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Three ways for rail to shift towards always-on resilience

Sara Ulrich

By Sara Ulrich, Joanna Grove-Lafarge

Rail Professional

10 July 2023

After an uneasy past three years, is the worst behind the rail sector? If you think it is, you’re in agreement with the majority of our survey respondents. Our Europe-wide study of transport leaders found that 63 percent of those in rail believe the worst has already happened. This is the highest score across all modes. So, what do they know that rail doesn’t?

More worryingly, almost two thirds (65 percent) of rail leaders have no plans to increase their investment in resilience. This, despite the fact that the majority recognise that resilience is a strategic imperative, and that conventional resilience plans, ‘switched on’ in the event of a flood, strike action or another disruptive event, are no longer enough.

Instead, resilience needs to be an always-on priority during good times and bad. This is the only way for rail to deal with sustained, compounded disruptive events. These include the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, shifting travel habits, economic and labour challenges, the sustainability imperative, and overhauling legacy infrastructure.

Because, while rail has a history of battling through disruption to deliver, and rising to the challenge, the disruptive landscape has changed – and so too must the resilience response. To achieve this, there are three areas of focus that can help drive change:

Embed a resilience mindset

Our survey found that more than four in ten rail leaders say ‘more disruptive events’ are the number one accelerator of resilience as a strategic priority. Effectively, almost half of rail organisations are reliant on fresh disruption to reignite a sense of urgency. They are hooked on the drug of disruption, where resilience is only activated in response to a disruptive event.

And while rail is very capable at responding to operational disruptions, our findings come at a time where conversations are ongoing about crucial strategic challenges. These include proposed rail reform legislation, advances in technology and automation, and a growing skills gap against a backdrop of increasing tensions in industrial relations.

To tackle these strategic challenges, rail needs to do more than respond to disruptive events on an ad-hoc basis. It needs to build and embed a resilience mindset across the industry. This means allocating time and headspace to longer-term strategic goals – not just the immediate operational challenges.

In some instances, this means leaders need to step back from their immediate problems to focus on the future. Delegation can feel uncomfortable, but leaders need to be free to lead. It is this strategic resilient mindset that can unhook rail leaders from the drug of disruption and set them up for enduring success – while developing rail leaders of the future.

Train your future resilience ‘muscle’ by learning the lessons of the past

The disruptive events of the past few years have brought multiple resilience learnings for rail leaders. Our survey found that these lessons include the need to plan for global disruption, not just local; that resilience can be an opportunity to do things better; and that it calls for a breadth and depth of skills.

At the same time, rail leaders have learnt that resilience is an opportunity to gain momentum – providing they embed stronger governance; provide clear resilience leadership and accountability; and invest in technology and automation.

Effectively, disruptive events have provided an opportunity for organisations to sharpen their resilience muscle across the resilience lifecycle: prevent, detect, withstand, handle, recover, and transform.

Wargaming exercises are one way to help rail leaders to prepare for an automatic response for when disruption arrives. They help build psychological safety by taking people away from their comfort zones, removing barriers, and encouraging bold decision-making. These exercises also encourage a culture of continuous improvement, where lessons from previous disruptive events become a springboard for transformation.

Drive collaboration through long-term goals

Collaboration across rail can improve, according to our survey respondents. Just under half (40 percent) told us that the lack of ecosystem collaboration is a key barrier to resilience. Across all modes, rail leaders were the most likely to say that increased connectivity and interoperability across the transport system was a major challenge.

Yet there are also encouraging signs: 80 percent told us that increased connectivity – with partners, customers, technologies – ‘makes us more resilient’. So, rail leaders see the potential for collaboration to help them move towards always-on resilience but are yet to achieve it.

To drive progress, rail leaders need to stop thinking of resilience as being separate from long-term objectives such as increased innovation, sustainability, and rail reform. When asked if resilience can co-exist with these imperatives, rail scored lowest for the first, and second lowest for the second.

Imagine, instead, if rail leaders used these objectives as reasons to sustain the push for always-on resilience, and always-on resilience as the fuel to meet these goals. By becoming more resilient across the enterprise, organisations can ensure they have the skills and headroom to shape the future agenda rather than react to the present.

Ready for action?

After three years of unprecedented disruption, rail leaders have boosted their organisational resilience, learned of the need to embed it as an always-on priority, and glimpsed the opportunities that this permanent level of resilience can bring.

The key, now, is for this opportunity to be grasped. This is the challenge of the moment for rail leaders who need to put in place some practical steps to kick-start action.

This article was first published in Rail Professional

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