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Seizing the moment

This article was first published in Rail Professional

The Williams-Shapps “Plan for Rail” sets out a new operating model for Great Britain, and is a positive message for a growing, inclusive, greener public transport for the next generation. It is now matched by the intent of the DfT plan to decarbonise the entire transport system in the UK. 

The industry was already changing towards it, but then COVID-19 happened. It disrupted usage, obliged government support and created uncertainty about the future. Now the industry must transform and broaden integration not just to achieve the ambitions of the plan, but to find a new normal. 

With these challenges laid bare, the industry must take the sustainability pledge seriously. But it must also align to the other two parts of a triple lock, so in total – Sustainable, Social and Affordable. The rail industry must quickly make a step change transformation to go further and faster to bring these commitments to life, and in doing so embrace new levels of industry co-operation. Customers are increasingly conscious in their buying practices of committing purchasing decisions to this triple lock, and the railway must make decisions with this in mind. 

The level of change requires honesty of thought and clarity of voice 

Truly embracing the end of fossil fuels to drive sustainable and cost-efficient travel is a daunting proposition.  As zero-emission vehicles dominate the forward landscape, freight and passenger rail must make its own positive contribution to environmentally friendly transport, to meet the ambition to remove diesel from the network by 2040, establishing a route to fully net zero by 2050. 

The industry must fully embrace and accelerate its own traction decarbonisation network strategy. Historical uncertainty about options and funding have been largely removed, so it is now essential the industry creates consistent trust and belief in this strategy so that the wider supply chain invests, embraces, and innovates towards change. This requires creativity and clear narrative to drive home the case for change. The whole industry and its wider government stakeholders must hold firm to a shared vision and message. By doing so, the rail freight growth and early take up of low carbon traction for rail freight can be truly realised. 

Integrating transport is an inevitability that must be embraced to support sustainability 

By helping to shape the future, rather than just to build infrastructure, the rail industry must continue boldly seeking to be part of an integrated transport system. This is the only way that social and affordable parts of the triple lock are achieved. The inevitable truth remains – not every door to door journey can, or ever will be, on a train. 

Rail must continue to have a significant role in mass transit of goods and people. It must extol its strengths (as mass transit) and manage its weakness (that it is governed by a timetable). It needs new capabilities in asset management thinking and more dynamic delivery to make this happen. The industry must make the most of the strengths and digitise the network to reduce the weakness. Manging a dynamic timetable will enable more open access opportunities (as well as smarter maintenance and renewals). Thinking more widely and inclusively, the rail industry can be at the forefront of better integration with the wider transport infrastructure to maximise the opportunities; the extra capacity created will support the significant shifts from road and air to rail. 

Innovation must be accelerated and expanded 

The rail industry must find ways to successfully bring innovation to market. Right now, the challenges of COVID-19, lifestyle choices and travel behaviours are happening concurrently with extraordinary innovation in technology. The shift to digitise the railway over the last two decades has been significant, but the next two decades will see even more significant transformation. Wise investments are essential. The industry must openly explore many ideas and then systematically refine its innovation portfolio to the vital few that will create both social and affordable value.

There is a common perception that the rail industry finds it difficult to innovate. However, the tension between the extraordinary pace of technological change and adoption to the railway has more to do with a need to purposefully enable early innovative thinking and to embrace the share of failures within the development process that follow. In the last few years, the purposeful approach to R&D funding and resourcing across the industry has begun to pay dividends. Where innovation success is ultimately dependent upon its value creation, the industry must either work collaboratively across the end-to-end value chain or become an aggressive early adopter of other sectors’ proven success. 

Now, more than ever, the industry must release the change opportunities that it has created, removing innovation fragmentation, and finding collaborative relationships that are perhaps longer in duration, but that are certainly more fairly and equitably incentivised. Here the government, as the new direct funder rather than franchise coordinator, has far greater opportunity to direct and guide the uptake of innovation through the services that new concessions are paid to provide and in doing so better exploit innovation for the benefit of the whole of the national railway. 

This new approach will require ongoing, and consistent management of the significant, but finite, resources to manage programmes of innovation. The opportunity however exists to embrace and collaborate into more of the wider government investments in hydrogen and battery technology as they develop. By doing so, sustainable decarbonisation can be accelerated and affordable. 

The transition to net zero is another opportunity to demonstrate the railway “doing the right thing” 

Doing the right thing has been at the heart of railway culture for generations – in an industry where safety and the customer have been decision making imperatives. Now the sustainability of the environment becomes another imperative. To embrace this future, the industry must design rail into communities as part of a sustainable system of energy exchange and shared value. By finding the social value – the value to whole communities –the railway becomes attractive, connected and sustainably affordable. 

As we emerge from COVID-19 and transition to net-zero this instinct and moral compass must remain core to strong decision making. Rail must champion investment to improve rail journey connectivity with other modes of transport. As new lines are opened, and developments grow alongside them, the rail industry must proactively lobby for and design infrastructure that is “connected”.  In doing so it will support the triple lock of an affordable, socially valuable, and sustainable railway and will create clear and purposeful end-to-end journey options for the conscious customers the industry serves. 

Railway travel must remain a choice, so customer focus is key 

The railway must remain a mode of choice for customers. Pre-COVID-19 predictions of 40% growth in rail usage by 2040 is still likely. The industry must continue to transform the experience, making the end-to-end journey more convenient, through the modernising of ticketing and retail at hubs and stations. Part of this success must involve maintaining the generosity of those who work on the railway and by driving choices towards making the journey experience simple, informed, punctual and keeping the conscious consumer in mind. 

The shape of Williams-Shapps was unlikely to surprise many. The DfT’s response through its decarbonisation plan is equally bold, and just as exciting. As the creation of the CP7 funding settlement proceeds, every part of it must align to the vision of the next two decades to describe how the immediate actions of the next five years will help to drive the industry further and faster towards the ultimate sustainable outcomes, whilst continuing to be affordable and releasing social value at the same time.  This is no easy challenge…but certainly an exciting one.

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