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The Elizabeth line – London’s newest railway, will stop at 41 accessible stations, ten newly built and 30 newly upgraded, and is expected to serve around 200 million people each year. This massive project has, not unexpectedly, split opinion and there have been obstacles and disruption all the way – including the unearthing of antiquities and burial sites, that have provided fascinating insights into history and delay in equal measure.

Alison, tell us about your early life and how you decided on a career in HR?  

 I fell into HR as opposed to the profession being any kind of ‘calling’. I left school and started work as a child minder, eventually deciding that it wasn’t a long-term career for me, and went to work in a private hospital – a part of the Nuffield Group. I studied at the same time with a plan to become a medical secretary. Initially, I worked in the marketing department then, rather unconventionally, I was asked to cover for pay-roll. That’s where my first contact with anything close to HR began. I eventually secured a job at the head office for Nuffield Group and worked in their corporate HR team, studying for a Master’s degree in Personnel and Development. I then moved to the London office, continued my studies and found a new role – by way of contrast to the private health sector – at a waste management company called Cory Environment Limited. This was a much more dynamic and hands-on HR environment as the business was going through rapid growth and change. I started as HR Advisor, and quickly became HR Manager.

This must have been at the time when waste management companies were expanding their portfolios into recycling.  

 Indeed, this was a business which was predominantly landfill and was in the process of building a massive waste energy site. One of my immediate responsibilities was managing recruitment and employee relations for all the sites, over 40 across the UK, so I spent a lot of time travelling and carrying out onboarding and training on a big scale. I thoroughly enjoyed L&D, and I really felt that I was gaining a solid grounding in a variety of skillsets. After a couple of years I decided it was time for a change, and again, another big change at that, going to Air France. I reported to the European call centre, based in Wembley, and the first thing I had to comprehend was the sheer scale of the organisation. It was also at a time when Air France was merging with Delta Airlines. Now I was moving into HR strategy, and much of my work was in manpower planning in the European Call Centre. Then a post at London Overground really caught my eye – it really was an offer I couldn’t refuse and I joined as HR business partner. The situation I was greeted with was antagonistic employee relations and workplace disruption, it really was a shock to the system. The plans for increased automation was being resisted by a very reactive workforce and trade union. Famously, rail has the toughest unions to deal with and, whilst negotiating was always a challenge, it also really focused the mind on the issues. You had to make sure your position was clear.

Given how automation is really challenging the nature of work and its conventions, it's little wonder that unions take a stand in this instance.  

Understandable yes, but it’s imperative you don’t make the union the enemy, nobody benefits. On the contrary, the trade unions are, to coin a phrase, very much part of the journey; they have a seat at the table and progress is more rounded when there’s a union contribution. Looking back, my three years were dominated by a great deal of operational disruption. LOROL was run as a joint venture between MTR and Arriva. MTR won the Crossrail contract and Steve Murphy, the Managing Director, contacted the HR Director, Darren Hockaday, to ask if he could suggest somebody who could mobilise Crossrail, and my name was put forward. So, wow, by August 2014 I was working full time mobilising the business. I was both very excited and daunted as I entered a completely empty office with no desks and phone leads trailing across the floor. I put my cardboard box down and took a walk around. The MD was in place, somebody was running IT and the Finance Director had been working on the financials on his laptop, and I discovered I had one person to support me. There were no systems, no processes – not even a company name. It dawned on me that this really was a blank whiteboard. We sat down on the various unmatching chairs and looked at our “big documents” and started to construct a plan of action.

What did the big document tell you? What was the plan for Crossrail?  

The MTR Corporation (Crossrail) Limited had been awarded the concession for operating the new Elizabeth line services across London: more than 60 miles stretching from Reading and Heathrow in the west through central tunnels to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east. This means managing the construction and merger of old and new railways, eventually seeing 41 accessible stations – ten newly-built and 30 newlyupgraded. The new train services are expected to serve around 200 million people each year. MTR Crossrail was to operate the train services and stations through a management services contract with TfL for a term of eight years. The complexity of the project meant the railway would open in stages over the course of six years. The first rail services started in May 2015 from Liverpool Street to Shenfield under the interim banner ‘TfL Rail’. We introduced brand new trains in June 2017 and then in December 2017 we took over the running of 11 stations between Acton Main Line and Taplow. Once we were awarded the contract in July 2014, it was straight down to business, recruiting an entire company from the Executive team, to Heads of Departments, and be ready to run a railway in ten months. We had from August 2014 until we went live on the 31st May 2015.

The big advantage we did have during that early mobilisation period was that we weren’t tied up with running the day-to-day business of a train operating company, so we could really focus on the infrastructure of the team. Meeting with unions to harmonise terms and conditions was critical. We focused on this before any services went live, to ensure that those drivers transferring over to us came over on previously agreed terms and conditions. I think that’s what goes wrong on so many rail franchises, because everybody is on different terms and conditions and harmonisation is a  minefield. We had it easy in some ways, in that we only had 80 drivers coming over, but putting the work in early made all the difference in terms of making sure we didn’t have issues when we went live.

We had a great deal of recruitment to plan and deliver, as well as the sizeable TUPE transfer of people coming over from Abellio Greater Anglia, who were, to be honest, quite reluctant. My job was bringing people on board and to mobilise and build systems and processes so we could actually pay these people. During the first few months of mobilisation we had no payroll set up and we were also still busy looking for the head office. It was the most difficult stage, combining going live with the business and serving our new customers, at the same time as continuing to need to mobilise and organise the new operation, still setting up new systems. So prior to the all-important May 2015 date, we spent a lot of time visiting the staff transferring over to us. They were disengaged. Many of the staff had been through multiple TUPE transfers with different franchise operators already, so they were feeling a bit unloved. They didn’t necessarily have the equipment they needed and repairs weren’t always being done.

It surprises me that with an exciting new operation and a brand new line that the TUPE transferred staff felt like the legion of the damned.  

The staff had already reached the stage where they were feeling detached and alienated, they didn’t feel they were being listened to, and we had to pull them back. You just have to confront these things head on and turn the tide quickly. Fortunately, they really responded well to us, just from sitting down and giving them time to talk. First of all we listened carefully and then we put them in the frame of a really exciting project that they were soon going to be involved with. We also had roadshows and popup shops where we’d invite them to talk and show them the plans – a new operation with no legacy of management versus unions and employee tensions, a completely clean sheet – on how it would operate and how they could directly contribute their knowledge and expertise to the new set up. Working closely with employees and the unions has been an essential element of the whole project. Right from the beginning we wanted the unions to have a good relationship with us. We invited all of the General Secretaries to meet with our Managing Director, Steve Murphy, for open and honest conversations, to break down any barriers and initiate real collaboration. We haven’t had any ballots or strikes and long may that continue.

We have really focused on delivering employee experiences that build engagement and confidence and no more so than in our training. One of the first people I recruited was Head of Learning & Development and we’ve managed the bulk of training internally. We do have some partners for more technical training, but generally we have covered it in-house. And we have really embraced new technology; for example, our driver training and station familiarisation is based around the latest Virtual Reality technology, which is really incredible – and crucial when it comes to delivering the most effective and engaging training for streams of new staff on safety and security issues. Myself and my exec colleagues have also recently been involved in a new initiative where we are introducing a type of VR Dragon’s Den format, to help colleagues gain confidence in public speaking in front of senior management and external parties. We’re excited about the different ways VR can be used as part of our training strategy.

Tell us about absorbing the constant pressure and the scrutiny.  

Every day brings surprises! Railways are well known for being very reactive, and with this kind of fast paced project, you have to be quick to anticipate and respond to issues, not ever letting them fester. That’s hugely absorbing! We’re immersed in a project that’s constantly evolving and not always going to plan or to schedule. For HR planning, what exacerbates an already complex picture is having to keep adapting the staffing model which challenges all of the plans. So we started running a train service in May 2015 from Shenfield to Liverpool Street and that was where we had the front-line staff TUPEd over. But we had to supplement staff numbers because this wasn’t enough, meaning the need to start up a recruitment and induction programme, as well as finding some agency staff as well. That was the first route and just the beginning. We then took on the operation of Abbey Wood station where we had staff TUPE from Southeastern. This is slightly more complicated as we operate the station and manage the staff, but we don’t run trains there just yet. Then in December 2017 we took over 11 stations between the Acton Main Line and Taplow. Most recently, we started running services between Paddington and Heathrow – so we’ve taken over trains and stations in the east and west of London, as well as Abbey Wood in the south east. In total we have had over 300 TUPE transfer from three existing rail franchises. It’s just recently been announced by Crossrail that the next stage of opening the central stations and tunnels under London will be postponed until autumn 2019, so we are busy working through the plans to support the successful delivery of this next stage. That’s basically where we are at the moment. You asked about absorbing the pressure, every step of the way the pressures keep on coming. There are so many stakeholders involved in this project and it’s been vitally important that we sustain this kind of cohesive relationship, built up painstakingly. The challenges are huge and varied and everybody is feeling the pressure, but that’s not necessarily such a bad thing.

When I interview HR directors they often make a point that they are aligned to the business, but it sounds like that, from the very beginning, you've been absolutely in the thick of it.  

My position is that we’re not the police and we must never be a blocker. We don’t say no. The business is the decision-maker. You can produce all kinds of different facts and evidence but the business plan is the indelible blueprint. Fortunately for me, and from the very beginning, the MD has seen HR as being a very close friend. You have to take ownership of a project like this, live and breathe it. We’re not a large department and quite traditional in some ways – we have payroll, pensions and systems, an L&D team, a recruitment team, an HR business partner team and also a communications team. It’s a very lean model and when we are fully operational we will have about 1200 people. We’ve built a really proactive, ‘go-to’ team – impartial, full of really effective communicators.

You have your more traditionally skilled TUPEd people and you have young cohorts that must make for a dynamic mix.  

Yes, many of the people that were TUPEd over didn’t have a choice and had a more traditional way of thinking. They generally didn’t share the excitement at first but working together over time they have really got onboard, embracing the changing nature of this railway. Then in contrast we have our trainee train driver recruitment, targeting a very young and tech-tuned audience and about 450 of them are in training right now. One of the careers which has struggled most to break free from the tradition of white middle-aged men is train-driving. Just six percent of train drivers in the UK are female, five percent are from ethnic minority backgrounds; only ten percent are under 35. By comparison, the profile of MTR Crossrail train drivers is that 11 percent are women, 25 percent ethnic minority, 47 percent are under 35. Our work on equality and diversity from a gender point of view, as well as social inclusion through our apprenticeships, is wholehearted and emphatic. We were the first train operating company to launch a train driver apprenticeship, and the culture is really forward looking, a far cry from the old rail culture and mentality. There’s a real vibe that new recruits have great opportunities to be part of a very exciting business.

Tell us about the current work in progress, the next stages and the challenges ahead.  

With Brexit, we need to factor in how that will affect workers. It could be a bigger problem for our suppliers than us directly, but there’s no room for complacency. We run sessions looking at possible scenarios. Then we have GDPR, which has turned out to be a big project for us which we could have done without! And of course, security and customer safety is paramount. We must continue to remain match fit for the next stage of this transformational railway by building on our existing record as a high performing and safe railway. Our teams will continue to support our partners with testing for the central section, to ensure that we provide a safe and reliable railway for our customers. We’ve been running high volume recruitment campaigns for front line staff who will be based at the various locations and stations, some managers, but the majority running the line and stations and serving customers. We are also constantly considering different approaches to recruitment, looking for something new – as well as developing staff that are customer and service focused, building pride and self-responsibility with the objective of consistently providing world class leading service.

Your story reminds me of the London Olympics team, building towards a golden moment.  

There will be a golden moment, a euphoria when the Elizabeth line is all up and running. But what matters even more is consistency, operating for years at the highest level – to be the benchmark – not just one golden moment to reminisce on. And that’s what’s great about this project and my job. Right now there’s all the planning we’ve put in place in terms of training programmes, the high recruitment drive, bringing in the right candidates and, meanwhile, the construction and infra-structure is ongoing. We are resourcing and supporting the ops team, as the testing, the tunnelling and the fleet is put through its paces. It’s a multifaceted, multi-skilled operation that has to run with cohesion, and if anything goes wrong, the knock-on effects need to be addressed. We’re always ready. You can never be one hundred percent sure that there won’t be a problem around the corner which causes a delay, constantly communicating with all the other parties. We even have our staff in uniform ready to deliver.

Once Crossrail is fully operational, what do you think the ongoing challenges will be?  

I don’t think there will be a final destination. The concession is for eight years with a possible two year exemption, that’s the timeframe we are looking at right now. With the organisational focus set on delivering services and serving customers, our job will be about attracting and engaging the talent and skills necessary to make Crossrail the benchmark railway. For myself and my peers it has been a really extraordinary journey. When the line is fully open and the trains are running from Shenfield to Reading, I imagine that will be an emotional moment. But it will also be short-lived, as there’s already talk about work on Crossrail 2 and London Overground. Would that then come to us? Who knows?

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