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401013 Promoting Mental Health And Wellbeing

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The British Rail Case Study: Learning From the Past?

In 1971, British Rail (BR) decided to invest £13 million (1971 prices) in a new computer system to improve the performance of its freight operations. Having considered a variety of options, including the possibility of developing a system ‘in-house’, BR decided to purchase software already developed and proven in railway freight operations in North America. The system in question was known as ‘TOPS’ (Total Operations Processing System).

The decision to computerize was based on two factors:

  1. The severe economic crisis facing British Rail’s freight business due to competition from road haulage and the decline of the industries that traditionally were the railway’s principal source of freight revenue (coal, iron and steel).
  2. The identification of inefficiencies in the day-to-day supervision of freight operations stemming from inaccurate and out-of-date information about the whereabouts of freight resources – empty wagons, locomotives and freight trains.

Prior to computerization, information on the disposition of freight resources and the operating situation was reported through a hierarchical structure, consisting of supervisors in local marshalling yards, who reported to divisional control rooms who in turn reported to regional control rooms. A central control room at BR Headquarters in London oversaw operations as a whole. The principal methods of communicating information were ‘manual’, involving either telephone or telex reports of such things as the numbers of empty wagons ‘on hand’ in a marshalling yard or the ‘consist’ of a freight train on route. Much of this information was inaccurate, not least because of the manipulation of information by marshalling yard supervisors. For example, empty wagons were frequently in short supply and in order to satisfy the daily requirements of local customers, supervisors under-reported the number of wagons ‘on-hand’ and over-reported the number of ‘empties’ required.

This resulted in a gross oversupply and under utilization of resources. In 1971 there were well over half a million wagons on the BR network, only 80 per cent of which were accounted for in daily reports from supervisors. Similar problems were involved with locomotives, and these along with empty wagons, were frequently ‘hidden’ in remote sidings by supervisors in order that they could respond to unexpected changes in local requirements. As a result, although a vast amount of information was being passed day-to-day on the disposition of freight resources, very little of this bore any relation to the reality of the operating situation at ‘ground’ level. Moreover, there were inevitable delays in passing information on by ‘manual’ methods. In the context of ‘time-sensitive’ railway operations much of this information on the whereabouts of resources was invalid by the time it reached its destination. As a result senior operations management were simply unaware of much of what was happening and spent most of their time in a ‘reactive’ role attempting to establish what had happened and why.

The economic circumstances of the freight business meant that a solution to the problem of supervising freight operations had to be found if rail freight was to remain competitive and in business. The TOPS system offered a potential solution. Each local marshalling yard was to be equipped with an online terminal linked to a mainframe computer at BR Headquarters. Marshalling yard staff would be required to provide information to ‘TOPS clerks’ who would input information via the local terminals. This information provided a ‘real-time’ picture of the operating situation in any particular area. Because the information was communicated by electronic means direct to a central computer and could be easily accessed the ‘inbuilt’ delays and inaccuracies inherent in the old ‘manual’ reporting system could be avoided. Further, because the TOPS system kept tabs on each individual wagon, locomotive and train, it was impossible to ‘hide’ resources as had previously been practised. Moreover, because the system could cross-check reports from local terminals almost instantaneously any attempt to input misleading information was rejected by the computer.

The decision to computerize the control of freight operations involved considerable uncertainty and risk. There was no guarantee that the system would arrest the decline of the freight business and every possibility that the implementation of the system would run into difficulties, with the risk of delays and the escalation of the costs of the project. Despite the advantages of buying-in an already proven technological innovation, successful adoption of the new technology still depended on solving a number of technical, personnel, industrial relations, and managerial problems. The situation was summed up in 1981 by one senior freight operations manager in BR who described TOPS as BR’s most speculative investment since the 1960s.

Given the critical economic position of the freight business, there was considerable concern at Board level that computerization should be completed within a four-year timescale and within budget. The scale of the project was enormous. In technical terms it meant adapting the TOPS software to suit BR’s operations, providing a network of computer terminals in 150 locations around the country, installing a new mainframe computer centre, and upgrading BR’s existing telecommunications system. In personnel terms, there was a major task of educating all levels of freight operations staff, from shunters to headquarters management, in the capabilities and use of the system, and in providing specialist training for the staff who would make day-to-day use of the system. In industrial relations terms it meant gaining the acceptance of the new technology by the rail unions in a climate that had previously proved resistant to rapid change. Finally, there was the question of how the introduction of the new technology should be managed. Should traditional practice be followed, where each specialist department was allocated responsibility for the aspects of the project that concerned them (e.g. computing to Management Services, retraining to Personnel etc.) and each BR Region was given the responsibility for the management of change in its own local areas – or – should a new approach be tried?

It was the risk of delay through interdepartmental rivalries and Regional/Headquarters conflict which was most feared by management. Despite nationalization, geographical identities remained strongly rooted in the organizational culture, and at corporate level functional specialisms jealously guarded their areas of expertise. There was every possibility that the whole project would founder on the rocks of intermanagement squabbles. However, the BR chief executive gave the project high-level support and appointed a senior operations manager to head up an implementation team. Given the high stakes involved, other departments made no effort to take responsibility for the various aspects of implementation, and in the ensuing vacuum the project manager was able to assemble a ‘task force’ in the form of a cross-functional team that assumed complete control of the entire project. Computing, telecommunications and operations specialists were seconded from their departments, whilst the training function and Regions were virtually by-passed altogether. Instead, a number of operations staff and a year’s intake of graduate trainees were co-opted to form a team that would act as a mobile training force, travelling around the country to retrain staff. The ‘task force’ was presented to the rest of the organization as a ‘fait accompli’ and, with the support of the Chief Executive, set about bending normal rules and procedures and upsetting the traditional customs of the organizational culture with a view to the introduction of the TOPS system without delay.

The two principal non-technical tasks facing the ‘task force’ were in gaining the acceptance of the new technology by staff and management, and convincing the unions of the need for rapid change. In relation to the first task, the initial step was to create within the implementation team itself an almost unbounded enthusiasm for and identification with the achievement of change. The team was run on almost militaristic lines and a number of devices, including a special ‘TOPS logo’, a ‘TOPS tie’. a ‘TOPS Newsletter’, and a package of training graphics featuring a character called ‘TOPS Cat’ were employed to foster a ‘corporate identity’ for the project. In the words of one of the ‘task force’ members, ‘if you weren’t fired with enthusiasm for the project you were fired from the project’. Faced with such commitment backed by high-level management support, local personnel saw little opportunity or point in resisting change. Where they did, the project team ignored any protestations and carried on regardless. The use of the mobile team proved a masterstroke in providing a training package that could combine classroom theory with ‘hands-on’ experience on the job. Any resistance to the new reporting procedures required for computerization by the staff – many of whom had spent years working by traditional methods – was more readily overcome.

In terms of the trade unions there was no opposition in principle to the computerization, not only because the introduction of TOPS promised to save the jobs that would be lost if the freight business went to the wall, but also, because it involved the creation of new jobs, at least in the short term. Whilst consulting with the rail unions from a very early stage, management studiously avoided entering into any time-consuming national negotiations over extra payments for using the new technology. Further, no attempt was made by management to develop the potential use of the TOPS systems for keeping tabs on train crews. It was certain that the ‘Big Brother’ connotations of such a use would have brought vigorous union opposition, in particular from the train drivers’ union, ASLEF. As a result, union leaders were ‘won over’ to the system and were happy to cooperate in its speedy introduction. Indeed, national officers of the unions were instrumental in resolving some of the small localized disputes that did occur during the implementation programme. In retrospect, the view of many national officials was that if management had introduced such a system sooner much of the market which had already been lost might have been saved.

The TOPS computerization project was completed on time and within budget in October 1975. A far more efficient utilization of freight resources was achieved and operational control considerably improved. In particular, it became clear that management for the first time had an opportunity to play a ‘proactive’ role in the planning and control of freight operations. As one operations manager put it, ‘we now had a production line we could control’.


  1. What would you identify as the critical factors that contributed to the successful implementation of the TOPS system?
  2. What were the advantages and disadvantages of the ‘task force’ approach?
  3. How important are context and culture in understanding change?
  4. Are there any general lessons that can be learnt from this case study on the process of organizational change?
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