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The elastic limit

A grotty cabin in the corner of a car park is an unlikely place to meet a logistics genius. But that’s where I found Nev - unnecessarily bedecked in a hi-vis vest and with his Engineering Supervisor’s armlet on upside-down - constructing a moving jigsaw from a jumble of odd-shaped pieces.

He was awesome to watch. In an eight hour shift, 76 COSSs were processed, briefed and checked into his six-mile long worksite. On the desk sat a radio, battery charger and two mobile phones. The ubiquitous sheaf of paperwork included a generic ‘Form C’ covering all the workgroups. Three cans of diet cola were on standby.

A masterplan covered the longest wall - a morass of coloured magnets overlaid onto a two-track railway with a major junction, goods loop, crossovers and three sidings. Blue for OLE teams, red for p-way, green for civils, yellow for other groups. Every one of the 34 machines, two trains and a dozen trolleys were identified and plotted. When an unscheduled move was requested from one end of the site to the other, Nev spent an hour creatively dismantling his jigsaw and then reassembling it.

The radio traffic never stopped. Ditto his phones. But, throughout, every message was imparted impeccably despite the frustration of being unable to contact many of his COSSs, either because they didn’t have a radio or had buried it in their pocket!

On-site, the buzz of activity masked some confusion over the prevailing safe system. Despite the dearth of handsets which meant most COSSs were unaware of authorised movements, the majority had declared the site a safeguarded green zone and were beavering away regardless of the lumbering contraptions which trundled past them from time-to-time. A wise few had appointed a lookout. And then I spotted a lone site warden. His COSS informed me that he was “looking out for movements but it’s a green zone so you can’t have a lookout”. I would have pulled my hair out if I had any.

This was an intensive, industrious enterprise, driven by all the mechanical and technological assets that the 21st Century had to offer. Manpower arrived by the bus load. But you couldn’t help feeling that the worksite was alien, with unfamiliar features. Far from fully embracing the prescribed instructions, the contractor had skilfully moulded them to his advantage, thus delivering the efficiencies demanded by the client.
Far from fully embracing the prescribed instructions, the contractor had skilfully moulded them to his advantage...

There’s a brave new world out there. Every last ounce of value is being squeezed from precious engineering time. And rightly so. But the rules are still loitering in the 20th Century. You don’t find this kind of ‘super-possession’ documented in the pages of T3.

Safety between the marker boards requires meticulous application, as recent fatalities painfully demonstrate. Whilst radical reform has long been promised, the managerial focus has been diverted elsewhere. Stretching and bending the rules is a fact of pragmatic life but we need to remember that they have an elastic limit. Let’s get them sorted before they finally snap.

Story added 1st March 2006
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