The Docklands Light Railway has been providing an essential service between key areas of London since 1987, continually setting exceptionally high standards for punctuality and customer satisfaction. In 2014, KeolisAmey Docklands (KAD) – a joint venture formed between Keolis and Amey, was awarded the franchise to operate and maintain the DLR until 2021.

Engineering Director, Dave Smale, talks us through his role, and key developments in both the DLR and UK rail industry.

1. Tell us how you ended up working in the transport industry – when and why?

I left school at 16 and began an apprenticeship with British Rail which saw me spend most of my time in signalling installation, faulting and maintenance. From there, I worked my way up the ranks, bringing new systems onto some major tracks like Paddington, where our re-signalling work made it the fastest bi-directional railway in Europe at the time, which was really exciting.

In 2006, I moved to the London Underground with Amey and managed the implementation of automated signalling on the Jubilee Line, technology which is also used by the DLR. Later, I worked on the KAD bid to operate and maintain the DLR and took up my current position when we were successful. As a light rail network, the DLR offered something very different to the networks I’d worked on previously and I really wanted to be a part of it.

2. What does a typical day look like for you?

My day usually involves a lot of meetings, both internal and external but I try to get back out to work on the system alongside our teams as regularly as I can. It’s easy to forget how tough it can be working in the heat of a tunnel all day and I think it’s very important for managers to maintain hands-on experience of what we are asking our staff to deliver.

3. What’s the best part of your job?

I really enjoy seeing KAD projects we’ve worked hard on come to fruition and start benefiting the network, but staff development is probably my favourite part of the job. Since our DLR contract began, KAD has invested a lot in training – from putting all managers through Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) qualifications to giving new health and safety (IOSH)/ accident investigation (Kelvin Topset) training to our engineering teams. Seeing first-hand the impact that has had on our staff’s understanding of their roles and personal development has been really rewarding.

4. If you could change one thing about your job what would it be?

Honestly, there’s very little that I would want to change. We have a certain degree of autonomy at the DLR, a good relationship with our clients at Transport for London (TfL) and I’ve got a great team around me. Of course, there are challenges, but I wouldn’t change them – I love the job, and they’re a part of it.

5. What’s the proudest achievement of your career?

When I moved to work on the Northern Line in 2006 we had some ambitious targets to improve performance, through a mix of signalling improvement and people management. The latter was particularly challenging because, as a newcomer, I wasn’t seen by the existing teams as being part of the London Underground culture and had a lot of work to do to establish myself. Two years later, we had completely turned that line around, taking it from 9th to 1st position in the Underground’s reliability scores. In 2008, I found out I was nominated for Rail Manager of the Year by our team on the ground. To win their support in that way was an incredible feeling.

6. What’s the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced? And how did you solve it? 

I was responsible for all signalling, maintenance and faulting on the Jubilee line during the shift to automation. Like any major technological change, there were some teething problems. Passengers had to cope with a lot of disruption, and it was a very challenging time. By working together – Thales (the company who supplied the system), London Underground, my team at Amey – we managed to iron out those issues to create a high performing line, with an innovative signalling system.

7. What do you think is the main challenge facing the transport sector? And what do you think is needed to solve it?

The Digital Railway is both a solution to the current capacity problems on UK railways and a challenge in itself. Adapting all existing fleets and infrastructure to incorporate digital signalling will be a huge undertaking, and will need to be delivered alongside a big shift in culture and ways of working across the entire industry.

8. What’s been the most exciting development in the transport industry that you’ve seen during your career?

The major changes in signalling technology – from the 1960’s manual, route and relay interlocking, to a solid-state interlocking system that can be controlled from a single box, and to automated signalling – is fascinating to me.

9. What excites you most about the future of the industry or the DLR network?

The rail industry as a whole is currently experiencing a huge shift in the way it operates, with new tracks, systems and trains being introduced across the country. In order to take full advantage of these changes, we must invest as heavily in our people to ensure they can adapt and use these innovations to their full potential.

10. What advice would you leave your successor at KAD?

Look after your people, and they’ll look after you. It’s as simple as that.