Philip Hoare, Chair of the Rail Supply Group and President Atkins – SNC Lavalin explores how the Williams-Shapps’ White paper puts the rail industry supply chain on track for recovery and helps us define our purpose

If anyone ever doubted the resilience and determination of Britain’s railways, the response from initial shock and impact of Covid should have put those doubts to rest. Throughout it all, thousands of dedicated people kept the wheels turning, the trains running, and the nation moving. We should all be proud of the crucial part that rail has played in keeping people and goods moving.

We have known and discussed for a long time the fact that the rail sector needs widespread reform in a range of areas – from the fragmented nature of the industry, the lack of a long-term vision for UK rail, the need to drive up productivity and the evolving and changing demands of customers. It’s clear that we now face two additional challenges – the reshaping of working and travel habits accelerated by the global pandemic, and the imperative to drive the industry to a net zero carbon future.

We must face the reality that many of the commuters lost to lockdown may not return to our services in the same way. Their ‘new normal’ way of living and working means the railway sector has no choice but to radically adapt the services we offer, how we deploy our resources and how we invest and remodel our businesses to respond to this challenge. And we need to do this at the same time as reducing carbon across a notoriously complex supply chain.

This is a once in a lifetime ‘reset’ moment and I believe it is a huge opportunity for the rail supply chain to step up and be part of the solution – through bringing new skills, new innovation and fresh thinking to support this momentous pivot.

To enable this, supply chain input needs to be intrinsic at every level – from setting a future vision, to looking at how we deal with the net zero carbon challenge. And no one company can do this alone. It is critical that we collaborate as an industry to drive change. In my time as chair of RSG, I have seen the power of collaboration across the sector and the willingness and drive to step-up. However, I have also seen the opportunity for the supply chain to be better engaged and more involved in industry decision making.

Against this backdrop, the publication of the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail is timely.

The proposed creation of Great British Railways – coordinating ticketing, revenue collection, timetabling and other services across the network has been well thought through – as well as being workable and shaped by stakeholder feedback. Now that we have comprehensive sector reform matched with government and industry commitment bodes well for implementation, and for me, there is also a whole industry challenge and opportunity to establish the culture and behaviours that will help deliver its success.

It is encouraging that the Williams-Shapps proposals and the chancellor’s ‘Build Back Better’ plan are aligned with the original intent of the Rail Sector Deal. The Rail Supply Group remains focussed on the delivery and commitments in the Sector Deal and will continue our journey towards increasing efficiency and developing the engineering, digital, data and environmental skills and expertise that will be essential to create and maintain a net-zero green sustainable railway.

Last year the RSG, at the request of the government, established an industry-wide taskforce to help plan for recovery from the pandemic. The first action of the taskforce was a broad consultation to establish what stakeholders considered the priorities for taking the industry forward. The response was very clear: work pipeline transparency; better, easier to access data; and simplified track-access arrangements. The RSG has been actively addressing all these concerns and it is reassuring that the Williams-Shapps proposals align so well with these priorities.

The proposed Great British Railways model is designed with an emphasis on improving customer experience by making the network more legible and much easier to navigate, both literally and in terms of pricing and communications. But more legible and co-ordinated systems will also be much more conducive to openness in other areas: data sharing and transparency in procurement, the essential groundwork for building the flexible and responsive systems that will support the modern digital railway that can deliver on the net zero carbon target.

There is little doubt that, with appropriate investment, we have the means to adapt quickly to the new realties. Our national rail supply chain is world class, built from exceptional, innovative businesses that are more than able and agile enough to deliver what is needed in a rapidly changing environment.

At all levels of the supply chain, there have been many challenges associated with work pipeline visibility, but I believe this is changing – it is critical that supply chain must continue to step up and play its part. Measuring success for all our stakeholders will be crucial to our success and we need to do this quickly and clearly so that we can show value and progress. In my view the key measurements of success will be productivity, carbon reduction, exports and new skills – with new measures like ‘cost/carbon per passenger kilometre’ to allow us to benchmark and drive progress.

And great work is already being done. The RSG’s Work Pipeline Visibility Charter, led by industry champion and CEO of Keltbray Darren James, was launched in late May 2021 to build visibility and to encourage collaboration between companies of all sizes. The Charter already has close to 80 signatories and we expect many more over the next few months.

The Open DATA team, led by RSG industry champion and Worldline CEO James Bain on behalf of the RSG, has meanwhile developed a framework for open access rail data that will rival or surpass competitor sectors and will help to drive innovation and transparency across the industry. Importantly the digital skills initiatives, led by RSG industry champion and National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR) Neil Robertson are gaining traction right across the industry supporting a much-desired new generation of skilled professionals.

The unique composition of the RSG, a government-industry partnership reaching across departments and involving suppliers, trade associations, client representatives and trade unions, has lent force and credibility to initiatives such as these and, the Williams-Shapps proposals will create a much more coherent network with the right levers to implement change across the whole sector.

A new railway is coming one way or the other. The RSG is confident that the proposals are taking us in the right direction. Open data will not analyse itself. A whole new workforce will be needed in the medium to long term, made up of people with many new and different skills to do essential tasks that a few years ago were barely considered. We need to start finding these people now and creating the kind of workplace and fulfilling careers that will make them want to stay.

Williams-Shapps presents the outline of a plan that the industry can get behind and with close collaboration we can develop that plan into a roadmap for the future. I’m confident the rail supply chain is ready and willing to step up and play its part.

Ultimately, we will need to emerge from the pandemic better and stronger than we went in. Despite the challenges of the past year, the prospects for rail are strong. Rail will play an essential part in delivering the UK’s carbon goals and fulfilling livelihoods to those it directly employs – some 240,000 people. It’s also critical to connecting people, businesses and communities and creating vibrant economies where people thrive.

There is a sense that the Covid crisis has reminded us all just what community and service means and how much we value them. Those are essential values of the rail sector and we should feel optimistic that the conditions are right to begin to fulfil the true value and purpose of rail.