My Way - IT at Crossrail

Crossrail is Europe's biggest engineering project, and Dr Phil Bennett is the central figure in rolling-out the complex ICT systems that will run and manage the system. He explains all to E&T.

Engineering & Technology: Your job title at Crossrail is 'technology director'. What does this role entail in practice?

Bennett: My role covers anything that's got computers on board, basically: you've got IT, computers in the railway systems; systems assurance, systems integration, the other systems like signalling, SCADA [supervisory control and data acquisition], control rooms, communications, and so on. It also encompasses security in all its guises, be that information security, physical security, or site security. For instance, we're going to have site-wide access control, which will have a central control room in London, but all the construction site turnstiles, whether they be at Shenfield or Maidenhead, will be centrally controlled. You'll have a single access card which - if you've got the right accreditations - will get you anywhere, rather than carrying a pocket full of cards.

E&T: It's still early stages, but you're already very busy, what work are you currently overseeing?

Bennett: In the case of IT, what I inherited was not capable for the purpose. The project was sitting around for years, and suddenly it burst into life. The system that we had would probably have only supported 500 users. We've got to gear-up for 4,000, so we're in the middle of taking out the existing one, and switching to a managed service from Fujitsu. It's becoming the main technology provider for IT. We'll still have our own IT dept, but it'll be a managed service.

E&T: Supporting construction in its various manifestations must be an important element.

Bennett: We've got an initiative running called Technology in Construction. We're looking at whatever technology is coming out of the research labs that can be used to make construction more efficient. For instance, the IT infrastructure we're aiming for consists of one headquarters building, a number of project offices, and about 30 site offices all connected on the network regardless of location. All site offices will have their own capability, all telephones will be VoIP so we can communicate readily; but also each site office will have its own Wi-Fi which, in turn, will be connected to PDAs carried by the construction foremen, for example.

E&T: Will the workload you undertake change as the project progresses?

Bennett: In the next few weeks it'll get frantic. We're very busy now changing to the new managed service as fast as we can. We're making sure we've got all the facilities to support our civil engineering and engineering colleagues. But the programme and delivery partners will soon come on board, and they'll have their own requirements. We don't know what they are yet. They're going to suddenly arrive and want everything quickly - and we're going to have to be responsive. So it will get frantic for probably the next six months, then it'll go calm for a while, then everything will get active again.

E&T: So 'business as usual' means 'change as usual'?

Bennett: In my experience, major projects have their own dynamics; they're not like revenue-earning businesses. So yes, it will keep changing, it will keep flexing in all directions.

E&T: With today's financial concerns to consider, have you found this affects priorities and how you have to work?

Bennett: No. The funding package is well defined. There are tight financial controls here, and we work to them. Anything we do is evaluated for efficiency; so no, we're not seeing any problems like that at the moment.

E&T: No concerns that you might lose partners along the way, with companies going bust?

Bennett: There's always that danger on any project - in a recession or not. I think that's unlikely as we've been very careful on the partners that we choose and work with. That doesn't mean that it's only the big ones. I'm a fervent believer that SMEs are important to the recovery, and we do careful evaluation of SMEs - and we do use them. I've used them a number of times. There's always that risk, but it's not a new risk. Yes, it's perhaps heightened, there's no two ways about that; but we're not seeing that at the moment.

E&T: You can't be doing this alone, what does your team consist of and how do you like people to work?

Bennett: Well, I've got five managers. The head of IT development and head of IT operations run the IT section, supported by a small team; but behind them is the Fujitsu managed service, so we've got quite a large number of those people on site. In the case of security, I've got a security manager and his team, and then systems integration manager, and a systems assurance manager. Oh, and obviously I have a PA who is invaluable!

E&T: How is co-ordination between the different project groups organised?

Bennett: We have a weekly meeting where all the managers get together. Although the systems guys are not overly interested in the IT issues, and vice versa, I fervently believe that each understand the problems and issues of the other. There's going to come the day when all the railway systems will come together, and they need to be able to talk and understand one another's problems.

E&T: Does every project come across issues, or can one survive problem-free?

Bennett: My colleagues have heard me say many times: every supplier, every project will have problems. The issue is how people respond to those problems. I could speak of companies I've dealt with over the years who've had major problems. They've stood back, said 'ok, let's think about this', and they've put it right. They've piled-in the resources, they've done what needed doing, and we've recovered the situation. Those guys I'll work with again.

E&T: And who are the ones you won't work with again?

Bennett: The ones that stand back in horror and say "oh; that's going to cost you", I'm not interested in. It's the response that matters. It's the same in the rest of life. If you take a suit back to a store because you don't like it, and they give you some grief, you won't go shopping there again. Whereas if you go back and you get rapid service, you keep shopping there.

E&T: Having worked on a number of large projects, have you been able to take lessons from one onto the next?

Bennett: Oh, absolutely. There have been that many lessons that it's difficult to count them all. If you just take the Channel Tunnel, for instance. Part of the problem we had there was the vast number of computers we had in the control area. There were a vast number of computers controlling the tunnel and the trains. The problem was, when we brought them all together, how would we make them work as a single system. Connecting a printer and a PC can be a headache; try [connecting] 200 computers, and see what happens! We had to think of innovative ways to tackle that, and developed an approach that was enormously beneficial.

E&T: Were there other sections of the project waiting for IT to complete so that things could move on?

Bennett: In fact, it was one of the few major projects where the computers waited six months for the 'civils' [civil engineers] to finish so that it could open. That didn't do my reputation any harm. The biggest concept we've developed - as a team, I mean - is called an interface test facility, where all the computer systems pass through that facility to check they work and talk to one another before they go out on site to be commissioned.

E&T: Do you go out and look for the big challenges, or do the project owners come looking for you?

Bennett: It may sound very immodest, but they come looking for me! For most of my professional career I've been at the leading edge of my specialism - the crux of safety-critical systems was born out of my research. Now everybody talks about it so I've pretty much always been at the forefront, but by the same nature I also know who to talk to, to get the answers. I'm not short of information; perhaps I've got too much information flooding in at any one time. But I can usually work out whom I need to speak to when I need answers.

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