MAY 11 saw the launch in London of the Institution of Railway Operators. Set up to give formal recognition to the profession of railway operating, IRO aims to recruit 5000 members within five years, according to its first Chairman, the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority’s Technical Director Richard Morris. He told 180 senior rail managers and guests at an inaugural lecture given by Virgin Trains’ Chief Executive Chris Green that 1000 members were needed by the end of the first year and another 1000 in the second to cover running costs estimated at a minimum of £100000 a year.

Membership will be open to anyone involved with railway operating, including hands-on staff such as drivers and signallers, although others with an interest in the subject are welcome as Affiliates. There will be a comprehensive programme of education and learning modules allowing members to improve their skills and to bring practical operators up the command chain to junior and middle management.

Morris underlined the growing recognition within the industry that practical skills are vital to safe and reliable operations, and hoped that the formation of IRO would help to reverse the worrying situation where ’knowledge of the interfaces [between different parts of the railway business] has almost disappeared.’ IRO will help give long-overdue recognition to a ’latent profession’ with the ’patience to do the detail over and over again’.

Launch of IRO reflects a measure of maturity among the many parties responsible for running Britain’s rail network, and overdue recognition of the need to work together across company boundaries. This is evident in the widespread support shown by train operators and other leading players in the railway industry. Financial backers include Connex, FirstGroup, Go-Ahead, GNER, London Underground, National Express Group, Prism, Railtrack, Stagecoach, the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority and Virgin Trains, while Arup sponsored the inaugural lecture.

In his lecture Chris Green warned that the operating profession in Britain ’nearly became extinct’ in the 1990s. Highlighting the complexity of running railways, and the added complications of doing so in Britain where formal contracts governed relationships between companies, Green suggested that the logistics of railway operations were underestimated. Because of the fragmentation and the complexity, ’privatisation has doubled the importance of operators’, who in the new railway had been ’cast centre stage’. Making the operator professional ’is the way we are going to hold the privatised railway together’, he said. Even where companies are in head to head competition, he suggested, their operators must work together on the ground.

Green identified ’safety, planning and delivery’ as three strategic areas where operators should take the lead. On safety, staff and managers needed the most professional training available. Delivery reliability was crucial, with punctual arrival ’consistently rated as the most important attribute for any rail service.’

In the nadir of the 1990s to which Green referred, both operators and engineers were derided for running railways with little or no regard for commercial realities. This applied in many countries, and in some cases still does today. While there is some truth in this accusation, it is entirely reasonable that those responsible for running rail businesses should be able to draw on commercial, engineering and operating expertise - hence Green’s recommendation that ’every top-level organisation’ should have ’a full-time Director of Operations / Production reporting directly to the Chief Executive or Managing Director, and that this post should include a seat on the board.’ We welcome the move away from the dogma-driven past represented by the IRO’s launch, and wish the organisation every success in its aspirations to bring professionalism to our industry. In doing so, it will help to spread best practice across the world.

The IRO is keen to establish links with similar organisations elsewhere and readers are invited to contact Mike Tham, Chief Executive, The Institution of Railway Operators, PO Box 5539, Derby DE1 9FE, Great Britain. Tel: +44 1332 263369. Fax: +44 1332 263125