Blog 24 April 2019

Full Steam Ahead: Network Rail share their digital transformation journey

by Richard Billington


24th April 2019

In March we held a breakfast event, “A faster way to improve CX” in the iconic Gherkin. Doug Drinkwater, Senior Director of Content at, hosted the event and we were joined by Network Rail who took us through there digital transformation journey. And particularly how they have empowered business users to make changes, fast.

The Network Rail story is fascinating and you can read the transcript below. Anand Patel and Philippa Callcut, Enterprise Architects in the Chief Innovation Technology office at Network Rail told us all about it. Anand runs the innovation programme and Philippa looks after the whole of the Corporate Services function. Both have a huge wealth of industry experience.

About Network Rail

Anand and Philippa sharing Network Rails low-code digital transformation experience

Network Rail is the infrastructure manager and operator of the UK railway. That means 20,000 miles of track and everything that goes along with it: 30,000 bridges, viaducts, tunnels, crossings, signals – the whole fixed infrastructure of the railway. We manage it, maintain it, operate it and enhance it.

We don’t run trains (or set ticket prices!). That’s the freight or train operators, who are our partners. We operate and manage the 20 busiest railway stations in the UK, that’s 60% of the journeys, 4.7 million journeys a day. That is our greatest touchpoint to the end passenger. Most of our activity doesn’t cross over to interact with customers.

Who are Network Rail’s customers?
We are more complex than standard retailers. Our customers can be direct: train operators who we provide service to, freight operators who need to manage goods. There are also indirect customers, people travelling on the trains and neighbours living next to the train lines.

As an IT function – we have internal customers. How do we provide our services most effectively to those internal customers? As a service provider for service providers, a huge amount of what we do has an impact further downstream. It’s about how we provide those services more effectively on the front line, especially when a lot of those environments are dangerous – train lines are dangerous places. We really have to think about their experience, how and where they use these services, including what protective gear they will be wearing when using it. Plus, the corporate users who need to run their offices and systems effectively. So, “customer” is a broad concept.

As an organisation there are four key things we need to do focus on:

1. Safety: We run the safest railway in Europe and have done for 10 years, when we overtook Finland. Every process that we look at, has to take this into consideration.

2. Reliability: Timetabling and train performance. We operate in a state of constant disruption and we must prevent and respond to this. This is a huge area for us.

3. Growth: We face great capacity challenges, and we look at enhancing and expanding those capacities plus using technology to increase efficiency. We run one million more trains today than we did 5 years ago with a finite number of trains we can deploy, so we need to work smart.

4. Efficiency: Driving down the costs of operating and maintaining the railway. Operational costs have dropped 40% in the last decade.

IT in Network Rail faces all the same barriers and challenges as everyone else.

The 3 key issues for CIOs are:

Philippa sharing Network Rails low-code digital transformation experience

2. Level of business demand.
We were pipelining out project after project which had great value but we couldn’t get to it all

1. Scalability of people and skills.
Third parties are not always the answer due to cost and reliability

3. Legacy IT and the poor experience that it can give. How can we enhance the experience if we can’t afford to update or replace those mainframes?

What do you look for in a solution?
Under the innovation challenge, I looked for something that applies to all of those business goals, something of value, which could work across any part of the business, whatever they were trying to achieve. Something that helped treat these key IT challenges and helped us, as an IT service provider, to become better at what we do, because reputation in digital transformation is key to getting a seat at the table. It must also apply to all of those business users too, so that anyone can consume it.

We found a low-code approach applied to all of those goals and challenges. We could see customer areas, changes in capabilities, bottlenecks, IT issues – these could all be addressed in these areas within the innovation programme. So, we focussed all our energy on this and saw it as our big-ticket item for how we could genuinely deliver change.

We started very small with three key customer use cases. Initially, we delivered pilots to prove that:

• IT could actually deliver

• The technology could stand up, even in a safety critical and risk averse organisation

• There was genuine business value

• Learning and demonstrating how – if successful – we could productionise this

The first challenge
First, we had a conversation with the Managed Stations Team – one of our key ‘customers’. Liverpool Street Station, had a challenge which was a genuine inconvenience. They have a team to help customers on the platform, getting people to the right place at the right time. Stations are essentially shopping malls and all of those retailers, commercial properties and stands need managing – maintenance staff, engineers etc. As a safety critical environment, they have to be booked in properly, maintained and managed. They had realised it was taking four full-time staff just to manage the process of getting other maintenance engineers into the station, plus a 40-page Word document which was emailed between Network Rail, the retailer, the contractor and the safety assessor. It took 6 weeks to get a contractor on site (even for a broken till, or security barrier). During this time, the retailer lost income, Network Rail also lost income (as a percentage of store profits), plus incurred costs such as a security guard during the fix. It was operationally inefficient and value inefficient. 

How can we apply low-code to this challenge?
We used this as the genuine test case. We approached Netcall and asked them to build a prototype. We said “Here’s our process, here’s a couple of workshops with our staff, build a prototype and show us what you can do. You’ve got two weeks.” And they did!

After two weeks of work, we went back to the station to demonstrate and found that we were 80% of the way towards solving the issue. All it had taken was a conversation with Netcall, handing over our documents and a workshop on the requirements. Soon enough, it then went out live.

Working with IT innovation
Philippa works with Network Rail customers, so Anand then turned to her to pick up other projects.


Working with colleagues in IT innovation is great fun… Usually they have great ideas, but it’s difficult to reach fruition. For the first time, we had something with a solid solution, within 6 weeks we actually had something from just a couple of hours of conversations. That is a unique experience in the IT industry. More than just a screenshot or a presentation – something tangible.

A conversation I have had multiple times, is how do you get your senior stakeholders to understand what you are talking about? If I said “I’ve got a really great IT innovation for you, I’ll make everything better and faster for you.” They’ve heard it all before.

So how do you launch Liberty Create (Netcall’s low-code solution) into the industry and into the organisation? I approached the business service directors (people who run our payroll, finances etc.) and asked them to give me some of the small issues they face. Within 10 minutes, training came up, as a safety critical business, people who work on our tracks must be fully trained. We have a ‘lovely’ training system which people use to book their training. It turns out there are 15 Excel spreadsheets and 20 different groups that manage this process behind the scenes. They challenged me to demonstrate that we could utilise Liberty Create ourselves.

We gave it a go. Most people’s business is run on Excel spreadsheets behind the scenes, without even realising it. I knew this system was ‘a bit clunky’ but I genuinely didn’t know in this instance, that this was being held up by all this work behind the scenes. So, we brought Netcall Developers and Professional Services Team in with us. The biggest criticism we always got was – please don’t make us write requirements, process flows. Liberty Create takes that away because it really is iterative, it really does work like that. People can see very quickly and very clearly what does or doesn’t work. People think they ‘know’ what they do, and they think it makes sense, because they understood their 15 spreadsheets.

The Netcall Developers said “This makes no logical sense and we shouldn’t systemise it”. We went back to the team, who realised a few things were being missed. It took us months to unpick things, but Liberty Create helps us to see where there is no logic in their process. So, then we moved on to prove it, we proved it three times over.

Using low-code was a massive step change
Network Rail is all about efficiency. We realised this was something we wanted to take forward, as an IT organisation, to say to our business partners that we are really going to help you. We spent a bit of time doing some commercial negotiations, it was spot on.

We could’ve held this in IT. But no, this is nothing to do with IT. We have centres of excellence! This was a massive opportunity to take things out of IT. This is owned, maintained and driven forward by our business partners – they have the capability. We discussed it with our team of heavyweight developers and they felt that if people can use Excel, they can do this. It was crucial to come out of IT and into the business centre of excellence. They take it and really drive it forward and they become the ‘change’ agents.

In roughly four months, the organisation has been able to turn around five or six big business problems which they’ve been able to automate. This includes a legacy system built 10 years ago and the guy who built it is about to retire – so we searched the marketplace for a replacement, but nothing made economic sense as it’s very niche. Netcall came in and have done it for us. Our team is now trained up on it, so we are using Netcall Professional Services less and less, now they can run, manage and maintain themselves.

It is so amazing, it is so agile. Within weeks you have something tangible. You can test use and iterate in real time. Because this has now come out of IT and now sits with the business partners, they are happy to do that too, rather than push it back to IT.

Lessons learned
Ensure that you have the person who really wants to solve the problem with you. Don’t allow it to become your problem. If the person who wants the solution walks away… pause and stop until they return. Don’t make the problem yours, because they can solve it themselves.


The projects so far have either been process automation, which is a key strength of Create, or case management, or teams emailing Excel worksheets to carry out tasks and working off mailboxes. Netcall’s strength is taking a structured input, doing something with it, giving a structured output and sending it on.

So, we use that, rather than heavy-duty coding and data transformations, which cost millions and take years to do. What if we just sent CSV format into Liberty Create to do some data management and send on? Perhaps communicate to the sponsor that this is happening, it has been done, joining together the legacy systems in an overall business process. It can be used to create a set of APIs around those applications to make more flexible and fluid customer interfaces on old-style mainframes that are still relevant today, but have outdated interfaces that make them less user-friendly.

In banking and insurance, the back end of these programmes are old mainframe services, but the Customer Experience on your online banking app is very different. That’s where the value to IT reputation can come in. There is also a value in removing barriers to other projects. By providing a nice HTML5 interface to your mainframe, you can get rid of all of those emulators, it’s a better experience, you can embed it into you portals, get it on your mobile app, and when you spend vast sums on refreshing your desktops, you don’t have to worry about it anymore.


People really like Amazon because it tells you exactly where your parcel is. This allows you to do the same. With the training course experience, people used to just click “put me on a course”, but they can now see exactly where they are at within that process. It’s no longer a mythical situation where you have to send another email. This is about how you interact with something and you haven’t just fallen into a black hole.


About 30% of the Training Team’s workload was taking calls, assuring people they were being enrolled on the course, because there was no visibility. Before automating, we had set up a stage-by-stage process, communicating out at each stage – e.g. we are waiting on approval to enrol you. Therefore, applicants would contact their line manager to approve the request, instead of the Training Team.

In the managed station example, it was asking for the right information, at the right time. Huge amounts of information was going back and forth, for small details. So, we changed the system to ask for all the details upfront – and if something changed, people were given the ability to update things on the portal at a later date.

We would like to say a huge thank you to Anand and Philippa for sharing their low-code experiences with our guests at The Gherkin.

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