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Blog: The challenges of working on the railway

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

Lankelma Operations Director Ben Magee says Network Rail’s new Plant Operator Scheme is changing the way specialist contractors, including geotechnical companies, work on the railway and has implications for the entire rail industry.

The new Plant Operator Scheme (POS), which came into effect on 28 June this year, relates to the provision and licensing of On Track Plant.

In the past, companies supplying plant and staff (which had to be Network-Rail approved) worked as a subcontractor to the Plant Operator License (POL) holder. However, last year Network Rail decided to replace the POL scheme with the POS, to improve the safety of work using On Track Plant.

Under the new scheme, the Plant Operator is defined as “the organisation undertaking the provision and operation of On Track Plant”. In other words a company that owns, manages and uses the plant. In the past, the Plant Operator could be the company (typically a Principle Contractor) that hired the plant or the operator – it did not have to own the plant.

Geotechnical contractors, as “Plant Hire” companies, now have two choices: to become a POS holder or to wait and see what demand remains for their services, via a reduced number of POS holders.

Becoming a POS license holder means an increased risk profile – and the insurance costs to match. Along with more stringent auditing, there is also a requirement to employ an On Track Plant engineering specialist: a competent person with suitable and sufficient experience in the design, manufacture, maintenance and engineering change aspects of On Track Plant.

Companies holding a POS are also responsible for the planning of the possession (including on-track access and egress) and supplying all the staff for that possession – and all the risk that goes with it. They will also need to have a POS Representative on every job to oversee the works.

Of course, many geotechnical contractors are not railway companies but provide specialist services that can be used on the railway, as well as many other environments.

Those of us working on the railway accept there are implications to our businesses, in terms of the time and cost of training; the need to develop rail-specific plant and procedures; and the associated licensing and auditing, and build these into our operations.

What we cannot do, however, is to take on the further responsibility of POS, particularly if rail work is not a core company activity but one of many services we provide. Small geotechnical firms often do not employ enough professional rail staff for planning, administrative and site work, especially if they cannot work on non-rail projects; nor can they afford higher insurance premiums, or increased management input based upon the value of their rail work.

Taking a “wait and see” approach may not be the answer either, as POL holders may not be able to obtain a POS as they do not own any On Track Plant. As it is unviable for small specialist “Plant Hire” companies to hold their own POS, the future of small specialist companies working on the railway hangs in the balance.

Geotechnical companies must work closely with their rail advisors, Network Rail and Principle Contractors to investigate how they can trade under the POS scheme.

If a solution is not found, not only will the geotechnical fraternity suffer but the rail industry as a whole is likely to feel the effect of a reduction in specialist contractors, as a direct result of the new regulations. There are clearly some challenges ahead.