we ask of them and how we allow them to think about it,” she said. “It has to be on time, to budget and safe, of course, but these are basic contractual obligations – they’re not ambition and they’re not vision. We must have a culture that allows people to think, to be creative, to engage with expertise, and to test that thinking.”

Still during the panel discussion, Lee Robinson pitched in: “I think it comes down to three things. One is our risk appetite; sometimes we will get it wrong, and we’ll need to learn from that. Second, it’s about looking at things through a completely different lens. And third, being perfectly honest, it’s about the fact that sometimes the things we do are process-rich and content-free. We need to move away from that.”

Making it easier for SMEs

In part, James Price attributes this extensive change in approach to a high-level transformation at Network Rail since Andrew Haines’s arrival. “We always worked positively with them anyway, but having someone operationally in charge who recognises the need to change, to be a bit innovative, and to take some risks is really positive,” he noted. “We’re working with them at a UK level, but also at the Wales route level with Bill Kelly’s team. It feels very different; there’s a massive challenge there, obviously, but it feels like a more enlightened organisation.”

James has also promised to shake up the current modus operandi. At first, when TfW inherits Network Rail’s processes and procedures later this year as part of the infrastructure handover, most will stay the same; however, in a few years’ time, he expects some of these will change. “If we’re going to get the benefit of devolution, then we need to allow ourselves to innovate and do things in a different way,” he added, “otherwise, arguably there’s no point. So expect innovation in that space.”

The way his organisation engages with suppliers will change, too. For example, TfW has already appointed three suppler champions to work closely with business support agencies in Wales to ensure that as many SMEs as possible participate in the country’s transport services. The champions – each concentrating on different focus areas – work independently from the TOC, acting on behalf of the industry supply chain to make sure TfW is behaving reasonably and not locking anyone out. “The intent is to drive as much local procurement and SME engagement as possible,” the CEO explained. “This supply chain champion service is there to help us understand what works and what doesn’t work. We don’t think it’s been done before; in principle, it sounds like a really good idea. But again, like a lot of other things we’re doing, time will tell. We just need to remain flexible enough so that, if something isn’t working, we evolve it so that it does.”

To help SMEs further, TfW plans on breaking down contracts as much as possible. Price, who started his career in civil engineering contracting, argued that the typical approach to purchasing – whereby frameworks are aggregated and handed out to big suppliers – may actually concentrate risks and drive up costs, rather than the other way around. (The Carillion fiasco comes to mind.) “The experiment, if you’d like, that we’re on is to not only see if there’s a social factor in splitting contracts down, but whether we can at the same time deliver things in a quicker, more innovative, and potentially more cost-effective way,” he said. “Personally, I don’t think delivering things via smaller companies needs to be more expensive. For example, if you were having work done on your house, you wouldn’t go to Balfour Beatty and ask them to do everything because that would be a lot more expensive. So instinctively, why is that any different to having some work done in the front of a station?”

Unprompted, Bill Kelly also brought up his desire to split down contracts into smaller lots when speaking to me over the phone before the Welsh Transport Forum. In his view, this – alongside a simplification of industry standards to make them less complex and costly – will increase SME participation and encourage innovation.

Bill’s team is also taking part in the wider Network Rail Open for Business initiative, which encourages the active participation of suppliers who want to invest in the railway in order to enhance infrastructure or generate benefits for the overall industry. “We’ve already started to explore some of the things; for example, what we’re doing with the water that’s pumped out of the Severn Tunnel,” revealed Mr Kelly. “It pumps out millions of gallons of water every day. The question then is, what can we do with that to generate some type of revenue that can then be ploughed back into the infrastructure?

“We’re also looking at station development and at some of the aspirations of Welsh Government, who want to look at potentially new stations in the future,” he continued. “We would want to work with any partners who feel like they want to be part of any of those projects to really bring them to life, and to help develop them in a way that benefits our passengers across the whole route. That’s the key point here: it would be across the whole route, and not just in and around South Wales and that main infrastructure.”

I don’t think delivering things via smaller companies needs to be more expensive

To get involved, Bill said suppliers can get in touch with Dave Stanbury, their business development director who works within the route by engaging with companies, Welsh Government, and TfW. Dave’s team has already started looking at some of the potential solutions for the future. “And of course, as the work starts, what you tend to find is that more people become aware of it and start to express an interest in potentially getting involved,” said the Network Rail Wales chief. “Organically, it starts to grow – and we’ve seen it grow quite significantly over the last few months, which is exciting.

“Andrew Haines has challenged us – with every decision you make, ask yourself the question: how does that put the passenger first? That’s the important thing. It’s not just about using the phrase ‘track and train together,’ it’s about determining how that benefits the passenger. Because, quite frankly, we’ve just not been delivering for them,” Bill admitted. “We’ve not been delivering the service they deserve, and we need to jointly, as an industry, focus on that. My view is that we’ve come some way in Wales: we have really good collaborative working, and we need to keep pushing that. We need to keep that joint vision to make sure that we’re going to achieve those goals, and to make sure we’re delivering the right outcome. I’m confident that we will do that.”

To take part in the upcoming Welsh Transport Conference, which takes place on 28 November at Cardiff’s Mercure Hotel, visit peloton-events.co.uk.