"I’ve been working in this area for over twenty years, but what has kept me interested is the ability to shift from pure engineering into an organisational space to really help people with their day to day problems."
Our features about asset management are always among the most read stories that we publish on SmartRail World. Our readers can see that effective asset management supports not only day to day operations, ensuring that trains run safely, punctually and reliably but also in helping support more efficient and cost-effective long term planning. So it was no surprise that our recent feature - The innovative asset management approach of WSP giving Singapore’s MRT a new lease of life – proved to be one of the most read in January. In order to find out more, our Editor Luke Upton, recently caught up with Chris Roberts, Vice President and Business Line Director - Asset Management and Business Strategy at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff and talked global perspectives on asset management for rail and metro, staffing challenges, the best bits of the job and of course his favourite rail journey...
Luke Upton (LU): Many thanks for the time today. Perhaps to get us started you could give us a little insight into your current role?
Chris Roberts (CR): Of course Luke, I relocated to the USA and joined WSP three and a half years ago. Prior to joining WSP, I worked for over twenty years in the asset management space for AECOM, Gutteridge Haskins and Davey (GHD) and London Underground among others. One of my previous clients described me as a “career asset manager” – so guess I have quite a bit of experience in the area!
When I moved to the USA, I very much saw my role as importing asset management best practice from Europe, particularly from the organisational perspective. Initially my focus was on the rail and transit sector following recent legislation in the US, requiring all transit agencies and Amtrak to start looking at improving their approaches to asset management. Over the last 12 months, we have extended our focus on other transportation and utility sectors with similar issues. We have also extended our services to cover both strategic planning at the top management level of an organization to guide asset management activities, and are currently introducing advanced maintenance skills to support more preventive/predictive interventions.
LU: Thanks, so working in public transport was always an interest for you?
CR: Yes, although early on in my career in engineering I was more interested in infrastructure design. As I went through my studies I was presented with the opportunity to do research into decision support systems in the rail industry. At this point, in the mid-1990s there was a lot of change in the industry with the UK network moving from government ownership to being managed by private companies. It was a very interesting time, and on the back of that, the decision support system that I’d developed showed information that the industry hadn’t previously had access to. I helped see this change through, and since then Network Rail (the owner and infrastructure manager of the rail network in England, Scotland and Wales) has done a huge amount of work building off this, so it’s been great to see that come through and continue to be used.
CR: From an asset point of view, the technologies are pretty similar wherever you are in the world. Perhaps the biggest difference is the role of the government. I was working in the UK when we saw the first signs of government regulation in this sector, essentially saying – folks you need to get better at this – and let’s figure this out, be proactive and extract more value from what you have. That contrasts quite significantly with the US, where yes, there is now more pressure from the government, but previously there wasn’t. What I am seeing now is a shift away from reacting to asset conditions on a day to day basis, to a focus on root causes, planned action and more senior management engagement in putting in place the capabilities to deliver assets.
LU: Interesting, so what are some of the biggest challenges in your role?
CR: A big part of the job is engaging with clients and individuals and helping them see a path through a challenge. To get some clarity of thought, shift those big pots of risk from the worker on the shop floor who is trying to manage assets day in day out with limited budget and resources up to senior management.
A key industry challenge is the resource pool. There is not the resources available with knowledge and experience of asset management. This becomes more challenging when you look at the attrition rate of staff in the US transportation sector. What we’ve found is that in a number of the transit systems which are reaching 30 years of operation, a lot of the staff have been working there about the same time and this baby boomer generation is coming up to retirement.
As a result, we’ve struggled to bring in people with the required experience and skills, and our clients face the same problem. We’ve actually established a full training programme for asset management, and have now delivered this course successfully across the USA – both to our own staff and for our clients. We are not doing this to make money, we are doing this to assist the industry getting the resources they need and are currently lacking.
LU: And what do you like most about the job?
CR: I’ve been working in this area for over twenty years, but what has kept me interested is the ability to shift from pure engineering into an organisational space to really help people with their day to day problems. For example, the work we’ve done with reinventing the MTA in New York, and really thinking where they will go over the next twenty years. And we’ve done similar projects like that elsewhere; using this to help shape their strategic thinking. What do the investments look like? What are the services going to look like? How are they going to be financed? What’s the organisation like? Where are the gaps? What technology options exist? How do we deliver services more efficiently? These kinds of questions. And seeking solutions based answers.
As a company the approach that we take is to connect the C-suite to the maintenance supervisor, from the boardroom to the shop floor. We shift the risk from an individual to an organisation level. Essentially we aim at giving our clients a better night’s sleep!
LU: What will be some of the biggest differences between asset management now and in 10 years’ time?
CR: Good question. I think one of the biggest differences will be a more effective tactical approach to asset management – by that I mean we will have a better understanding of the asset and with that will be able to better plan how we manage it. We will likely be far more focussed on high asset utilisation. Recognizing that assets are expensive there will be a greater focus on making sure we are getting the most value from them. And I would say based on the last few years, the resilience of them is creeping up the agenda. We are looking at how you build resilience into the assets, a lot earlier in the design and planning stage and not just waiting for when the next hurricane comes through. I think there’s also likely to be a change of funding sources, we will likely see more private investment in public infrastructure.
LU: And finally, as we ask all our interviewees, what’s your favourite rail journey?
CR: I’ve been fortunate to travel on trains all over the world. I’ve always enjoyed trips from my hometown of Liverpool up to Scotland which takes in some fantastic views. I did some work for the Swiss Federal Railways and thoroughly enjoyed travelling across the country on train there. And I’m lucky now to be working nationally across the USA, where I’m able to enjoy some great lines, most recently the Coast Starlight (pictured left) from Sacramento into San Francisco. I am currently working with the California High-Speed rail project to establish their asset management capability, so I’d say my favourite rail journey will be reserved for that once it opens!
LU: That’s great, many thanks for the time today Chris.
Would you like to know more about WSP ( @ ) , asset management innovations and how they could work with you? Then please contact Sylvie Msellati at email@example.com and to learn more about asset and rail vehicle management here and further details on the Singapore project here.
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