New French trains are “too large”

by Nigel Hurst on May 22, 2014

A news article caught my eye this morning which demonstrates how easily a project can go badly wrong, and the financial consequences of rectifying the problem.

The train not going anywhere until the platforms are narrower

France’s national railway operator SNCF recently ordered 2,000 new TER (Trains Express Regionaux) trains from Alstom and Bombardier, as part of a £2.43bn national upgrade. Responding to customer demands for more comfortable trains, they were designed to be a little wider than the existing rolling stock.  Now that the trains are being delivered, SNCF have discovered they are too wide to fit into many platforms, meaning urgent modifications are required to the infrastructure.

How did this happen? As part of the design process, the national train operator SNCF asked the national rail operator RFF for the maximum dimension of trains which will fit the station platforms across the country.

Here lies the problem: RFF responded with the maximum measurements of stations built from the 1980s, neglecting to consider that every station built before this period were to different sizes, and more importantly to serve smaller trains.

SNCF did not verify the dimensions, presumably expecting that RFF had sncfprovided the correct measurements for the entire network. The trains were then ordered and are currently in production, meaning modifications to the trains themselves is clearly out of the question.

An estimated 1,000 stations across France are now unsuitable for the new TER trains, and will require extensive modifications to the track, track side equipment and narrowing of platforms to allow the trains to fit.

So far over 300 stations have been modified, with another 600 due to be complete by the end of 2014. Remedial works costs costing €50m have already been spent to rectify this error. Costs will clearly continue to rise before the trains are operational in 2016. While RFF admitted the mistake was discovered a little late, it is important the lessons are learnt from this.

As with any project, every interface on a project creates risk. In France the split between SNCF and RFF took place in 1997 for political reasons and created an interface which was not there previously. While the origin of the mistake has been clearly identified as RFF, the fallout of this error is felt by the entire project team.

RFF_LogoInterface risk between organisations is very important and must never be underestimated, especially in the world of project management. The more interfaces, the more stakeholders, the greater the risk that something will go wrong and will be overlooked. Identifying risk and actively seeking to ensure risk is managed is fundamental within any project and needs dedicated time and resources to manage effectively. Every organisation and indeed stakeholder has its own agenda, focus and internal pressures. Every project undertaken is a unique event which will only happen once, and therefore time must be spent on risk management.

In France, there is no doubt that questions are now being asked about how the project was managed and was the risk of the trains exceeding the network loading gauge considered properly within the project team.

Never underestimate the importance of risk management!


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