Neil Singh explains how developing a clear view of the big-picture can help improve the safety-productivity dynamic in rail maintenance

Behind the operation of any rail network are two essential, but often contradictory priorities: productivity and safety. Ensuring one, without compromising the other, is a constant challenge, particularly in an organisation as complex as a rail network.

Most rail networks represent huge national investments of time, money and effort. They appear straight-forward to commuters waiting for the 8:15 to Paddington, but are in fact highly complex. They are not just a collection of track, signaling, trains, power and people. Trains get from A to B thanks to the daily interactions between them all. It is these interactions that dictate how the network runs. They also make the rail network an extremely dynamic operation, with an almost infinite number of variables – all of which have the potential to affect safety and productivity.

Safety v productivity – finding the balance
The point at which the tension between productivity and safety is most keenly felt is maintenance. Given the demands on the rail network, and the growing volume of passenger and freight activity that it must support, the pressure of finding the balance is increasing. On the one hand, there is pressure to complete more and more rail maintenance work within very tight timeframes with limited resources. On the other, the task, location and infrastructure must be properly assessed to ensure that these maintenance jobs themselves does not cause harm to people, the environment or the infrastructure.

There are any number of ways in which a seemingly insignificant error, like a piece of equipment left track-side, or an unexpected event such as a hidden wasps’ nest in an overhanging tree, can escalate into a major problem. Seemingly inconsequential operational events, activities and decisions have an immediate impact on maintenance schedules but can also roll up into something substantially larger. Like the hurricane caused by a butterfly flapping its wings, some of the biggest headaches on the railways can have some of the simplest and unexpected causes.

Equally, commercial reality puts significant pressure to get more work completed in a shorter time frame. Rail infrastructure companies are observing more ‘at risk’ behaviour, where workers are taking chances and exposing themselves to high levels of risk in order to get more done. When times are tight, and the pressure is on, safety becomes a compliance issue rather than a life-saving issue. The difference is a subtle but important one.

The problem with visibility
Of course, the complex interactions involved in scheduling and carrying out maintenance are largely invisible to passengers. Rail travel is one of those things that people only talk about when it goes wrong. And so despite attention from media, politicians and public alike, when bank holidays are disrupted, most people do not see the lengthy decision chains and variable work schemes behind a late train.

The problem is that many of these interactions are also invisible to managers and decision-makers. Although there are rules in place to govern and manage maintenance scheduling and work execution, there is only a limited amount of data available to support informed decision-making and few controls in place to make sure rules are being followed. Line managers are left to make decisions based on their experience and instinct. Often there is no global view of where the work is happening or who is doing it – let alone that it will be done safely.

Where the bigger picture comes in
To maintain the most effective balance between safety and productivity, rail infrastructure operators must find a way to simplify that complexity. They need to see the big picture and still find the relevant detail so that every decision enables safe delivery of work.

However, if we go back to our definition of the railway as a series of interactions, it soon becomes clear that the ‘bigger picture’ is not a static portrait. Nor is it a two-dimensional one.

Therefore, successful rail maintenance scheduling should not be a question of running a straight up-and-down to-do list and ticking things off as they are finished. Priorities can change in a very short amount of time, and the order of work gets shuffled around. There are consequences to each of those moves: a change in people, equipment, location, or time required will cause additional changes to other areas of the maintenance schedule.

This changing environment is the bigger picture, and rail operators need to understand those consequences and make allowances for them in the planning process in order to run a safe and productive rail network. They need a far more dynamic way of managing maintenance scheduling that takes into account all the factors that affect job scheduling and the way that they interact with each other.

Painting a picture in relevant detail
To do this, they need a view of all operational activity that takes into account the three key dimensions of each job: time, location and risk.

Risk is the important factor here. It is often last-minute or unexpected risk that prevents scheduled maintenance from going ahead. And of course, when risks are ignored, safety is compromised. The compliance approach often relegates risk to just one of a number of factors to be considered. But by choosing risk as the prism through which all work is defined, planned and executed, it becomes much easier to schedule rail maintenance effectively – and so keep to productivity targets.

For many organisations this will require a change in culture and its associated processes and procedures. There is no silver bullet or simple switch that can be flicked to transform a complex operation like a rail network. But if a technological solution cannot do all the heavy lifting, it can certainly play a key role in enabling a new risk-centric approach.

Help with data analysis
The right systems can make information transparent to all levels of the organisation at any time. They can provide that essential three-dimensional view: not just what is happening now, but what happened before and what happens next. It can make clear the inter-dependencies and relationships between individual jobs, disciplines, equipment and schedules.

It does this by acting as a central repository for all data inputs, and then converting this data into useful decision-making information through visualisation techniques or reporting capability. One of the challenges that rail managers face when trying to get the bigger picture is not necessarily the shortage of data. It’s more often about hard-to-find or hard-to-use data, which is then trumped by the need for quick decisions with the best information available.

Visualising and understanding the bigger picture in this way helps reduce the number of coordination issues that arise when planners are unable to see what other works are scheduled at their worksites. It reduces the number of re-planned jobs caused by unknowns on the railway. It enables better use of ‘possessions’ (maintenance periods when all train movement operations are stopped), because all teams can see what work they have on their radars for a given location, and what is planned in that possession.

Crucially it also provides all necessary information about jobs up front. During planning, risk assessments and controls can be incorporated in a timely fashion to ensure a coordinated and safe execution of work. Decision-makers have the information necessary to plan work effectively around safety requirements. In this way it supports a better safety-productivity dynamic – with no compromises.