Part 3: Managing day-to-day maintenance and renewal work on the rail network

Maintaining and renewing the rail network.
Key messages

Ontrack's various systems, plans, policies, and procedures for managing day-to-day management of the rail network varied in completeness and comprehensiveness. In most instances there was room for improvement.

Ontrack planned maintenance and renewal work on a short-term, reactive basis using inspection results. The planning relied heavily on inspections to find problems before they could worsen or lead to failure. Similarly, Ontrack relied on decision-makers to accurately judge how quickly problems needed to be fixed.

Ontrack had not identified the resources it needed or constraints it faced in carrying out maintenance and renewal work. Ontrack documents reported that insufficient staff resources or a lack of time to access the tracks had made planned maintenance and renewal work more difficult. This raises questions about Ontrack's ability to do all the work it needs to do to maintain and renew the rail network. In our view, Ontrack needs to review whether it has the right level of resources, and clarify the effect of constraints on track access and the options for managing those constraints.

Ontrack has grouped its assets into three groups - track assets, structure assets, and signals, telecommunications, and electric traction assets. It had a separate set of systems, plans, policies, and procedures to direct work for each asset group. There were no points where information from the separate systems, plans, policies, and procedures could be used together or compared, and it was not clear whether there were dependencies between the different types of assets. This meant it was difficult for Ontrack to co-ordinate work between the asset groups to achieve common outcomes or goals.

In this Part, we describe:

Why Ontrack needs systems, plans, policies, and procedures to manage day-to-day work

The rail network includes different groups of assets. Each group requires specialised skills and work practices to manage them. Some tasks require co-ordination of materials, equipment, labour, and access to the track to carry out work. There are staff and contractors throughout New Zealand involved in work on the rail network.

It is important that Ontrack has clear systems, plans, policies, and procedures in place to manage the day-to-day maintenance and renewal work on the rail network, to ensure that:

  • the completed work will contribute to meeting performance targets or long-term goals;
  • staff are clear about what tasks are more important and should be done first;
  • staff are clear about responsibilities and accountabilities;
  • work is carried out to a consistent standard;
  • resources are co-ordinated so that planned work can be completed efficiently; and
  • staff know what to do when unplanned work arises.

Our expectations

We prepared detailed criteria that described the systems, plans, policies, and procedures that we expected an established infrastructure manager to have for day-to-day management of maintenance and renewal activities. These are set out in Appendix 1.

We expected that Ontrack would have:

  • operational plans to implement maintenance and renewal programmes;
  • priority setting to direct work within operational plans;
  • systems to co-ordinate resources for work in operational plans;
  • processes to deliver work in operational plans;
  • guidance information and work standards for those doing the work; and
  • guidance and processes for managing unplanned work.

Ontrack's systems, plans, policies, and procedures for managing day-to-day work

Operational plans

A regime of inspections identifies whether an asset complies with the requirements in Ontrack's code documents, or whether the asset's condition will limit its ability to perform in the desired way. This information was used to prepare Ontrack's operational plans.

Operational plans were specific to each asset group - that is, there were separate maintenance and renewal plans for track assets, structure assets, and signals, telecommunications, and electric traction assets (the three asset groups). Plans for each asset group were prepared independently, followed different formats, covered different timeframes, and had different levels of detail for the tasks required.

The maintenance plans we reviewed were for short timeframes (often one to two weeks). We were told that this is because of the high level of unplanned work that arises, and to allow flexibility in assigning maintenance staff to assist with renewal work.

Ontrack's operational plans for track renewal activities included clear numeric targets for track, sleeper, ballast, and destress1 renewal work it intended to do within the financial year. We comment on the fit between these operational targets and Ontrack's corporate performance targets in paragraph 5.37.

Usually, operational plans provided staff with a clear idea of the work Ontrack intended to do on particular assets in the short term. However, because there were separate plans for each asset group covering separate timeframes, it was difficult to obtain an overview of all the work Ontrack intended to perform on the rail network, and what it expected the net result or overall effect of this work to be in both the short and long term.

Priority setting

Ontrack has prioritisation methods for:

  • track capital work (including renewals);
  • track maintenance work (with separate prioritisation methods for defects and faults);
  • structures maintenance work;
  • signals, telecommunications, and electric traction capital work (minor renewals); and
  • signals, telecommunications, and electric traction maintenance work.

Each prioritisation method had a different basis and included different levels of detail. The methods were not readily comparable. For example, the track capital work prioritisation method identified rail lines that took priority, but the other prioritisation methods did not refer to those priority lines or asset locations.

Ontrack's prioritisation methods provided staff with a consistent basis for ordering work for each asset group and helped to ensure that the most important tasks were done first. However, because there was no common policy or principles to guide Ontrack in setting priorities, it was difficult to determine whether the work Ontrack was doing on different assets had a common focus or would achieve a common objective or outcome.

Ontrack staff told us that they based their prioritisation of capital work on structures on safety and risk considerations. This was because so many structure assets were close to the end of their life. Ontrack staff told us that they followed an annual process to plan and prioritise capital work for structure assets. However, because the process was not documented, it was not clear how Ontrack used safety and risk information to set priorities.

The planned structure renewal tasks we saw were expected to cost between $10,000 and $350,000 each, and some tasks were expected to take several years to complete.

It would be useful for Ontrack to document the method it uses to set priorities for planned capital work for structures so there is a clear and consistent basis for ordering work.

Co-ordinating resources through systems and procedures

Ontrack needs labour, equipment, and materials to perform maintenance and renewal tasks. For some tasks, Ontrack also needs to access the tracks when the trains are not running.

For maintenance and renewal work to be done efficiently, Ontrack needs to coordinate work so that labour, equipment, and materials are on site at the right time and that staff can access the track when they need to.

Ontrack had some mechanisms to co-ordinate labour and equipment resources for planned work. It also had systems in place to identify material requirements for tasks.

Several Ontrack documents, including reports and meeting minutes, noted concerns with resource availability and the co-ordination of labour resources for particular streams of maintenance and renewal work. Comments included that:

  • there were not enough resources to keep up with planned work;
  • planned work was not occurring because further resources were required;
  • labour resources were being diverted from renewal work to capital upgrade projects;
  • upgrade work had diverted staff and management's focus from maintenance;
  • the same staff resources could be assigned to work on renewal and upgrade work at the same time; and
  • up to two years could pass between identifying work that needed to be done and obtaining the funding and necessary resources to do the work.

Although Ontrack reports and meeting minutes had identified particular problems with Ontrack's resource allocation, Ontrack had not identified the resources it needed to do all the maintenance and renewal work in operational plans. It had not determined deficiencies in its resource allocation process. In our view, it is important that Ontrack has a clear idea about the resources it needs for the work it wants to do on the rail network. It needs to check whether it has the right level of resources for the different activities it performs, including maintenance and renewal activities.

We did not review Ontrack's arrangements for assigning staff to upgrade projects. However, the concerns raised in paragraph 3.20 and our observations during the audit led us to question whether the upgrade projects are placing pressure on Ontrack's ability to resource maintenance and renewal work.

Recommendation 1
We recommend that Ontrack determine the resources it will need to carry out the work set out in its operational plans.

Ontrack needs time to access the track to carry out various maintenance and renewal tasks. On busy lines, the opportunity to carry out work between trains can be limited. Maintenance staff can have difficulty accessing the track to work, and tasks can take longer because staff must wait for work opportunities between trains. In one area, it is estimated that maintenance staff can work on the track for only three to four hours a day because of the frequency of the rail traffic. We were told that difficulties gaining track access were made worse because Ontrack's usual staff work hours coincide with the busiest train times. Ontrack was consulting staff about changing work hours to help it plan work better.

Ontrack sometimes needs to close a track so that work can occur. Each of the three areas we visited had a different mechanism for seeking agreement from Toll NZ for such a closure. Staff in two of the areas told us that the track access arrangements significantly constrained their ability to perform track maintenance and renewal tasks. Ontrack meeting minutes noted that its ability to access the tracks in Wellington was a significant constraint to achieving its renewals programme.

Ontrack's staff need enough time to perform necessary track maintenance and renewal tasks, and rail network users need access to the track so they can provide services to their customers. Ontrack and rail network users need to understand this dynamic so they can determine an optimal solution. Working towards an optimal solution, and awareness of the necessary constraints, may be critical to rail network users. For example, information about the dynamic may help urban passenger transport providers plan services they intend to provide in the longer term.

Ontrack has approached the problem by consulting with staff about work hours. However, in our view, this is looking at only part of the problem. Ontrack needs to first clarify the extent of the constraints on track access and consider the options for managing those constraints.

Recommendation 2
We recommend that Ontrack clarify the extent of constraints on track access and consider the options for managing those constraints.

Delivering the work set out in operational plans

To deliver work in operational plans, different people need to complete tasks in a certain sequence. For example, work on a bridge may require a geological assessment, obtaining a resource consent, preparing engineering drawings, and the tendering and awarding of a contract for the physical works.

Clear information about processes or mechanisms for the work in operational plans enables that work to be consistent and efficient. Setting out clear roles, responsibilities, and information requirements for each part of the service delivery mechanism means it is clear what tasks should occur when, who needs to do them, and what information is required.

In 2007, Ontrack mapped out the various processes it was following for managing track assets, structure assets, and signals, telecommunications, and electric traction assets. This work had helped document how work in operational plans was delivered. It included some roles and responsibilities for tasks, and identified information that needed to be prepared and handed over at various points in the process.

Ontrack had used the process mapping work to identify areas where it could streamline processes and improve performance. This is good practice.

The work Ontrack has done to map processes is considerable and useful. It will help provide consistency in the way Ontrack plans and performs various maintenance and renewal tasks. However, some parts of the processes were not documented or were unclear. In our view, Ontrack needs to complete its process mapping so it is always clear how work should be done, who is responsible for doing it, and what information is required for it.

Guidance information and work standards

Managing rail network assets is complex. The maintenance and renewal tasks that need to occur are many and varied. Tasks often require a high degree of precision and have specific technical requirements.

Ontrack has controlled code documents for each asset group. The code documents are part of Ontrack's safety system. They set out work standards and include guidance information. Information within code documents is detailed and covers a wide range of work activities. This information is useful and important because it means that staff and contractors working on the rail network are clear about what is expected. It also helps to ensure that physical work on the asset is done to a consistent standard.

The code documents are an important part of Ontrack's asset management system because they set out asset inspection regimes and how quickly corrective action must be taken to address any identified faults or defects. Many of Ontrack's operational plans are based on this information.

At the time of our audit, many of the code documents were overdue for review by between two and eight years. In some instances, information about responsibilities within the code documents was out of date. Because these are important documents and drive much of Ontrack's maintenance and renewal work, we consider that Ontrack needs to keep these code documents up to date.

Recommendation 3
We recommend that Ontrack update the code documents that are overdue for review.

Managing unplanned work

Ontrack had guidance material and procedures on how unplanned work should be dealt with. This included a callout system where problems were logged centrally and then passed on for action by staff in the field.

Many staff told us that unplanned work (including callouts) significantly affected the amount of planned maintenance work they could do.

Ontrack had identified some problems with its procedures for unplanned work, and was consulting staff about options to address those problems. Ontrack told staff that “there are currently too many callouts” and sought the views of staff on ways to reduce the number of callouts and how they can be managed.

Issues with Ontrack's systems, plans, policies, and procedures for managing day-to-day work

Nature of Ontrack's day-to-day maintenance and renewal work

The way Ontrack managed day-to-day maintenance and renewal work was reactive. Ontrack identified problems through inspections and used this information to plan maintenance and renewal work, often on a short-term and flexible basis. For example, maintenance work was planned one to two weeks ahead. Staff told us that planned maintenance work was often disrupted by the need to perform unplanned work.

Performing work on a reactive basis means Ontrack relies heavily on inspections to identify problems before they worsen or lead to failure. The reactive approach also means that decision-makers are required to make accurate judgements about how quickly problems need to be fixed. Further, because problems are sometimes addressed urgently, it is difficult to determine whether work has been done using the most effective long-term solution.

It is likely that this approach has resulted from Ontrack's need for a strong operational focus since gaining responsibility for the rail network, and because there is no long-term plan to direct work on the rail network.

In Part 5, we note that Ontrack has started preparing a long-term plan. We expect Ontrack to work out the most cost-effective balance of preventative and reactive maintenance, renewal, and upgrade activities it needs to do, so that the rail network performs at the desired level for a specified period. Ontrack will also need to ensure that there is a link between the long-term plan and the systems, plans, policies, and procedures for managing day-to-day work, so that solutions identified within the long-term plan can be implemented.

Separate systems, plans, policies, and procedures for managing assets

Ontrack has a separate set of systems, plans, policies, and procedures for each asset group. This may be because the asset groups are significantly different from one another and require different management techniques and different technical expertise. However, there are no points where information from the separate systems, plans, policies, and procedures can be used together or compared. For example, there is no common framework for directing work priorities, comparing priorities between the three asset groups, or looking for common efficiency gains for processes.

It is not clear whether there are dependencies between the different types of assets and how Ontrack identifies and manages such dependencies. This means it is difficult for Ontrack to co-ordinate work between the asset groups to achieve common outcomes or goals.

It can be difficult to draw together, or adopt similar management practices, for different asset groups. Care needs to be taken in carrying out this work, so that critical information or necessary management practices are not overlooked. However, infrastructure managers need to have a clear picture of how the “parent asset” - in this instance the rail network - is being managed in both the long and short term, and how the individual activities and performance of asset groups contribute to this. At present, this is not clear for the rail network.

Ontrack needs to consider:

  • how work done within asset groups contributes to overall objectives, outcomes, or priorities it has for the rail network, and whether this is clear; and
  • the extent to which the individual systems, plans, policies, and procedures for managing different asset groups need to align with each other to facilitate this.
Recommendation 4
We recommend that Ontrack identify the critical points where the systems, plans, policies, and procedures for the three asset groups need to align to ensure that it can co-ordinate work to meet common outcomes and goals.

1: Destressing is the term used to describe work that prevents tracks from buckling in hot conditions.

page top