Anit Chandarana, Chief of Staff, Network Rail In ordinary circumstances, taking the train is a daily ritual so firmly entrenched I barely even notice it. My journey back and forth to the office from my home in South East London was non-negotiable. But of course these are no ordinary circumstances.

Like millions of others my commute now involves moving from room to room at home, which is great for my work-life balance but not so great for those running the railway.

Plummeting ticket revenue is just one of the challenges the rail industry now faces, however. From keeping staff safe while maintaining services, to continuing to advance vital upgrade projects at a time of social distancing, this is no easy time for anyone involved in the rail network. And as the recent tragic derailment in Scotland attests, safety will always remain a core priority.  But if he’s feeling the pressure, Anit Chandarana isn’t one for showing it.

Maybe his quiet confidence is rooted in a detailed knowledge of the railway. He may have only been in post as Network Rail’s first ever chief of staff since January, but he can call on more than 17 years of railway experience, and it soon becomes clear that pandemic or no pandemic, his passion for tracks and trains remains undimmed.

“The railway quickly got under my skin because it is simply so important to the running of the UK,” he explains, “and that’s because moving people and moving goods is so vital to the economic wellbeing and social fabric of a nation.”

Its sheer significance means that few – if any – don’t have a viewpoint on its performance, good or bad. For Chandarana, a self-professed introvert, this is something of a bonus.  “I never struggle for conversation when I meet someone new at an event, a dinner or a party – and I love that,” he says. “Seventeen years later and I’m still here.”

Turbulent times

Turbulent Times icon Responsible for ensuring that the railway is safe and reliable, Network Rail owns, operates, maintains and develops more than 20,000 miles of track across England, Scotland and Wales. It does the same for thousands of level crossings and bridges, not to mention around 2,500 stations – including the biggest and busiest in the country.

Ordinarily, the rail network carries 4.8 million people every day. Since the pandemic, however, passenger numbers have plunged. “Even though we’re currently running about 90% of the trains we would normally run, we’re only carrying about 20% of our normal passengers,” says Chandarana. “The long-term sustainable level of travel is anybody’s guess right now. We will need to figure out the impact of people no longer needing a season ticket, for example, and what that will mean for us.”

And it’s not just Network Rail’s passengers who are reluctant to return to train travel – many of its senior leaders are too. “I’m coming into the office once a week and personally, I’m very comfortable with doing that, but some of my peers say they don’t feel safe at all,” he says. “And these are senior leaders in the rail industry. On the one hand this is a very personal decision, but on the other if I can’t convince my senior colleague to get on a train how am I going to convince others?”
“Even though we’re currently running about 90% of the trains we would normally run, we’re only carrying about 20% of our normal passengers. The long-term sustainable level of travel is anybody’s guess right now” Anit Chandarana, Chief of Staff, Network Rail
But of course Covid-19’s impact is by no means only financial. The mental health implications have also spread far and wide – something that Chandarana is keenly aware of.  “I’m also a non-executive director on an NHS Foundation Trust, which is a mental health foundation, so this is an issue very close to my heart,” he says. “We’ve just recently completed a health and wellbeing survey and the openness with which people answered that survey was quite telling and very encouraging – a number of people said that they have had mental health and wellbeing problems over this period. And a big majority admitted that it has been a challenging time, a different time.”

Against this difficult backdrop, Chandarana says that the pandemic has also carved out new opportunities for what were previously problematic conversations. “Mental health is actually one of the biggest causes of sickness in the UK yet it’s also one that has had quite a big stigma,” he points out. “But for whatever reason, this period has kick-started conversations which had previously been hard to broach. It really shows the power of community and the power of talking. The question we need to ask ourselves as leaders is how we continue with this approach when things get back to normal.”

Track changes

Track Changes icon Chandarana, while a Network Rail veteran, is no railway lifer. Prior to joining the organisation he worked as a financial analyst for Shell, having previously held a similar role at Sainsbury’s. So what made him move across? “My first role at Network Rail was in its IT division and my interest at the time was getting into the IT industry,” he explains.

He goes on to say, though, that IT potential aside, he was well aware that he was joining an organisation which often found itself in the line of fire from disgruntled passengers, unhappy with both unreliable trains and the ever-increasing cost of their tickets.

“Let’s be clear, what we have been blamed for in the past is stuff we deserve to have been blamed for,” he concedes. “Passengers want to know when their train will leave so they know when to get to the station; they want a timetable they can rely on; and they want their train to arrive on time. It’s not exactly unreasonable is it?”

These perennial issues are exactly why Network Rail has recently implemented a new passenger-centric approach to act as its guiding principles going forward. “The fact we run some of the most congested railways in the world makes it harder but what we haven’t done well enough is be on the side of passengers,” continues Chandarana. “They need to be confident that, for example, having dropped their kids at school, there will be somewhere to park their car, get on a train and get to work on time. And then coming home, passengers need to be confident they can be on time to pick their kids up. It’s that simple.”

Chandarana goes on to suggest, however, that a principle barrier to this new way of operating is the structure of the rail industry itself. Let’s back up a moment and remind ourselves of how it all works. After privatisation in 1993, the then government-owned British Rail was divided into two main parts: one being the infrastructure owned by Network Rail and the other being the operating companies whose trains run on that network. These train operating companies, both passenger and freight, run the trains and in most cases the train itself is leased from a rolling stock company.
“The railway quickly got under my skin because it is simply so important to the running of the UK and that’s because moving people and moving goods is so vital to the economic wellbeing and social fabric of a nation” Anit Chandarana, Chief of Staff, Network Rail
It’s not exactly the most streamlined of structures and it’s one that Chandarana says is no longer fit for purpose. “We shouldn’t forget that the railways have seen phenomenal growth over the last 20 years – some of which has been driven by this industry structure – but it’s time for a change as it’s not going to work anymore,” he says.

“As a business, you’re [BAE Systems] thinking about maximising revenue all the time but an industry which has different people looking at different things, it’s very difficult for it all to come together. My view is that the current structure is not workable – track and trains are going to have to be brought together much more closely.”

But what of the train operating companies and other stakeholders? Won’t they raise some issues about potential reforms? “I think we can only go so far with collaboration and cooperation and what we can’t ignore is the current economic environment,” he replies. “Broadly, there are no private companies taking any revenue risk in the rail industry today. For this to really work and put passengers at the heart of what we do and manage a single profit and loss there will have to be change.”

Leading the way

Making Tracks Leading the way icon As a member of the BAME community, Chandarana has been twice recognised in the FT list of The 100 Leading Ethnic Minority Executives, and the issue of diversity is something that he is keen to become more vocal about.

“Looking through the lens of the pandemic, George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, I have come to realise that I’ve been standing back and not speaking up for that community,” he reflects. “Partly it’s my nature but some of the things I’ve learned from my career mentors is that you shouldn’t be shy about voicing your opinion. If you don’t put forward your views then you can’t blame anyone else for not listening to you and you can’t fuel the debate.”

He goes on to stress the importance of having challenging, yet collaborative conversations, not only about diversity and inclusion but also across the wider business landscape. “One of our values at Network Rail is ‘Challenge’ which is about challenging to help drive towards a better outcome, not to challenge for the sake of it. Sometimes I’m collaborative to a fault so I need to work on that as an area of development, but collaboration also lends itself to a chief of staff role quite well.”

Much of his own professional approach can be traced back to a two-year stint away from Network Rail when he was managing his own food business. “In 2005 I left to go and run my own small business – it failed because while we learned a lot, we were young and naïve and made lots of mistakes,” he recalls. “One of the things I found really difficult was that I knew each employee really well and this meant I found it really hard to make tough decisions early which were going to hurt some of them, even though it would ultimately be better for the organisation. In any environment you have trade-offs and over time it’s about learning what they are.”

This issue of trade-offs is something he believes has huge prevalence in business and life as a whole. “In the rail industry there are huge trade-offs to be made – 100% train reliability would mean much higher fares, or would you prefer lower fares with slightly less reliability? We’re all in the middle of a huge trade-off with the pandemic. Should we keep ourselves in relative isolation or start getting life back to relative normality? There are always trade-offs in front of you at any time.”

Chandarana is clear, though, that he hugely values the experience of being a small business owner. “It showed me there is learning in failure, as well the importance of values,” he reflects. “When I came back to Network Rail in 2007 there was no question about coming back because its values were so close to my own. I also learned that you should also be prepared to take an unusual step – when you make a career move you’re not closing doors. Quite the opposite actually.”

Green signal

Making Tracks Green Signal icon So what’s next? While entrenching the Passengers First approach and reforming the industry clearly loom large, Chandarana says that a big push on sustainability is also high on the agenda. “We’re about to release our new environment strategy and it’s quite different to what we’ve written about before,” he reveals. “We very much see ourselves helping government meet its carbon neutral targets and indeed there are parts of the organisation which believe we will have to be carbon positive if the rest of the UK economy is going to be carbon neutral.”

And then there’s the issue of the pandemic, which is rarely far from any conversation these days.  “As chief of staff I would have said ‘no way, there is absolutely no chance of me being able to work from home full time’ but once this is all over I could quite easily work from home two days a week without any problem,” he admits. “My wife may not be too happy as she might want her study back but we’re all learning and adapting quicker than we might otherwise have been.”
“We very much see ourselves helping government meet its carbon neutral targets and indeed there are parts of the organisation which believe we will have to be carbon positive if the rest of the UK economy is going to be carbon neutral” Anit Chandarana, Chief of Staff, Network Rail
While the pandemic’s invidious consequences continue to reverberate across the network, there is no doubt that economic recovery won’t occur without a functioning, efficient rail system.

“I am Network Rail’s first chief of staff and I want to be in a position where there will always be someone in that role,” he concludes. It’s a role which places Chandarana at the very heart of the action and the recovery effort – which is exactly how he likes it.

About the author
Rahul Harlalka is a Central Government Account Director, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence

Further Reading

  • Trains, pains and delivery deals. The railway is in a permanent state of evolution, says Rahul Harlalka. He explains how delivery partners can help an industry which impacts almost every community in Britain
  • Track changes: delivering a Digital Railway. Using digital technology to help transform the railway industry is about more than just deploying the latest application from Silicon Valley, explains Harjit Lota
  • Delivering education differently. What Alok Raj lacks in civil service experience is more than made up for by a background steeped in technology and impact. Here, he tells Mivy James life at the Department for Education, the importance of strong and adaptable IT infrastructure, and adjusting to working from home
  • Going Digital is one thing, Transformation is quite another. Mivy James explains why genuine transformation requires far more than just digitising outdated processes
  • Shaping a future that works for all. Charles Newhouse says we must balance excitement about AI’s potential with support for those it may leave in its wake
  • A question of agility. Government IT is on the move. Chris Hesketh explores why Agile by Design is finally taking root across public sector organisations

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