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5 Minutes With… Chris Lawrence, technical director at the RSSB.

Posted by Dave Songer on Feb 23, 2018

Chris Lawrence, Technical Director, RSSB.jpg“I often reflect with pride on the reliance that society places on its rail networks and the benefits that they deliver."

The RSSB is an independent body that exists to help make the British rail network safer, more efficient and sustainable, working with its members, which include UK passenger train and freight operating companies, Network Rail and suppliers Siemens and Thales, to achieve those goals. Last year the RSSB invested more than £10m on research and development, generating says the board a potential benefit to the rail industry to the tune of £320m.

So it’s with great pleasure that this week SmartRail World caught up with Chris Lawrence, technical director at the RSSB, for 5 Minutes With… Speaking to Dave Songer during what is a period of great change for the UK rail industry – with Crossrail and even HS2 on the horizon – Chris explains what he’s learnt from working in different parts of the world, why he’s so proud to be involved in rail, and why the industry is safe in the hands of the next generation of engineers.

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You’ve been engaged in roles on various rail projects for 25 years now, what do you most enjoy about working in the rail industry?

Rail is a broad sector and my experience ranges from automated people movers to high speed rail and everything in between. I most enjoy the complexity of rail in comparison to the civil engineering work I did earlier in my career in other sectors, and the intellectual stimulation of solving difficult technical problems from a whole system perspective. I often reflect with pride on the reliance that society places on its rail networks and the benefits that they deliver, knowing that we have plans to ensure a continuing place for rail in an environment of accelerating technological change.

What does your current role at the RSSB entail?

As technical director, I’m responsible for the delivery of technical excellence in all our services, with all that entails in the form of people, process, tools and assurance. I also discharge the function of technical director to Great Britain’s rail industry’s technical leadership group which oversees implementation of the 30 year Rail Technical Strategy.

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What is the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced?

Probably to simultaneously lead three major underground mass transit design projects in Singapore, at the same time as being the firm’s country manager and running the office there. A challenge, but a hugely rewarding one.

What are the RSSB’s (@RSSB_rail) key priorities for 2018?

To more closely align the services we provide in safety, health and wellbeing, standards and sustainability with the business needs of our members and to enhance our delivery of key industry projects. Another priority is to set up a new organisation that will manage delivery of the Rail Technical Strategy.

Five key priorities of the RSSBYou studied engineering at the University of Nottingham, where you are now a visiting professor. What do you most enjoy about that?

I learn such a lot from the students and am energised by their enthusiasm for starting their careers as engineers. They have a different perspective to those of us with 35+ years’ experience. Their passion for issues such as sustainability, and the skills they show in the use of technology as a means of communication, are very refreshing. I am also continually encouraged by the quality of the work the students produce under tight time pressures – that will equip them well for a career in engineering!

What do you think will be the biggest rail industry changes over the next 10 years?

A real challenge will be in maintaining rail’s place as the principal and sustainable transport mode in a period of extraordinary technological change where other sectors are developing faster than rail. The change will clearly be in greater application of technology and better use of data – whether in ticketless travel, risk-based preventive maintenance or in increasing capacity through more sophisticated train control.

You’ve worked in some pretty exotic parts of the world over your career, including Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore. To what extent has working in such different environments helped you in your career? Has there been any highlights?

Exposure to a multitude of ways of doing the same task has been very enlightening. I would encourage others to do it. We can learn so much from other cultures, methods and from their successes and failures, and that learning enhances the service we can provide as individuals, whatever the situation. There is always a different way of doing something.

A highlight, because it was so different to anything I had experienced before, was my first project in China in the mid ‘80s, working on a privately-financed expressway conducting feasibility studies. This included much walking of potential routes and seeing day-to-day rural life, which was an eye-opening experience after spending all my formative years in the UK.

Download now - Digital Transformation You’re due to speak at SmartRail this year. Have you visited similar shows before, and what do you think you’ll talk about?

SmartRail has an excellent and diverse range of speakers and delegates and I’m very much looking forward to meeting and learning from them, as well as sharing my own views and experiences. We’re all part of the global railway industry, share common challenges and see similar opportunities. The different ways we each propose to respond to them offers a richness of approach that I hope will allow me to come away with lots of new ideas. As one industry, we should not be afraid of a ‘copy with pride’ approach when we meet our colleagues and peers, and should always be looking for ways to achieve robust and beneficial enhancements in the shortest possible timeframe.

As for what will be covered, I’ll be talking about how we can transform Great Britain’s railway to meet massively increased demand for mobility through implementing technology on the existing network, rather than by building a lot of new lines.

What’s your favourite rail journey and why?

That’s Tricky! Can I pick more than one? Scenically, the Settle-Carlisle Line in the north of England is a clear favourite. I was brought up in the area and as well as passing through spectacular scenery – and over and under equally spectacular Victorian engineering – it’s also full of memories for me. Day-to-day, it has to be the West Coast Mainline which takes me to and from work quickly and in a good, productive working environment. Without it, I couldn’t do the job I’m doing.

However, as a ‘one-off’, Line 4 of the Rio de Janeiro Metro quickly became my favourite in 2016 – the only practical way to get from my hotel to the Rio Olympics athletics stadium. It entered service only days before the Opening Ceremony…yet proved totally reliable!

To be part of the conversation at SmartRail and to hear more in-depth analysis from Chris and more than 80 other speakers on a range of critical rail topics, visit the show website


Last week's 5 minutes with… Piia Karjalainen, senior manager at MaaS Alliance.

Would you like to get involved in 5 minutes with…? This fun, informative feature gives our readership the chance to get to know more about the personalities behind the industry, what it is that inspires them, where they see the industry heading and of course their own favourite rail journey! Get in touch with Dave Songer: to find out more.

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Dave Songer

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