The problem is that when systems integration works well it almost looks as if you didn’t need to do any integration in the first place. This sometimes makes it difficult to justify the cost of a systems integration team. The up-front cost of buying this function is clear, but the return on investment is difficult to quantify.

As Network Rail and the Department for Transport begin to plan for the next round of investment in Control Period 6 (the railway plans itself in five-year blocks called “Control Periods”), budget holders are looking for juicy savings. I’ve learned the hard way that the systems integration function is an easy target. The cost-conscious client will understand the benefit of physical works – signalling, rolling stock, electrification. You can calculate the cost/benefit on that. But they may struggle to understand the value of an integration team that doesn’t appear to deliver anything tangible.

But we shouldn’t be evaluating systems integration that way. It’s not meant to bring in cash, it’s meant to de-risk. It’s intended to keep everyone on the same page, to highlight problems and allow leadership to make quick, evidence-based decisions to avoid them.

We invest in risk-reduction instruments like this all the time – your house will have door locks, smoke alarms and an insurance policy. They don’t bring in any revenue, and in a perfect world they shouldn’t even be necessary. But we understand that in the real world, our homes wouldn’t last long without them.

Similarly, in a perfect world, you shouldn’t need an integration team. Your stakeholders should deliver their outputs perfectly, collaborate wonderfully and meet the exact schedule, scope and cost that you had in mind. But the well-documented challenges show that this isn’t how things work in the real world.

Rail programmes are enormously complex and this complexity is multiplied by a sprawl of public and private deliverers, each one split into subdivisions, with subcontractors, auditors and regulators thrown into the mix. It’s no wonder these organisations can become out of sync with each other.

Systems integration in a major programme keeps you as close as possible to the optimal scope, schedule and cost. It pays for itself by avoiding problems elsewhere. On my current project, The Greater West Programme, the cost of providing an integration function is around 0.0004 (four ten-thousandths) of the total programme cost. When investing billions of tax pounds across dozens of organisations, putting protections in place to ensure a functioning product is a no brainer.

Asking if your rail programme can really afford a systems integration team is a bit like asking if you can afford a lock on your front door. You won’t truly know the value of it until you’ve tried living without it.  

This blog was written by Nick Bowick, WSP Principal Systems Integration Consultant