With Network Rail, Transport for London and HS2 all signed up, the Rail Supply Group aims to boost overseas bids from suppliers with the help of its Export reference scheme.
Application Solutions (Safety and Security) Limited (ASL), which supplies public address systems, voice alarm systems and control systems from its HQ in Lewes, East Sussex, already has a healthy overseas order book, India being one of its biggest markets.
“It’s not an easy market, but the size of the projects coming out of it are larger than those coming out of other places,” says Kevin Morrison, ASL’s international account manager.
ASL has an established track record in India, but it is also looking to newer markets, with projects and prospects in Australia, Malaysia and Europe and has ambitions to tackle other regions. And for these markets, it often needs references to support its tenders, or even just to open doors.
“Most of the rail projects we tender for ask for a reference but getting one can be very challenging because we are further down the supply chain and often under NDA (non-disclosure agreement),” says Morrison. “This means that we sometimes have to use references that are 10 years old, which is not as useful as having something that’s current, as tenders often ask for a reference from the last three years.”
This is a situation which the Rail Supply Group (RSG) hopes to rectify with its Export reference scheme, part of the Rail Sector Deal, which involves gaining commitments from major rail clients in the UK to supply references for companies tendering for projects overseas. Network Rail was the first client to commit to the scheme in May 2020, with HS2 having had a reference scheme in place already and Transport for London (TfL) signing up this year.
“Now we have the three most significant rail clients signed up, that creates a great platform for us to go out to other rail clients such as the train operators,” says Jake Rudham, who heads up RSG’s Export Pillar, and is marketing director at Unipart Rail.
Business Minister Lee Rowley applauded the scheme: “It’s great that exporting is being made simpler for our hugely important UK-based rail supply chain. Finding ways to help organisations up and down the country think about other ways they can grow their business over the long-term is really positive.”
Why exports matter
The UK Government has big ambitions for rail exports. Back in 2018, it set RSG, as the organisation responsible for delivering the Rail Sector Deal, the goal of doubling the value of rail exports between then and 2025.
Though the pandemic may have slowed initial export growth, the post-pandemic bounce back is expected to be significant, as Governments around the world look to boost their economies by investing in infrastructure projects. The UNIFE’s World Rail Market Study Forecast 2020 – 2025 1predicts an annual market growth of 2.3% per annum for the global rail market, reaching around EUR 204bn per year in 2025, with growth coming from both upgrades of mature rail networks and construction of new ones in emerging markets.
More overseas contracts for companies in the UK rail sector makes good sense for the rail industry and for the UK economy. As well as boosting GDP, a more secure pipeline of work provides a firmer foundation for suppliers to employ and develop their staff and to invest in research and innovation.
“The UK has world-leading expertise in the rail sector, and we want more businesses to capitalise on its success,” says Minister for Exports Mike Freer. “That’s why the Department for International Trade is working to promote the very best of British expertise overseas.
“We’re making it even easier for businesses to boost their bids for international work, with the rail industry benefitting from the UK’s new trade agreements, such as our UK-Australia deal – which is set to remove 5% export tariffs on rail products to help UK companies compete for lucrative government contracts.”
That should be good news to many UK exporters. A survey of 140 rail sector suppliers, conducted by RSG last October2, revealed that Australia was the top priority export market, followed by the US, Germany, France and the United Arab Emirates.
The survey revealed that 55% of the companies who took part already exported or had ambitions to export. Of those that did not want to export, one-third had UK-specific products or services, but the other cited the cost and difficulty of exporting among the reasons for not exporting.
What’s in a reference?
The goal of the RSG Export reference scheme is not only to make it easier for suppliers to attain references. It also aims to ensure that those references are as valuable as possible, says Neil Walker, exports director at the Railway Industry Association (RIA), who sits on the RSG Export Pillar.
“For a reference to be worthwhile, it has to be validated and recognised,” he explains. “If you don’t have a process in terms of how you produce the reference, it undervalues it.”
Details on how to get further information on how to obtain references from each of the three clients can be found at the foot of this article. References will be factual, stating what product has been installed where and for how long.
For consultant Steer, which has a long-standing presence in Latin American markets, including Mexico, Colombia and Chile, certifications from clients are vital for winning work, says director Luke Miller:
“We are very excited by the revival of interest in the rail sector across Latin America, and good practice from the UK and elsewhere is valuable in ensuring that this revival is sustained and successful,” says Miller. “A key challenge in bidding for work in Hispanic countries in particular is often the level of detailed certification that is required to ensure that relevant experience is scored in bid evaluation.”
One of the challenges that suppliers further down the supply chain face is that they often have little time to prepare tenders. “The tender period could be three months, but by the time the integrator comes to us, there could be two-to-three weeks or even less for us to turn it around,” says Morrison. The ideal situation, he adds, would be to have references ready and waiting so that they can be submitted with tenders at short notice.
Miller attests to this: “We have found UK clients happy to provide certifications, but each one requires considerable time to prepare and agree whilst projects are often tendered with very short response times, rarely more than two weeks, often less.”
TfL says that it aims to provide a reference in 10 to 14 days, provided that the company applying has provided the relevant information. “Suppliers will be asked to provide some initial information which includes their TfL contract title, contract reference, commencement and completion dates as applicable. TfL will then validate this information using internal records,” explains Philip Hewson, head of procurement, strategy & performance at TFL.
One of the challenges faced by firms such as ASL is that their contracts are with a system integrator, rather than with the main client or end user – which is the organisation that overseas clients want to see as the referee. “We are under an NDA with the systems integrator and potentially they are under an NDA with the end client,” says Morrison. “That has been a challenge for quite some time.”
This is something that the rail clients and RSG are aware of and working to overcome. “One of the challenges we currently face is validating references for suppliers who acted as sub-contractors to our main Tier 1 contractor,” says Hewson. “In this instance we are currently working with the Tier 1 contractor to validate this information and are working with the Rail Supply Group Exports Pillar members to discuss how we can tackle this collectively to make this a simplified process.”
Breaking into new overseas markets is never easy, warns Walker: “it takes time and resources.” However, a UK pedigree can make a difference: “A reference helps the client to understand that you have experience in the sector,” he says. “Clearly, tenders are won based on price and specification, but part of the UK offer is the quality you bring and the whole life of the product.”
How to get a reference
TfL: for more information on the process for obtaining TfL references for overseas projects, please contact: email@example.com
HS2 Ltd: Contact your HS2 Ltd Contract/Commercial Manager to formally request a Contract Confirmation Letter, which will confirm their work including scope, value and duration. HS2 Ltd is not able to provide materials that endorse, advocate or discuss supplier performance.