CIO interview: Network Rail on track for IT transformation

As major cuts in government spending were unveiled this week, Network Rail chief information officer Susan Cooklin faces a tough challenge to deliver the IT supporting a £35bn plan to revamp Britain's railways.

As major cuts in government spending were unveiled this week, Network Rail chief information officer Susan Cooklin faces the tough challenge to deliver the IT supporting a £35bn plan to revamp Britain's railways.

Chancellor George Osborne has ordered Network Rail to shave £100m off its budget as the firm delivers Control Period 4 (CP4), a five-year scheme which sets out the actions required to improve punctuality and safety, add capacity and relieve congestion.

The rail operator agreed with the need for further savings and said it has been identifying areas where discretionary investment on programmes that do not add capacity or operational efficiency to the railway can be cut.

According to Cooklin, the organisation is already strongly focused on getting value for money - the IT budget for CP4 is about £1bn - but more initiatives geared at cost efficiency will be introduced in the near future.

"We will be looking at how many suppliers we have and if we are getting good value for money from them. I would like to find who the key suppliers for us are and who is going to help deliver the requirements for CP4 and beyond," Cooklin told Computer Weekly.

"We will also tighten the service level agreements and ask suppliers to come to the table with ideas," she said.


Atos Origin currently runs Network Rail's mainframes and CSC provides mid-range services, while SCC handles the company's distributed computing and the network of desktop-related infrastructure across the UK.

Cooklin suggested that the infrastructure spend may be too high, so she will be looking at benchmarking those services against other companies in an attempt to reach a more economic solution.

The company is also working on the optimisation of its enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform, which is supplied by Oracle and is one of the largest installations in Europe, with yearly spend of about £20m.

"It is an expensive platform for us to run, so we are looking to reduce the total cost of ownership over the next five years," said Cooklin.

Cooklin took over as CIO late last year with a brief to deliver the IT supporting the wider transformation plan, as well as several "business-as-usual" projects and create a better dialogue between IT and other parts of the organisation.

As part of the transition from her previous role as head of IT delivery, she assisted her boss - director of corporate development Catherine Doran - in mobilising the programme and introducing a new operating model that saw the creation of a hybrid team with business and IT expertise.

"The message I got from the executive team was very much that they did not want [IT] to be in a customer-supplier relationship, they wanted it to be a part of this business," she said.

"Transformation is about change, but there is also the issue of keeping the lights on, so you need good people who understand business and IT and apply the right resources to the right places."

Change projects

Cooklin is no stranger to large change projects (see career path, below) and believes her past experience will help the company meet the challenges posed by the CP4 plan and the organisational challenges that are part of her job.

"I know the complexity of large change projects and how difficult it is to implement those. Due to my background in corporate banking, I can talk to my colleagues here in a business-literate way and understand business problems very quickly and turn them into an IT opportunity, solution or a caution," she said.

"My stakeholder management skills are very well honed and I am good on the influencing side of things. That is what I bring, as well as a lot of enthusiasm."

Even though there are cash limitations and bleeding-edge technology cannot be used due to the risks involved, this does not stop Network Rail from innovating, said Cooklin. For example, the company is looking at the possibility of using cloud computing for its testing environments.

"There is a lot of noise around some of these new technologies. I have a slight cynicism around some of them, but cloud and software-as-a-service are things we should be exploring. I am up for innovation, but that has to do with processes and the way we do things, as well as technology," she said.

Despite her extensive project agenda, Cooklin maintains that the most testing part of her job - as well as the most enjoyable - will be to put IT at the heart of the business.

"I want people to understand information as an asset, whether it is information going to passengers or to our staff, so they can do their jobs better," she said.

"I think this is a great job and the organisation is very complex and exciting. But what I like is big, complex problems to solve - that is what motivates me."

Network Rail's transformation – what it means for IT

Control Period 4 (CP4) is a plan to transform the UK's rail infrastructure, backed by £35bn of funding granted by the Office of Rail Regulation in March 2009. IT spend represents about £1bn of that activity.

The programme is composed of 10 workstreams, which look at how Network Rail does business, while others analyse what the firm does towards the objective of becoming more reactive, flexible, innovative and cost-effective, with two workstreams supporting the wider plan to ensure consistency.

In addition to running the "business-as-usual" technology agenda, Cooklin's first six months as CIO saw the mobilisation of the transformation programme from a technology perspective and some parts are now transitioning to delivery.

In IT terms, the projects related to CP4 are divided into three broad areas: train systems, corporate applications and asset management platforms.

Train systems support timetables and passenger information systems, as well as train planning systems and traffic management, which help monitor capacity in the network and control the flow of trains.

Corporate systems include software covering areas such as enterprise resource planning, as well as human resources, payroll and customer relationship management.

Asset management comprises more than 180 systems monitoring everything from tracks, bridges and signals to switches. This is the most relevant area for IT and includes projects such as intelligent infrastructure, whereby a network of sensors can predict rail equipment failures to allow prompt remedial action.

Pilots for the project on the Edinburgh to Glasgow route have recently been completed and the project will now be rolled out across the UK. A database will be built which will be mined to enable predictive maintenance.

Career path: Susan Cooklin

Susan Cooklin started her life in IT at an early age, having studied computing, maths and economics at A-level.

She went on to do a degree in economics and accounting at the University of Wales, but later opted to go down the technology route and started her professional career as a business systems analysts at the British Shoe Corporation.

She then spent nearly a decade as a strategic planning analyst and IT project manager at Leeds Permanent Building Society.

Other roles in financial services followed and Cooklin ran her first IT transformation programme at NatWest, prior to its acquisition by Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). There, she worked under Catherine Doran, who would later invite her to join Network Rail.

Following the RBS takeover of NatWest and a subsequent focus on Edinburgh operations, Cooklin preferred to stay in London and joined Barclays, where she ran a business change programme in the corporate banking division.

Cooklin was in discussions around possible CIO roles in two global banks when she was persuaded to join Network Rail in 2006 as head of IT delivery.

When former chief information officer Catherine Doran was promoted to director of corporate development to lead the "biggest expansion of Britain's railways since the age of Brunel", the top IT post was up for grabs and was advertised internally and externally.

Cooklin applied for the job and undertook a selection process that she described as "very tough", with no preferential treatment given, even though she was familiar with the duties and challenges of the CIO job.

"I took the recruitment process very seriously and at no point assumed it was something I could take for granted," she said.

She was offered the CIO role and started in October 2009.

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