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Transport’s silent army

With extremely heavy pedestrian footfall, a high level of security threats and dangerous trackside environments, rail transport is one of the most challenging sectors a facilities management professional can work in. Kevin Murgatroyd, sector director for transport at Interserve, gives an insider’s view into the complex work undertaken by support services providers on a daily basis to keep the nation’s transport network up and running

We have a national obsession with our rail transport system. It is rare for a week to go by without our railways making headlines – often for the wrong reasons – and as a nation we take great pleasure in complaining about the various issues that can arise when we travel by train or tube.

1-DSC_8939Yet despite varying public perceptions, the UK actually has one of the safest and most punctual rail networks in Europe. What’s more, it continues to be so despite huge increases in passenger numbers. The number of passenger journeys rose by more than 50 per cent in the last decade and the Office of Rail and Road forecasts that demand will only continue to increase, with 14 per cent more passengers predicted by 2019.

At least part of the reason for this perception gap is that members of the public are, generally speaking, completely unaware of the work that goes on to make sure that the UK’s trains arrive on time, safely, and in a decent state of cleanliness and repair. They don’t know that, hidden in plain sight, there is an army of people maintaining and cleaning thousands of kilometres of track, trains, tunnels and stations to ensure a safe and pleasant environment for customers.

In London alone, Interserve’s transport teams maintain, protect and clean around 3,000 carriages and approximately 180 stations every day. That’s just in one city, in one day! Managing the complex logistics of this operation is a colossal task; one which can provide useful insights for other multi-faceted industries looking to deliver the best possible customer experience.

The sheer diversity of Britain’s rail infrastructure is one of the main reasons why this is such a challenging sector to operate in. From Victorian architectural marvels to modern-day design icons, no two of Britain’s 2,500-odd stations are the same.

The materials used to construct each station could not be more diverse. Go to Birmingham New Street, for example, and you will find an ultra-modern, light-filled marriage of soaring glazed arches and stainless steel facade. Hop on a train and you’ll likely emerge into a completely different environment; a quaint red-brick building, a brutalist concrete structure or a beautiful art deco station. All have their own particular security, maintenance and cleaning needs, requiring operatives to be familiar with a variety of equipment and techniques – from the specialist cleaning of listed buildings to the use of high-rise rope access systems to reach vaulted roofs and facades.

The ebb and flow of passenger numbers at train stations also creates challenges. At a ‘typical’ station you would expect a number of extended peak times throughout the day, bracketed by much quieter off-peak periods. Security, maintenance and cleaning teams need to be in tune with these patterns of use and able to adapt quickly to deliver tasks safely and efficiently without disrupting the flow of busy commuters.

However, this pattern can be completely disrupted by any number of anomalous events. A concert or a sports fixture can lead to a huge influx of passengers at unusual times – many of whom will likely be high spirited, and hence far more likely to cause additional disruption for other passengers and employees.

As well as having to deal with a much higher-than-usual number of ‘bodily spillages’, support services employees often find themselves becoming a target for angry and abusive passengers. To help them deal with verbal abuse, all of our operatives receive training on conflict management. Knowing how to defuse charged encounters can be vital when faced with customers who are intoxicated.

Even taking out the passenger element, railways and stations are highly challenging environments that can, if not given the correct respect, be life-threatening. Whether working on live tracks or on operational platforms, support services employees are trained to remain vigilant against a variety of risks. It may seem unlikely, but the danger of maintenance equipment, for example, coming into contact with live overhead lines is a very real threat for operatives.

About Sarah OBeirne

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