All change at Network Rail

Network Rail's five-year business transformation plan is placing IT at the heart of the business. Will Hadfield reports on how the technical and managerial challenges are being met


Network Rail's five-year business transformation plan is placing IT at the heart of the business. Will Hadfield reports on how the technical and managerial challenges are being met

Network Rail's director of information management has one of the most challenging roles in corporate IT. Joe van Valkenburgh oversees an annual technology budget of £138m and has the power to veto any IT project in the company.

The organisation, which owns and manages the UK's rail infrastructure, is three years into a five-year transformation of its IT systems. The role of IT within the company is also changing.

In 2002, when Network Rail was set up from the remains of its predecessor Railtrack, the IT department was separate from the business, with its own suppliers. Once the company was established, Network Rail's deputy chief executive Iain Coucher said that IT would be at the heart of the business.

Today, the old Railtrack IT department has been transformed into Network Rail's information management department, and is involved with all the company's suppliers, including those that are not seen as traditional IT suppliers.

It is van Valkenburgh's responsibility to deliver the five-year business transformation plan. When the project is completed, the information management department will be at the core of Network Rail, and will be involved in decision making as a key part of the business.

Van Valkenburgh reports directly to Coucher, placing him closer to the highest level of decision making in his company than most IT directors are. He attends Coucher's weekly meetings and monthly reviews of the company's activities. This way, says van Valkenburgh, he can get involved before something becomes a problem.

Coucher has set five targets for the information management department to achieve within its first five years, with further goals to be achieved within 10 years:

  • To cut the number of key IT applications from the 1,000-plus that were acquired with the assets of Railtrack in 2002. The business wants to use 200 applications by 2007 and just 40 by 2012.
  • To reduce the 254 suppliers that provided services to Railtrack to 25 in five years, and five or six in 10 years.
  • To bring all the company's data within one virtual database - a technology that is still in the development stage. Network Rail acquired more than 20,000 local databases along with Railtrack's assets.
  • To reduce the company's spend on information management to 3% of the total budget by 2007. When Railtrack managed the rail network, the proportion of its budget spent on IT was unknown.
  • To increase the proportion of permanent employees in the information management department from 80% (the current figure) to 90%. More than 70% of IT staff at Railtrack were contractors.

Van Valkenburgh has a £138m IT budget to realise Network Rail's technology plans. This financial year, however, he expects to spend just £87m. When he underspends, the remaining budget returns to the business. Network Rail is a private company limited by guarantee, so instead of paying dividends, profits are put back into the business.

The firm's information management department is divided into several areas. There is a head of information security and separate managers to oversee development services, information management strategy and infrastructure.

The department also has three delivery units: customer service and operations, maintenance and engineering, and business services. They were set up in May 2004 to improve the department's focus on delivering the systems the business needs.

"I have created delivery units so the business knows who to engage with," says van Valkenburgh.

The three units will manage 138 IT projects in 2006. The department as a whole had already delivered 73 of these projects by October 2005.

Last summer, Network Rail cut the amount it spent on mainframe maintenance by £500,000 a year, when it renewed its managed services contract with supplier Atos Origin. It was able to negotiate the reduction in Atos Origin's charges for the contract after it insisted that the mainframe would be abandoned if Atos made no cost cuts.

The mainframe is an IBM zSeries running a legacy MVS/JES operating system and SNA connectivity software.

In the second half of 2005, the information management department completed a company-wide migration to Windows XP (see box). It migrated more than 7,700 devices to the operating system and installed flat-screen monitors on 8,500 desktops.

"We can show that the flat-screen monitors use 75% less energy," says van Valkenburgh.

Network Rail also migrated its payroll and finance applications to Oracle during the last few months of 2005. The company's customer relationship management system already runs on Oracle, and an Oracle procurement application has reached pilot stage. "We are 60 to 70% Oracle," says van Valkenburgh.

The key IT systems, however, are the applications that improve the reliability and punctuality of train services. Three core systems have all been in place for a year. Mims collects maintenance reports, and FMS and Trainplan determine how many trains can run on the rail network.

Because the rail network is a critical part of the national infrastructure, the three core applications have to continue working in the event of a disaster. Network Rail is building the capacity it needs to ensure this.

The company has a budget of £10m per year to spend on business continuity for its IT systems. Van Valkenburgh says, "By March 2006, we will have our improved business continuity in place.

"We are increasing the local resilience where applicable. We are also providing an operational test environment, improving recovery of the key systems and doing some work on disaster recovery."

Network Rail has three datacentres based at secret locations around the UK. By the end of March, the key applications will continue to run even if one of the datacentres is destroyed.

Van Valkenburgh says, "We do need to take this stuff very seriously. Some companies advertise their business continuity plans too much. They should be very careful."

E-mail storage will also be improved in the first quarter of 2006 when the company migrates from its five-year-old Hewlett-Packard HSG80 storage area network (San) to 10 different EVA Sans from the same supplier. Nine of the servers in the new infrastructure can store 30Tbytes each and one can hold 50Tbytes.

The information management department has built a home-working system that can support up to 4,000 employees simultaneously. Outlook Web, which went live in July, can be used by employees to continue working if a disaster prevents them from accessing one or more of the company's offices.

The business case for the system, however, was to support home working. Van Valkenburgh says, "We would use it for anything. But the main justification for the investment is for people to work at home."

This year, the information management department will oversee one of the largest mobile deployments in the UK. Under Railtrack, the network's maintenance workers were outsourced to support services companies. Network Rail brought the maintenance function - and about 17,000 people - back in-house in 2004.

Van Valkenburgh says thousands of maintenance workers will be equipped with camera phones supporting a customised application. Track defects will be photographed and the information sent via mobile phone to Network Rail's Mims system.

While these projects are ongoing, the information management department is developing the business case for a "unified workplace initiative" - Network Rail's first step towards a service oriented architecture.

Head of information delivery Joanna Beeching is responsible for bringing six of the company's IT systems within a framework that makes data retrieval easier. The portal access, document management, content management, knowledge sharing, asset configuration management and identity management systems will fall within the programme.

Applications within the framework will benefit from two-way integration with the company's other business-critical systems. These include its enterprise resource planning, datawarehouse and computer-aided design systems.

Network Rail's information management department uses Gallup Q12 Management to identify and then purchase new IT systems for different parts of the business. A key aspect of the system is that it helps managers identify what equipment an end-user needs to do their job.

Van Valkenburgh says, "It is really getting down to engagement. We have an impact session. What do people want? It could be anything, but it is often IT."

Network Rail's XP roll-out

Network Rail gained thousands of new employees in 2004 when maintenance work on the rail network was brought back in house after the Potters Bar train crash.

The information management department was charged with standardising the whole company's desktop systems on Windows XP Service Pack 2. The migration involved:

  • 17,500 users migrating to Microsoft Office applications running under XP SP2
  • Devices being deployed in more than 460 locations
  • 8,000 new PCs and laptops being purchased and delivered
  • 8,500 energy-saving TFT screens being deployed to different locations
  • Contracts with three partners that had to be managed by information management.


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