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Thu May 19 2022

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Rail Story

29 May 19 Story Contracting’s rail division started the year celebrating major contract wins worth nearly £140m. Jim Simpson takes a closer look at one of the rising stars of rail construction.

Few construction companies, particularly those specialising in rail, can have started 2019 in such style as Story. Not only did Network Rail award the firm one of the first multi-million-pound contracts for Control Period 6 (2019-2024) for both London North East (LNE) and London North West (LNW) but Story also won three framework contracts with Transport for Greater Manchester that could lead to another £50m of work.

The LNE contract is for five years and worth up to £50m for geotechnical work stretching from London to Scotland. This followed a framework contract win worth up to £38m for structures and property works on the south of the LNW route-home to the West Coast Mainline, which supports the major British cities outside of London and is the busiest mixed-use railway in Europe.

The Transport for Greater Manchester frameworks cover the renewals of structures, property and track on the Metrolink network and could be worth up to £50m.

Ian Purdham, managing director of Story’s rail division south of the border, Rail England, says this bumper crop of new contracts is not a sudden blossoming.

Ian Purdham
Ian Purdham

“It’s a natural extension of what we’ve been doing under CP5,” he says. “The LNW North framework is exactly the same as it was…and now we’ve added on the LNW South elements.

“The LNE framework is brand new to us and is the first real infrastructure projects framework we’ve had in LNE. We already have a team in place and this framework gives us the visibility to build it up.”

The springboard for organic growth was the decision in 2014 to invest in local offices rather than deliver all the projects from the head office in Carlisle. When it won the CP5 (April 2014 – March 2019) framework for Network Rail, Story set up an office in Normanton, West Yorkshire, and benefited from greater continuity of work.

It has remained committed to this strategy, recently establishing a new office in Birmingham to deliver work on LNW between Crewe and London and an office in York to deliver work on LNE.

And this means that the rail division is now recruiting to fill vacancies for experienced people with project management, engineering and commercial skills.

“We’re looking for people with the right values and attitudes to come in right at the start of these five-year frameworks,” says Purdham. “These will give us the opportunity to grow and build our business which in turn will develop careers.”

Story Contracting is a family-owned business led by a charismatic and ambitious founder (see box). Purdham argues that, free of the focus on short-term goals typically imposed by shareholders, the business can instead concentrate on the long-term and build lasting relationships with its customers.

He explains that founder Fred Story soon learned the wisdom of delivering customer satisfaction when, in the early days of the business, most of his customers were local people whom he was likely to encounter in other walks of life. ‘Doing it right’ became a Fred Story mantra and is now the unofficial company motto.

For staff, this means investing in home-grown talent and promotion from within.

Purdham himself is a product of this policy, having been talent-spotted as a junior trainee and sponsored through university.

“The growth for me has come with the growth of the business as opportunities arise,” he explains. “We give our talent the chance to promote themselves and grow with us.”

The greater budget offered by CP6 and the devolution of Network Rail’s procurement to four regionally-based infrastructure procurement divisions offer great potential, but Purdham believes working practices also need a revamp in order to deliver greater value.

“There’s far too much inefficiency in terms of process and procedures, he says, adding that this is recognised in Network Rail’s own ‘standards challenge’ which encourages suppliers and other stakeholders to ‘proactively suggest better ways of maintaining and enhancing the railway’. “CP6 could deliver far greater value than CP5 if we can collaborate and understand one another’s drivers. It’s not a silver bullet but it’s about improving communication,” says Purdham.

In Purdham’s opinion, the criteria by which success is judged are often not aligned across the supply chain and this can sometimes result in conflict.

Despite this non-alignment of performance indicators, Purdham says that the practice of ‘man-marking’ (a term more often found on the football pitch) is common in the sector. Hence each project manager, site agent or senior engineer, for example, has their equivalent opposite number effectively ‘marking’ them both up and down the supply chain.

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This duplication reduces overall efficiency, says Purdham. “These all add time and cost to a project. But if we set the right objectives to deliver, do we need all these people?” he wonders.

“We have to change our mindset and accept that we can’t just work in a particular way because we’ve always done it that way. We have to work in the way that adds most value,” he concludes.

A noble ambition, albeit one that has proved elusive for UK construction in general.

The Story story...

Fred Story
Fred Story

Fred Story is, for most people, one of the wealthiest people they have never heard of, rarely glimpsed even in the business sections of national newspapers. The only outward signs of his wealth and influence are his brief four-year ownership of Carlisle United and the prominence of Story Scotland in the Scottish media.

Story launched his business from a site hut in his back garden, using money from his mother-in-law because the bank would not provide the loan he needed.

Today, Story Contracting employs more than 700 staff across five divisions – Rail, Construction, Plant, Story Scotland and house-builder Reiver Homes – and maintains a specialist training facility at its Carlisle head office.

The company’s recent growth has been rapid – turnover grew by 36% in 2018. In January it announced an exceptional start to 2019, securing a five-year pipeline of work worth up to £200m. During 2018 it recruited 195 staff and now it is seeking a further 200-300 employees over the next five years to fulfil these contracts.

In 2012, the Story Group reorganised into two arms - Story Homes and Story Contracting. The latter then bought the rail plant division of Lothian firm Caledonian Industrial, doubling Story’s in-house fleet to more than 50 machines. This became the basis for Story Scotland, which has increased its turnover from £1.5m in 2014 to £25m last year.

Story Scotland’s rail projects include the £5m Glasgow Queen Street tunnel track slab replacement for Morgan Sindall, the £2.5m Stirling station canopy replacement for Network Rail and improvements to the station facilities at Dundee Station for Abellio ScotRail.

Last year, Story Contracting was named best-performing Network Rail contractor for 2017/18. Jack Story remarked that this was driven in the main by the performance of our Scottish team – “they’re really flying the flag for Scotland”.

Waverley Station

Last year Story Scotland demonstrated its capabilities as a main contractor when, following the collapse of Carillion, it lifted the contract to complete the £23m Edinburgh Waverley platform works contract for Network Rail. The project involved platform extensions, building refurbishments and track modifications to accept the new, longer, electric trains.

The modifications required new walkways and escalators to carry a substantial proportion of the station’s passengers – up to 30 million each year.

Story Scotland is now a key partner for Network Rail and the Glasgow-based division recently secured a five-year framework to deliver up to £135m of renewal and enhancement projects north of the border.

Story carried out track modifications and installed new escalators (above) at Waverley Station
Story carried out track modifications and installed new escalators (above) at Waverley Station

This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of The Construction Index magazine

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