The RSSB is in the process of evolving. CEO Mark Phillips talks to Gay Sutton about the industry-wide consultation and his plans for making the organisation more relevant, financially sustainable and well regarded

Everyone will agree it’s an exciting time to be in the rail industry with massive investments in new infrastructure, upgrades to improve efficiency and increase capacity, and technology that’s changing almost faster than you can blink.

Formed in 2003 following a series of serious rail accidents, the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) has played a vital role in setting rail industry standards, carrying out safety risk analysis and data collection to help identify ways of improving safety, and carrying out rail research at the wheel/rail interface. Now, though, it is entering a period of evolution, adapting so that it can continue meeting the needs of this fast changing industry. There is a new man at the helm guiding that change.

The new broom
Mark Phillips was appointed CEO of RSSB in November last year, having joined the organisation as director of research and standards in January 2015 before taking up the post of interim managing director in May last year. He brings with him a rich experience in the rail sector, having held positions as Network Rail regional director for Anglia and as deputy managing director for the Greater Anglia franchise.

I asked Mark how he planned to lead the RSSB into this new era. “We must remember that we are a member organisation funded by the train operators, Network Rail, and suppliers and contractors. To some extent we’ve been seen to be a little distant from them, and some of our work may not have seemed as relevant as they may like. So my first objective over the next few years is to make ourselves more relevant to our members, and ensure the work we do helps those businesses perform even better than they do at the moment.”

Building stronger industry links
This, however, cannot be accomplished in isolation. It requires detailed stakeholder input and feedback. To achieve this, RSSB is currently carrying out an industry wide-consultation aimed at establishing a much stronger connection between itself and its members, identifying what is required of RSSB, and whether the current business plan is capable of delivering on that. The consultation is also pushing beyond the boundaries of RSSB’s current activities. “We are looking to find our members’ views on new areas of activity we should engage in, such as health and well-being of railway employees or sustainability in the wider sense including skills and competencies,” he explained.

Once the results of the consultation are analysed, the organisation will develop a one year and three year plan that will match RSSB activity much more closely with its members’ needs.

Many of RSSB’s services deliver a significant business benefit to its members, and this is much appreciated. “Standards, for example, are not only about safety but are also very much about economic benefit. They provide consistent ways of doing things as cost effectively as possible,” he explained. “They might, perhaps, create opportunities for new suppliers to enter the rolling stock market. Our standards provide a clear understanding about compliance, enabling manufacturers to plan and design new trains accordingly As a result, we’re now seeing rolling stock coming into the UK from Stadler and perhaps even from China.” Similarly in infrastructure construction/ upgrades, it removes the need for operators and industry managers to carry out risk assessments for each separate case when they introduce something new. They can simply refer to the standard for the best way to do it.

In the area of risk assessment, RSSB’s tools also help significantly when planning new investments or operational changes. “A topical example of this is the introduction of new driver only operations,” he continued. “Operators can use our tools to go through the most appropriate risk assessments and identify the right mitigations to manage those risks. Another example might be where platforms are outside convenient heights or stepping distances from the train profile. The risk assessment tools come up with a whole list of suggestions for managing the risk.”

The question of Europe
As with all industries, the future holds uncertainties as a result of the Brexit vote. There will undoubtedly be change ahead, but as yet there is little indication of how this is likely to pan out for the rail sector. The RSSB may well have a role to play in defining that future. Company staff have regularly been sitting on European committees, steadily overseeing the migration from the old UK-specific standards to European ones and influencing their future format. While safety is a critical element in many of these standards, the benefits of European harmonisation for the industry have largely been around trade – products manufactured in any European country are acceptable for use in any other country. This means UK exporters have been able to prepare a product and export it into Europe without having to go through a whole range of additional acceptance protocols. “What we have to recognise with Brexit, though, is that we will still remain physically connected to Europe and trains will be required to continue operating through the Tunnel. So we need to ensure our network remains compatible with European operations. What will be an issue for us is how we can retain some influence on standards if we are outside the EU.”

Establishing strong credentials
The second of Mark’s plans for RSSB is to ensure the organisation is financially and commercially sustainable. As RSSB is funded by a member levy, he not only intends to ensure that the money is spent wisely through smart procurement, staffing and contracts, but he hopes to explore commercial opportunities in Europe and beyond. “The UK is the only rail network with an organisation like RSSB,” he explained. “Other networks look at what we do and can see we have something good going on here. So we are looking at opportunities for commercialising that.”

Closer to home, the third aim is to build a nationwide reputation for RSSB as the organisation to whom opinion formers will go for a consistent and evidence-based view of the rail industry, primarily on matters associated with safety and standards. Strides have already been taken in this area. “There is evidence that we’ve achieved this in the driver only dispute,” Mark continued. “I and others in my team have provided interviews and commented on pieces in the press to explain some of the issues and bust some of the myths that have been put out by the trades unions about driver control of doors. And this can only be beneficial to the industry.”

Caring for the people side
In the end, building a strong organisation capable of giving the industry the leadership and support it needs, comes down to people and management, and this encapsulates Mark’s fourth and fifth aims. “I want to create a strong leadership team. This is really important if we are to drive the company forward and achieve our aims,” he pointed out. For over 10 years there has been very little change in the senior team. “Now, the next generation is here. We are introducing a flatter management structure, and creating a more accessible and agile organisation. A number of teams report directly to me rather than through a chain of command. I can now get a better sense of what’s going on right through the organisation, and people working in the company find it easier to get access to me if they want a decision.”

RSSB is currently recruiting for Mark’s old post as director of standards, and will soon be advertising a new post, director of projects, which will bring together the majority of project specialists into a single team. The aim being to develop a common practice in delivering projects across the business, and to reduce project overruns.

“Finally, I want to make RSSB a great place to work and ensure that our staff can see how they influence the industry through their outputs. We’re a small people-driven company of just 300. We don’t make things, we are thinkers. We carry our research and analysis and we write standards. So it’s all about staff engagement – creating the right atmosphere for people to do this thinking.”

New initiatives
The RSSB has a number of new initiatives on the horizon, some of them very close to release, including the launch of an electronic version of one of its best selling products:  the Rulebook. This will be downloadable as a smart phone or tablet app and will revolutionise accessibility.

One of the biggest internal projects, replacing the old incident database with a new cloud-based one, is evencloser to fruition. “We are responsible for capturing every incident that occurs on the network, and that includes anything from tripping on the platform through to a major train accident,” Mark explained. “This is not only good governance, but it also helps us identify trends so we can make sure the right things are done to manage risk in the future.”

This has been a huge £5 million IT project spanning two years, and it could well have gone live before the magazine goes to print. Once it does, all the in-house systems currently in use across the sector can be switched off. New data can then be entered into the system by any authorised person while the duty holders (RSSB members) will be able to pull off the relevant business intelligence reports.

It has huge benefits for the industry. “The new system will be much more modern and flexible, and will capture data in much more detail, giving us a better view of the risks the industry is facing and enable us to see trends that we may not have spotted before,” Mark said.

The second phase of the project is going to be a step change for the industry because it will extend the scope of the database to include what Mark calls the close calls – near misses that are not currently recorded. “If we can capture that data we may be able to see trends beginning to emerge that we need to address.” This module is scheduled to go live in the latter part of 2017.

The future
There are still major challenges ahead for the rail sector. Passenger numbers have doubled since 1990, and are projected to continue increasing rapidly. But making accurate predictions can be extremely difficult, as Mark pointed out. “There is some early evidence to suggest that people are looking at new innovative ways of working, and this could change our established understanding of passenger growth. More people are working from home or in remote locations,” he continued. “Job patterns are changing too with more flexible working. And some of this is being driven by the cost of using the railway network. So as an industry we have to find innovative ways of reducing costs as much as we can.”

RSSB is evolving to better support the industry as it faces the challenges ahead. And it will now be able to do that with a much closer consensus of opinion from within the industry to help frame its future activity, and with a clear internal view of how the organisation can adapt and progress.