Keith Wallace, Chairman, on being a proud Scotsman, developing winning design strategies and breakfasting on Craster kippers…
Interview by Steve Long
Keith Wallace was born and raised in Haddington, East Lothian, Scotland. He began his career with British Rail as a sponsored student and graduate trainee where he gained a thorough grounding in railway engineering and operations. He then moved into consultancy before joining what was then Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick & Partners as its first railway engineer before rising to become Chief Executive of Scott Wilson Railways, now part of AECOM. A Chartered Civil Engineer and Chartered Director, he has held senior positions in the public transport sector, including the Merseyrail, Serco Caledonian Sleeper and Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) franchises, and is currently a non-executive director of Dublin Bus and Scottish Autism. He brings over 20 years of leadership experience at board level to his new role as Chairman of Crossrail International, and currently lives in Falkirk, Scotland.
Which project that you’ve worked on during your career are you most proud of?
That’s a hard question as there are many! My first ‘big’ project was a new depot at Yoker (near Glasgow) where I was site supervising some of my own designs. I enjoyed the ‘pioneering’ work in the green fields of Kent at the start of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (now HS1) as well as my times on Crossrail (of course!).
I’m inspired by Victorian civil engineer, Thomas Tredgold, who defined engineering as “the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man.” So, I’m proudest where I feel I have helped make the most difference. Therefore, I’ll go for the re-opening of Scotland’s Borders Railway. The concept and business case came from our original short study (described by the Client as the most methodically correct he had ever seen) carried out by a small but excellent team. I was heavily involved in promoting it through the Scottish Parliament, and then led design teams through many of the procurement iterations. The eventual re-opening, bringing some great Victorian engineering back to life and reconnecting the largest population in the UK furthest from the rail network, was a joyous celebration for the many who played a part in it, and the transformation (often easier to see on smaller projects) has been huge and visible.
“I’m inspired by Victorian civil engineers . . . and proudest where I feel I have helped make the most difference.”
If you could offer a client one piece of advice based on your particular area of expertise, what would it be?
Always begin a project with the (many and varied) end users in mind – e.g. passengers, operators, drivers, signallers and platform staff. Be open and honest in consultation with stakeholders. Treat everyone equitably and fairly and they will accept the outcome. Do this well and you will get buy-in – essential for the success of a project.
What is the biggest challenge that the global rail sector is currently facing?
Railway infrastructure and rolling stock have high capital costs and long lifespans bringing relatively rigid supply. Up until now, this has been underpinned by relatively inelastic demand, particularly for commuter railways. Passengers had little or no alternative choice for their journey. Now as we seek to recover from the pandemic, there will be far more elasticity of demand with more flexible hours and hybrid working for many commuters. Equally, there will be a likely reduction in long distance business travel as online meetings replace a lot of face-to-face. However, as the rail sector has been active for some 200 years, continually adapting to meet many challenges, I expect it to continue to do so, both now and in the future.
What was your most rewarding experience on the Crossrail project?
Amongst many rewarding experiences, it was bidding for the main design packages. This involved the culmination of two strategies. Firstly, we developed a strategy to build a metro design capability with some strategic hires, developing a track record with some key wins, and adding some specific skillsets and experience through acquisitions. Secondly, a very detailed bid strategy was built around spending time ensuring we understood the client’s desires, picking the right partners (including being ruthlessly honest about strengths and weaknesses and often strengthening a weakness with a partner) and then relentlessly working on our submissions and presentations, and subsequent feedback from them, squeezing every mark we could from the excellent quality scoring system! We succeeded in being the only consultant to win two stations and gaining the biggest initial slice of a huge cake. A competitor said: “We could see what you were doing, but could do nothing to stop it.”
“A very detailed bid strategy was built around spending time ensuring we understood the client’s desires …”
If you could visit and travel on any rail system in the world you’ve never been, where would you go?
I have been privileged to have visited more than 30 countries around the world on business and in each of them have taken time to travel on the rail system, comparing good and bad, seeing how much commonality there can be, and taking a keen interest in the differences. There are some great scenic journeys and experiences I would like to enjoy, such as crossing the USA (the pandemic has twice cancelled the Rocky Mountaineer for me), but professionally it would have to be Japan. I would love to see stations which handle over 10 times as many passengers as London’s largest stations.
What is your favourite railway journey, and why?
My favourite is the north end of the East Coast Main Line to Edinburgh. Why? Many reasons. My paternal family roots are from East Lothian and Berwickshire so it’s part of my heritage. In the days of GNER, an hour reading the paper whilst breakfasting on the famous ‘Craster Kippers’ on the 6am from Edinburgh watching the sunrise from the Royal Border Bridge at Berwick takes some beating for setting up your day. As a Scot travelling home north after successful business in the south watching the sunset, in a dining car in good company, is an equally splendid way to end the day!
“… watching the sunrise from the Royal Border Bridge at Berwick takes some beating for setting up your day.”
My all-time favourite track is …
My musical taste is very eclectic but if I had to narrow it down to just one favourite it would be Robert Burns’ “My Love is like a Red, Red Rose” to remind me of the good fortune I have had in marriage with my very loving and supporting wife Hilary. Many have sung it, myself included (!), but I would choose the young Scottish folk singer Robyn Stapleton who has the voice of an angel. I even had the pleasure of performing Burns’ work with her on a train!