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The anatomy of a successful rail infrastructure project

There are many parallels between the human body and project anatomies, and just like flesh and blood, communication between vital organs, systems, and structures is what’s needed to successfully deliver a rail project.  

06 November 2023
Sarah Dixon

Australia

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Communicating and engaging with stakeholders is key

Rail infrastructure projects are complex and can be tricky to deliver. There are quite a few challenges, but the top four could arguably include:

1.     The public nature of the projects – public money, public visual impact, public customer/stakeholder engagement, and projects are often high profile.

2.     Most rail projects need to integrate the finished project into an existing operating network and/or the construction is constrained by said operating systems.

3.     High-risk construction environment meets high risk operating environments – this is a critical crossroad as it is essential to work collaboratively and timely with other transport operators, leading electricity utilities and telecommunications operators to ensure timely and safe systems testing, commissioning and integration. 

4.     Multiple contractors, developers, specialists (engineers, project managers, financial analysts) and stakeholders involved in the project – from concept through to delivery.

All these challenges mean rail projects must have optimal structures and systems in place to allow for a complex mix of moving parts to work independently yet collaboratively, to be flexible and responsive, and to deliver tangible and successful outcomes.

Key to that happening is to have an operational readiness management plan which engages with all stakeholders throughout all key phases. The anatomy of a project is akin to a well-functioning human body.

The skeleton: structure and plan

Our body is held up by our skeleton. A rail project is supported by its structure. This includes the plan, systems, and the testing and commissioning programs that will oversee the entire project from delivery to testing, and commissioning to handover, and finally to operations.

A clear plan helps everyone navigate project complexity and connects all the individual units and stakeholders involved. You can’t have individual groups or organisations operating in isolation. For example, you can’t have an engineer discover a problem with a new rail bridge and then fail to communicate the issue to the wider team – effectively removing an opportunity to problem solve, innovate, communicate, and adapt in a timely way.

An issue never rests with one group and that is why having effective interface agreements and stakeholder relationships are critical. In any project, there are domino effects because of key decisions and actions. A comprehensive plan supported by a pragmatic governance framework, reduces the likelihood of projects not achieving their milestones.

Comprehensive plans allow for flexibility, which might sound counterintuitive. But when there is a change, the approved plan contextualises and is a reference point that connects any change to key activities, so any movement and any associated impacts are understood and communicated across the whole organisation. As a result, everyone is still facing in the same direction – as opposed to a change causing chaos or ‘surprises’ like cost and time blowouts and reputational damage down the track.

A project must have a framework for how decisions are made, so everyone is clear on the ‘vision’ – i.e., what will be achieved by when, definition of the key milestones, and contract deliverables. The feedback loops and escalation pathways are built in. The governance of each group fits in to this structure.

Train testing Sydney metro workers in high vis
Train testing. Image credit: Sydney Metro

Vital organs: clear roles and governance for each unit

Like a harmonious functioning human body, a project must also have all its units in sync. Each role/company/unit needs to know what it’s accountable for and how it fits in to the bigger picture. It needs to understand the key interfaces with other project teams as well as the broader organisation, delivery partners, external stakeholders, and other relevant government agencies.

The heart knows what it does and how it intersects with the lungs. Vital organs do specific things but need each other to make a body function. This is true for a project. A tiny adjustment to the integration of a rail line by, say 10 centimetres at Station X, has an impact 100 metres down the line and an even bigger one 10 kilometres away, where another station is being built on an original plan.

Governance provides the rules of engagement and defines in a standardised and integrated way how a project operates. It articulates how budgets are approved and performance is tracked – and where needed adjusted. It’s a guide to dealing with emerging risks, controlling change, clarifying who is responsible and accountable for decision making. Governance supports a greater understanding of the ‘whole’ and enables communication throughout all levels of an organisation.

These rules of engagement allow for communication: the lifeblood of any successful project.

Blood: effective communication bringing it all together

There’s a great saying: bad news never ages well. Not to say bad news is a constant in rail projects – however there are always pieces of information that should be shared, both good and not-so-good.

With a comprehensive delivery and implementation plan, visible leadership, and a uniform pragmatic governance framework in place – communication becomes a lot easier. And the three key tips for project success: communication, communication, communication.

It needs to be clear, consistent, succinct, robust, timely and adaptable. This brings cadence and rhythm, and fosters clarity of purpose, accountability, and consistency. Communication allows the sharing of valuable knowledge, of lessons learned and it empowers the vital teams – the engineers, designers, builders, electricians, project managers, government bodies, etc., – to do their work successfully and safely in coordination with the rest of the project team.

There should not be an instance where an executive or project director can say, “I didn’t know”. There should not be surprises if communication is flowing effectively. Too much is at stake. Communicate often, early and with clarity.

A human: the finished rail infrastructure

We don’t need to see or know the enormous effort and intricate behind-the-scenes details of what it takes to make a human function, or a rail project transform from an idea on a page, to a project in construction, to a finished asset.

To seamlessly operate, each project needs structure, rules of engagement for its vital teams, and the lifeblood of communication to feed and power the whole thing forward.

We can say communication is key – and it is – but the project’s structure and governance must be in place to facilitate and support effective communication, leadership, ways of working and culture. Engaging all the moving parts and all the stakeholders of a rail project is non-negotiable for the entire project lifecycle.  

So, when planning your next rail infrastructure project, make sure to pay attention to your project’s essential anatomy.

*Main image: Barangaroo Crossover, in New South Wales. Image credit: Sydney Metro


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