Carne laughs. “No! Not at all! Actually I feel more excited about the opportunity today than I did back then.”
I raise an eyebrow. “Genuinely - I do! I think this is an extraordinary industry that plays a vital role in the economy of the country. And I see, with a great team of people, we have an opportunity to do so much more.”
Carne points out that the scale of the job and the high stakes, not least in terms of public perceptions, were part of what attracted him to the job. He says he enjoys running big organisations, especially those that make a big and obvious contribution to the everyday lives of millions of people. That certainly applied to oil and gas, and he also sees it in the railway.
“I like to do things that matter - and by that I mean things that matter in more than just the pounds, shillings and pence of the bottom line,” he stresses. “I’m talking about the contribution that they make to society - and the railway does make a huge contribution to society.”
While Dawlish was a very high-profile example of NR staff toiling with contractors and train operators round the clock, in terrible conditions, to fix the railway even as they continued to serve the public, he’s very keen to highlight that this effort happens 24/7, 365 days a year on the railway, in circumstances that do not generally get noticed.
OK, so that’s the ‘motherhood and apple pie stuff’ flagged. What about the problems? What things has he noticed, as a newcomer, that need to change, improve and develop?
“We have challenges - and therefore opportunities - in four big categories,” he says. He counts them off: “Improving safety, improving reliability, increasing capacity, and reducing cost.” He pauses - and then repeats them for emphasis.
“Safety, reliability, capacity and cost - those are the four imperatives that we have to focus on. So let me take each in those in turn, and say what we have to do differently.
“Safety - from a passenger safety perspective we have the safest passenger railway in Europe and that’s a huge reflection of the work done over the past decade or more to improve the underlying asset reliability of our railway since the dark days of the late 1990s to 2000s.
“Tremendous progress has been made - and yet I know that there is more that we can do to further improve the integrity of the railways and passenger safety. That’s what we are committed to.
“Second dimension of safety - level crossings. Forty people lost their lives in Control Period 4 at level crossings, and that’s just unacceptable. This is a huge challenge for us - 6,500 level crossings, many of which have no barriers and no warning systems at all, other than a sign that says: ‘stop, look and listen’. This is a massive challenge.
“But the other element is workforce safety, and I believe that there is a real opportunity to improve workforce safety culture on the railway as a whole. When we do that, we will also improve performance culture within the railway. So that is going to be a particular focus for me, because I fundamentally believe that safety and performance go hand in hand - they are inextricably connected.”
So your approach to safety is not that it’s a bolt-on aspect of asset management?
“It is not a bolt on and it’s not a choice - safety and performance are one and the same thing, and in the best companies that I’ve worked with around the world, you see that. The best companies have the best safety performance and they also deliver the best business people.”
Hasn’t the way in which the industry has progressively added new layers of procedures or equipment, in response to mishaps or as a result of political pressure, led to a cultural belief that someone else is responsible for safety management? With regard to the workforce safety he is so exercised about (and he is), what about the old adage that the person most responsible for your safety is you?
“Yes, that’s an old cliché, but it’s absolutely right. Safety is not somebody else’s job, and we need to get back to the sense where everybody is accountable for their own safety, but also for the safety of the people that work around them,” he replies.
“We have to create the kind of caring intervention culture where we are constantly striving to see how we can keep ourselves and our colleagues safe. I also believe that focusing on workforce safety will drive improvements not only in our underlying business performance, but improvements in railway safety more widely, because you can’t do one without the other.
“It’s just a way of thinking. It’s a way of being. It’s a huge opportunity for us because the workforce railway safety performance is far below that we know is capable of being achieved, and which you can see in other industries.”
Carne has been using some startling figures in conference presentations - at one early outing, I heard him say that workforce safety is 20 times worse than in other industries?
“That was an extreme example,” he says. “I think it’s about ten times worse, more generally - it depends how you measure it and which part of the oil and gas industry you look at. But however you look at it, rail worker safety is about ten times worse than the oil and gas industry in terms of fatalities, and that is a very substantial difference from where we are in the railway industry. And this is still heavy engineering projects, and similar kinds of activity - so the comparison is valid. Our safety is just not good enough.”
So is this the result of poor procedures, people problems, or culture - or all three?
“It’s a bit of everything actually - but planning is a major issue. We need to improve the way we plan how work is carried out on the railway. We have great examples of when we do it brilliantly, and this inconsistency is one of the frustrations. There are many very big projects where we have a planned blockade or a planned possession where planning is absolutely first class. But we also have more routine interventions - overnight possessions, for example - where frankly, planning is far below standard.
“In these cases, you end up with the wrong equipment arriving, or the wrong people arriving with the wrong tools - maybe even the wrong people. This results in poor efficiency, higher cost, and unfortunately you also sometimes end up with people getting hurt. This is really a case where safety and performance go hand in hand - better quality planning will give us better safety.”
Carne is a former oil and gas man who went through the North Sea Piper Alpha disaster of July 6 1988, when 167 men died when the gas production platform exploded, leaving only 61 survivors. Such experience always leaves a very clear and absolutely determined view of workforce safety.
Network Rail has a poor reputation for late planning, last minute re-scoping, and certainly for delivery of the wrong equipment to worksites, or for the failure of equipment to even show up. This leads to the sort of ‘make do and mend’ engineering arrangements of which Carne is so critical.