Steven Carden and Christie Fearnside, at PA Consulting explain why consultants must step up to the challenge of defining rail post Covid

As PA Consultants we have continually advanced the call for change in the industry – to rise to shifting expectations of passengers and freight companies and to move proactively towards the opportunities that the future of transport will bring, rather than let the future happen to the industry.

The global pandemic of 2020 has abruptly brought this future to the fore – more quickly and at a much larger scale than any of us could have anticipated. Stemming from the heroic efforts of the industry to rapidly adapt to the circumstances, we have a collective opportunity to re-group and re-focus on a new future of rail.

Consultants have a duty to consider their place in this transition – our role must be more than surface support. We have a responsibility to jump in with both feet and provide the strategic advice and best practice from other industries that will deliver on the promise of transforming the industry we advise; this is our duty and rail is waiting.

Discussions have begun across all areas of government and Industry on how to respond to the impact of Covid-19. Consultants have three key advantages that are not necessarily available to the industry as a whole – we have a degree of independence from the day-to-day operational delivery that gives us the headspace to be strategic and set the vision; we work across sectors and see best practice in other places; and we provide the change and implementation expertise to make this transition happen. Now, more than ever, we need to deploy these skills across the industry to support rail in its time of need.

Firstly, we must support the current discussions in setting and embedding a new future of rail by giving the industry a vision, a starting point to peg ideas on. As an example of this, in our recent Changing Track Report on the Future of Rail, PA Consulting brought together an industry-wide vision for what rail should look like in 2050. The vision was a seamless, integrated passenger-centric world. This vision is arguably even more valid in a post-pandemic reality, as customer expectations continue to shift to connected, minimally interactive, clean modes of transport.

However, a vision alone is not enough. Lasting, real change, that withstands future system shocks, needs tangible, practical approaches. And so consultants should also take the best practice and insight from other industries that can address the challenges facing rail; approaches such as rapidly applying innovation, managing flexibility across delivery, and end-to-end collaboration.

By way of example, the work PA is doing with Network Rail’s Innovation Portfolio is embedding a framework centred on agility. Guided by clear strategic objectives, agility promotes cross-functional teams empowered to make decisions in short ‘sprints’; enabling the people with the right skills, to make the right decisions, at the right time. This approach allows teams to respond quicker to changing situations, pivoting focus where required to still drive business value. Additionally, focusing on earlier value to the business – a core premise of agility – places importance on releasing products quickly for continuous review and feedback.

This can be demonstrated via the Rail Asset Identification System, an artificial intelligence tool that automatically identifies, catalogues and visualises parts of the network and their location to help avoid accidents. Applying an agile approach enabled the team to rapidly respond to a regulatory notice by pivoting the focus of a development sprint to find ways to include new assets in the system. Agility is a well-established approach in digital industries and has growing applications in consumer products and financial services, among others. We have successfully adapted the best parts of agility to the rail environment to transform the speed of application.

Thirdly, consultants need to deploy our expertise in change and implementation to enact the transition that rail needs to go through. Consultants occupy a unique position as advisors across the full spectrum of the industry and that mandates a responsibility to collectively transform rail for the future. We therefore must roll up our sleeves and ensure the tools and skills needed are provided. This can include voicing uncomfortable truths to power to call out when the industry is doing the wrong thing; taking on risk in projects to back our collective belief in the transition; or providing the stakeholder engagement across the industry on specific topics to move things forward.

Covid-19 has exposed a great need to be able to respond quickly to challenges with viable solutions. In the last six months, the industry has shown that it can rise to that challenge and has made some amazing changes, fast, and in difficult circumstances. Consultants need to do this too – we need to raise our game to support the industry to make the bold step that it needs to make towards a new vision, borrowing with pride and driving and releasing a disruptive change. Rail has shown that it can bring ingenuity to life – the consulting community needs to make sure that it keeps doing that.

Steven Carden and Christie Fearnside are rail experts at PA Consulting