Delivering during and after the pandemic: Britain’s railway network

Andrew Haines

We recently spoke with Andrew Haines, the chief executive of Network Rail – the publicly run organisation which owns, operates and develops Britain’s railway infrastructure. We wanted to learn more about what makes him tick and the current challenges he’s facing – not least of which is leading Britain’s railways through the COVID-19 pandemic.

The social and economic impacts COVID-19 has had on people, businesses and industries across the globe are monumental, and the railway is no exception. Chief among Haines’ priorities over recent months has been ensuring that Network Rail is able to run a safe and reliable railway that can get critical workers such as doctors and nurses to and from work, and move key freight goods such as medicine, food and fuel, all while providing a safe working environment for Network Rail’s 41,000 strong workforce – particularly frontline employees – who have continued to carry out maintenance and upgrade work essential to operating the railway.

And that’s before you consider everything else that has passed through Haines’ desk. Making sure there are enough frontline staff to run the railway in the event of mass COVID-19 related absences, which fortunately did not materialise; amending timetables to meet demand where necessary; bringing forward maintenance and upgrade work where possible to make the most of increased track access; supporting a supply chain that is integral to operating the railway (such as bringing forward payment terms), and where possible aiding the frontline response to COVID-19 – some colleagues offered logistics and project management expertise to help deliver the Nightingale hospital in Manchester.

“I’m really proud of the industry’s response to COVID-19,” says Haines. “Collectively we’ve risen to the challenge, introducing new timetables in very short timescales, and finding new ways of working so that the majority of maintenance and upgrade work is able to proceed.” He goes on to talk about the thousands of engineering projects that have been delivered in recent weeks. “If you look at Easter, we delivered £81.7m worth of work, in the early May weekend it was £84.7m, and over late May we’re expecting to deliver £90m of investment. It shows how we’ve continued to support the economy and suppliers by investing in our infrastructure – in fact I can’t imagine there are many others who have matched that amount in terms of investment. It’s all about making sure the railway is at its very best when we do emerge from this pandemic.”

Passenger numbers have fallen dramatically – evidence that people are listening to Government and industry advice to avoid public transport where possible. But even as the number of services begins to gradually increase, it must feel odd to be the Network Rail chief executive asking most people not to travel by train. “It is unusual, because ordinarily, I find myself championing the railway, and working hard to improve performance for the millions of people who typically use the railway every day. But clearly, in these times, we have had to ask passengers to only travel if they really have to.” Asked about the long-term impact COVID-19 might have on passenger numbers, Haines responds: “We have to acknowledge that it is highly unlikely passenger numbers will return to ‘normal’ any time soon.” He goes on: “Social distancing has a huge impact – only allowing for around 10-15% of usual capacity – and if after a certain period of time we can accommodate passengers without social distancing, many people will have got used to working from home, and there will be a natural cautiousness about returning to busy rail services.”

Haines is calm and modest, yet self-assured and unfazed by what many would consider a daunting role. It’s clear that he likes people – perhaps helping to explain why Network Rail’s mantra under his leadership is all about ‘Putting Passengers First’. He was determined even before he took over the reins in August 2018 that Network Rail should focus less on engineering, maintenance, and major projects – though they remain key parts of what Network Rail does – and focus more on delivering a safe and reliable service passengers can rely on. Haines was quick to ask staff to consider “why they do what they do”. He explains: “If we’re not here to deliver for passengers, what are we here for?” It’s a message that remains as relevant today as it was when he joined the company.

Haines’ knowledge of, and passion for, rail dates back to the 1980s when he undertook a British Rail Management Trainee Programme – widely regarded throughout the industry as comprehensive and grounding. He took the top job at Network Rail knowing that the Williams Review was just around the corner – commissioned by then Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling – following the May 2018 timetable change which caused severe performance issues across the North and the South East. Further spotlight on performance followed when the Rail Regulator (ORR) published a review into performance of routes in the North West – prompting Haines to apologise on behalf of the industry for letting passengers down.

Having long suspected that the current franchising model, combined with chronic network congestion, was unable to meet growing passenger needs, Haines has welcomed the Williams Review with open arms.

One of the reported main findings of the Review is to create a new rail agency to run the industry. Haines is adamant that any new agency must be separate from Government that has the teeth to plan for the long term. He is confident that Keith Williams’ advice will help fix these inherent challenges. “The need for reform is as great as it has ever been,” he insists, adding that Network Rail “will play its part in repurposing the industry” for the next decade and beyond. “Passenger demand will not return to normal any time soon, so our focus must be on providing a reliable service for those who do need it, and in turn encouraging others back to rail. It’s something that will require us to work together, and something that I think the Williams Review will be crucial to.”

It would be remiss to not ask Haines about HS2 – a project he views as an opportunity to rebuild not just Britain’s railways, but parts of our cities too and add desperately needed capacity to the heavily congested main lines to the north. “HS2 compels our existing network and processes to become match fit, and will allow us to realise the value of the railway to our life,” he enthuses. HS2 may become a catalyst for more digital train-to-track technology across the network, yet it still has to convince many, including Haines, that it is a realistic proposition for a mixed traffic railway.

Haines knows that the entire industry must be behind the imminent structural changes if the industry is to properly reform and deliver for passengers. It requires contributions involving everyone in the railways – from Network Rail to operators, SMEs to larger contractors.

It’s rare to find people in today’s virtual world with such quiet determination. Andrew Haines is one of them. With his sharp focus, it’s clear that railways are now facing in the right direction, but in such uncertain times, there will no doubt be challenges along the way.


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