NETWORK Rail (NR) took over from Railtrack as the manager of Britain's national rail network on October 28 2002. Under Railtrack's stewardship, the network had almost been brought to a standstill following the infamous Hatfield derailment caused by a shattered rail which resulted in draconian temporary speed restrictions being imposed across the network while Railtrack carried out inspections for rolling contact fatigue. NR faced three challenges: to restore confidence in rail safety, to improve performance - 25% of trains were running late, and to cut costs.

Nigel-Ash"During the last 10 years we have focused on getting the national system up and running from where we were with Railtrack and we didn't want any distractions, particularly in the first five years considering the state of the network," explains Mr Nigel Ash, managing director of Network Rail Consulting (NRC). "Now, we feel we are in far better shape and we have built up a lot of capability which we can pass on to others. Setting up NRC is also a response to the McNulty review and the need to demonstrate efficiency."

Ash recognises that NR is entering a crowded arena. "Projects come and go, so it will take time to establish ourselves. As we are starting from zero, it will be an incremental build up over two to three years."

NRC has recently recruited a core team of six experienced consultants and marketing professionals. "Internally, we have access to upwards of 8000 rail experts covering the whole range of rail-related specialisms," says Ash. "Already, several hundred have indicated their readiness to become involved in international projects, and this number is growing all the time."

NR has built up considerable expertise in specific areas which should be attractive to others, for example in planning major projects such as Thameslink, upgrading main lines, and the reconstruction and development of major stations such as Reading and London King's Cross. It has developed systems such as Grip, a phased project planning process, and a route utilisation strategy for long-term strategic planning in which other countries have expressed an interest. "Our major projects division has adopted a collaborative approach for procurement over the last two years, so this is expertise we can sell," says Ash.

Ash wants NRC to be a one-stop railway consultancy for problem solving and he envisages offering services in several key areas. NR has developed its own asset management software in cooperation with RSSB, Britain's railway standards and safety organisation, and Ash says NR hopes to reach an agreement soon with RSSB to licence it to other users. On the operations and maintenance front, NRC will offer advice on scheduling and outsourcing contracts.

For major projects, NRC plans to offer its services from the development stage through to project management. However, Ash is quick to point out NRC will not take on project delivery risk which will remain with the client.

NRC will be able to offer advice on all aspects of heavy rail and metro systems, and possibly for light rail schemes as well. "It's not necessarily just the expertise which NR has as an organisation which we can offer, but the expertise our people have," Ash explains.

Initially NRC plans to concentrate on specific geographic regions such as North America, northern and central Europe, the Balkans, Turkey, the Middle East, India, Australia and parts of East Asia. NRC has already formed alliances with two other consultants: CH2M Hill, and Atkins through which it plans to target work in India and North America.

Ash sees benefits for NR as well as NRC's potential customers in setting up a consultancy business. "How do we benchmark ourselves and how do we demonstrate our efficiency?" he asks. "Going out into the market will help to strengthen our organisation, and exposing our people to working abroad will improve our skills and knowledge base.

"We spend four to five years training people only for some of them to leave us each year to work abroad and only a proportion of them come back. But if we make jobs at NR more attractive by offering the chance to work abroad for periods of time, we hope to be able to retain more of them." This will have benefits for NR as staff should return with enhanced skills.

Ash concluded by explaining NRC's philosophy. "Our competitive advantage is in helping to transform existing railways rather than building new ones," says Ash. "We are very much focused on getting the best solution despite our national heritage. We are not afraid to look abroad for solutions and equipment, so we are open to buying in expertise when we need to. We want to tailor solutions to the needs of clients rather than simply offering a British solution."