To move the administration of maintenance work on the railways from paper to computers, Network Rail had to train 3,000 staff to use new handheld devices and new systems. The programme scooped gold in the external project category at the IITT Awards, as Gary Flood reports.

Inconvenienced as many of us may have been by over-runs on maintenance on Britain's railways this year, no one can deny that it has underlined how vital a part of UK national infrastructure the rail network is. So any innovation that could help speed up the work of the engineers who constantly work at keeping the 20,000 miles of track ready for use should be welcomed.

Step forward, then, a decision by Network Rail to improve trackside processes with the introduction of IT as a way to clear up the paper trail and improve efficiency. Network Rail owns and operates the UK's rail infrastructure, having being created by the government to replace Railtrack in October 2002.

The work involved immense amounts of training and project management around the delivery of that training, as well as the design, testing and implementation of the technology solution itself. But a year in, the system has been bedded down, and has seen the successful adoption of handheld technology by staff with minimal IT skills as an integral part of their working day.

The project won the Institute of IT Training's Gold level award for External Training Project of the Year 2008 in February, a recognition by the IT training community that the system's introduction wasn't exactly something that got done in a weekend.

In fact, it's that project management aspect that Network Rail's project manager for the handheld project, David Burnet, one of the organisation's information management team, believes was a key factor in the judge's decision.

'In terms of training, you're talking about 3,000 key staff working a three-shift a day pattern in 15 areas nationally,' he told IT Training. 'The project encompassed 241 separate physical locations, all of which had to be both technologically assessed to see if their network infrastructure needed updating, as well as the staff there being surveyed and polled.'

Why was contact and in-depth research of user attitudes so important? 'There were a lot of stakeholders here that had to be satisfied,' he points out. 'There were the technology suppliers to manage but the workforce, which is heavily unionised, had to be brought on-message too.'

Plus, Network Rail sets itself high standards and has its own specific culture and ways of doing things - some of which manifest themselves at the regional level, where there can be slightly different work practices that the project managers and trainers needed to be aware of too.

Network Rail's implementation and training partner was Afiniti, with the company's managing director Corrina Jorgenson acting as project manager herself.

To meet Network Rail's requirements, Afiniti had, in as short a time as feasible, to change established work practices and retrain staff in a different way of working. The project’s deployment time was just under six months in the end, but work on this idea was underway for two and a half years prior to start date.

'We wanted to replace as much paper as possible in order to increase efficiency and reduce headcount - we don't want to have data-entry clerks, we want maintenance people,' says Burnet. 'This was a key organisational priority for us. To get it right we spent a lot of time assessing if it could work and a lot of time getting the right technology.'

Rail track maintenance specialists work in gangs on a 24/7 basis, but important job information was getting lost because key data was jotted down manually, plus there was an inevitable time lag of getting that data into the company’s core IT scheduling and work schedule systems. Backlog reports might show work as overdue even though the technicians had completed the task; the relevant paperwork was somewhere 'in the system'. As a consequence management then lacked the ability to get a timely and realistic view of overdue or incomplete work due.

The demand for a better way of working was clear - and key to that was communication and dialogue with the target users to make sure they saw the benefits of this way of doing things. 'Few of these guys have computers,' notes Burnet. 'And it's a business change involving a unionised body, too.'

Afiniti was the training partner tasked with dealing with all these issues. Burnet was pleased with its approach and responsiveness to the problem: 'A communication plan from director all the way down was quickly in place and was very effective,' he says.

'This was a large, dispersed workforce in a non-IT, engineering-oriented organisation,' acknowledges Jorgenson. 'We had to work out a plan to sell the benefits to very non-typical IT users.'

If the communications plan was tough, training deployment wasn't a walk in the park either. 'Network Rail is a large organisation with each area having its own "flavour" and way of working,' she says. 'It is also working across literally the whole country, from Land’s End to John O’Groats. We had to therefore work with the diaries of 3,000 busy people who might be on shift, on holiday or off sick when we wanted them.'

The rollout of the training involved careful coordination and planning - and a lot of travel. 'There were also the usual fun things such a travel intensive project can throw up, logistically,' Jorgenson. 'There was at least one bit of kit that was supposed to go from Manchester to London ended up going via Brussels.'

The project in training terms meant designing, developing and delivering an instructor-led programme for those 3,000 non-IT users nationwide. There were four different courses, all one half-day in duration, with the exception of a special one dayer, the focal point (FP) module, which was how the local expert in a region was trained.

Courses were designed from the start as very delegate centred, featuring hands-on experience with the new handheld technology for end-users and the server based application for supervisors. The group sizes varied from small groups for FP modules to eight to ten delegates for technicians. Mobile training rigs moved around the country with the instructors.

Each training session was rigorously evaluated by the delegates and by the project team as agreed in the quality plan, says Afinti, which also used its in-house learning management system to get real time reporting to track training feedback, progress against plan (how many courses, delegate attendance, comments, and results from a quantitative and qualitative view, etc) and trend analysis to help focus where changes or improvements to training were required as the programme progressed.

In addition to straight delegate feedback, their proficiency in the new system was also evaluated and recorded using Network Rail benchmarks; when ready, proficient users were provided with access to the live system.

Now the system is in place, how have things changed? There are some clear return on investment criteria: depot based data clerks are basically gone, a direct cost saving in reduced headcount of 30 staff - a return of over £1m annually to the organisation. And with the handheld system the 1.5m-plus sheets of A4 paper that got generated each year in the old process have gone and have been replaced with a more reliable electronic audit trail.

'We have made real progress using this system,' says Burnet. 'We have got a standardised process, one way of working, better data quality and overall greater efficiency.'

In terms of next steps, planned developments are to add support GPS for location tracking, give the staff the capacity to do video/photo capture and extend wireless connectivity to the devices so real-time data transfer can be done, he adds.

'This project, I think, was picked out in the awards because it shows clear business impact in an organisation that sets its bar high,' concludes Jorgenson. 'It was tough and we had to apply best practice, but it was great fun and energising to meet these challenges. We're proud of our work here.'

Project facts and stats

Network Rail's signalling maintenance technicians have switched from a paper-based to computerised field administration when out looking after the track in the UK. The £4m project took under five months to design, and build and then six to complete business implementation, including the training of 3,000 staff. It delivered 1,200 ruggedised handheld devices to the relevant engineering and maintenance Network Rail staff working in teams nationally. The project was completed in May 2007.

Prior to the adoption of the handhelds, 50,000 pieces of paper - work orders - needed to be printed every week and delivered to these staff by managers (scheduling teams and supervisors). Once the job had been completed, the paper was passed back for manual data entry at the depot into the main Network Rail database.