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Rail Director meets James Adshead, the former firefighter, London cabbie, and lecturer, who is now head of workforce safety for Network Rail’s Southern Region

For more than 30 years you’d have been more likely to see James Adshead driving a fire engine than working on the railway, but a track change 13 years ago saw him take on an equally important role, helping to keep Network Rail’s staff safe.

He credits the experiences and opportunities at the London Fire Brigade (LFB) – latterly as its group manager in the health and safety department – to him developing an eclectic set of skills that have put him to good use in a variety of roles and situations.

Advice and guidance

No more so than at Network Rail where he is head of workforce safety for the Southern Region, a role that also sees him providing advice and guidance around applying the company’s standards, working within the Rail Safety and Standards Board rules to improve both safety and performance by working smarter.

“Both jobs at the fire service and Network Rail involve teamwork and shift working and of course there is the working over Christmas and New Year,” he said. “There were lots of similarities to our frontline teams and I worked in health and safety for the fire brigade where we had to overcome issues with trying to fit the rules to the ways of working.

“Attending emergency calls is dynamic and there are no sets of rules that can provide the
answer to what you might be called out to, so you have to adapt what you have.

“The railway feels like this in many instances. We have a lot of rules but having to negotiate which ones apply at which time and choosing what is appropriate for the occasion is not always easy.”

Politics and philosophy

While working at LFB, James was also a London taxi driver, holding a cab licence for more than 20 years.

“Driving a cab was something I did to make ends meet, plus I was always fascinated by London, its buildings and history,” he said. “I did a degree in politics, philosophy and history and then went to work at Birkbeck College as a part-time lecturer on the degree course. I taught first-year students, advised on essay and exam techniques, marked essays and generally supported students through the course.

“A skill I learned from this was how to take complex ideas and present them in a way that people could understand, which is really useful in my current role.”

James joined Network Rail in June 2009, initially working in rail maintenance, before becoming a health and safety manager, and then principal health and safety manager (head of workforce safety).

Flexible needs

“Working for the LFB was about balancing risk and benefit,” he said. “Safety was really important but so was rendering the service the public expected. There were lots of rules, but these needed to be flexible to enable staff to do their job. Training and familiarity with tools and equipment were key elements to delivering performance.

“I had never thought about a career on the railway. When I left the LFB I wanted to do something completely different and saw an advert for jobs with Network Rail.

“Although I was a senior officer with the LFB, by the time I left I started as a workforce health safety environment advisor with Network Rail. I knew nothing about the railway but saw it as somewhere exciting to work and completely different from what I had been doing.

“I was not disappointed. I don’t think the general public have any idea what goes on in maintaining and enhancing the railway, about the number of staff employed, the type of work they do or the commitment it takes. I don’t think we have been good at promoting it.”

James is currently working as the head of workforce safety for the Southern Region, as well as providing advice and support to the track safety team and running a team of safety coaches, that provides second line assurances to activities.

“My current role involves providing advice and guidance to the region and route on safety related issues, primarily around how the workforce use and interpret the rules and standards and how we can use them to improve performance. It also involves engaging with the technical authority to look at ways we can improve safety for staff with new equipment and new ways of working.

“During my time at Network Rail there continues to be an increasing focus on health and wellbeing, which has become increasingly important since COVID. The importance of good mental health is being recognised not just for the benefit it brings, but because of the impact of poor mental health on all other aspects of health and safety.

Fulfilment

“Being fit and healthy is a key part of being safe, enjoying coming to work and feeling fulfilled. That is why having the right organisational culture is important. Technology can play a big part in reducing physical activity, reducing time on track, speeding up work and improving performance, but we need to make sure we can integrate the technology in a way that reduces the workload rather than increases it.”

James is calling time on his career at Network Rail at the end of July and is looking for a new challenge, which based on the wide range of his previous roles could lead to anything.