Mark Fielding-Smith, National and Digital Services Director at Atkins, describes how rail’s new annual charity challenge is bringing our industry together for good

Riding 365 kilometres, with volunteers from eight organisations, over three days, with one vital goal: to help protect some of the most vulnerable children in the world.

September 2022 saw the successful completion of the first of a new annual charity challenge. Ride the Route plans, organises, rides and supports a three-day bike ride as a cross industry collective following the line of routes deploying the new European Train Control System (ETCS) signalling.

Cycling from York to London following the East Coast Mainline route (ECML) was never going to be easy. The route crosses some notably hilly terrain, and British Septembers are hardly known for their dry spells of prolonged sunshine. But after six months of planning and training as an industry team, combining many organisations working on the East Coast Digital Programme (ECDP), we were highly motivated and well prepared. It was a chance to bring the industry together in service of doing even greater good.

Our industry as a collective supports the Railway Children in many ways. Inspired by the fantastic support the rail industry gives through the annual Three Peaks by Rail, as well as hosting the Railway Ball (the sector’s biggest fundraiser), we set out to create a new annual endurance event to epitomise the industry’s collaboration and tenacity.

Since 2020, I’ve led the ECDP Rail Systems Integration Partner, working within an amazing and unprecedented industry collaboration on the ECDP Programme. I wondered if we could harness the amazing spirit of the ECDP Family to do even more good outside of the Programme. I proposed Ride the Route as an idea to the ECDP board: not just as a one-off but as an annual undertaking that brings our industry together in a new way. We all agreed it exemplified what we are doing together as an industry and it gained full board support.

Planning and participating in the ride revealed just how powerful group bonding can be in our industry. Each organisation added an important element in addition to actually riding the route. Network Rail provided offices and support; LNER got us to the start line and took us home when we finished; Atkins, Siemens, PwC, Ramboll all sponsored and donated generously, which combined with personal sponsorship for the riders, raised a total of £60,000.

The ECDP programme requires a new way of working to develop and implement the next generation of railway operations, enabled by ETCS signalling. Its success relies on forming and maintaining close partnerships and trusted relationships between a wide range of people from over 30 organisations who operate today’s railway.

Ride the Route helps by bringing our industry closer together outside of work, living the ECDP values of Pioneering, Inclusive, Tenacious and Caring – whilst also having fun. Starting with a small set of hard-working cross industry volunteers, supported magnificently by Katie Mason from the Railway Children, we used digital tools to plan the logistics, devise and simulate the route.

We used Strava to motivate each other through training, produced event safety planning documents, used GPS trackers on pelotons to ensure safety and alignment with the support vans who provided sustenance and mechanical rescue. And we also gathered data and feedback throughout the process, to work out how to do it even better in 2023.

But it was the cycling itself that really brought us together. It was challenging, fun, and with some downright hilarious moments both moving and resting. We rode, feasted, caffeinated and relaxed together for three days – adapting to changing situations and working together as a family, with each other’s safety at the forefront throughout. Our support teams were exceptional.

If you want to build relationships and strengthen bonds across railway organisations, like the Three Peaks Challenge does so well, we have found that cycling hundreds of miles through hills and valleys in the wind and the rain is a great way to do it.

Not only do you rely deeply on one another, you also make the best of difficult situations through shared experiences and humour. From high speed, carb focussed food shopping forays for scores of bananas, flapjacks, and other sugary fuels, to the exhausting and rather wet ‘Mountain Stage’ of the second day, humour was the ever-present elixir that pulled us through together.

For me, there were so many amazing points, especially raising so much charity funding together as an industry, but some of the most meaningful moments were the small ones. Bantering in ‘haunted’ hotels at night toasting the queen, relieved grinning at the refreshments van, huddling together over a cup of coffee, tired but happy, sharing our reminiscences of a hard day’s ride – the feeling of satisfaction throughout was immense, and we all knew what good we were doing for the Railway Children’s mission.

As we were sent off from York Station by Railway Children Chairman Malcolm Brown, Industry Partnership for Digital Railway Director Toufic Machnouk and ECDP Programme Sponsor Ed Akers, I think everyone knew that this was the start of something really meaningful for our industry. A new, collective mission that unites us in improving the world.

So yes, the numbers were daunting. But bringing the industry together in a new way, all to help the most vulnerable children? You can’t put a number on that.

Join us in making a difference
We are now planning a Ride the Route Gala dinner for Spring 2023 to raise money while celebrating the success of the first event and bringing the industry together to support the 2023 York to Edinburgh ride planned for September.

If you would like to buy tickets for the gala dinner, volunteer as a planner, rider or support crew, or would like to explore corporate sponsorship, please email Mark Fielding-Smith at with the message title ‘Ride the Route 2023.

Mark Fielding-Smith is the National and Digital Services Director at Atkins. He has led multiple teams delivering digital transformation in Rail for over 25 years including digital signalling programmes in the UK and Europe. Mark brings perspective and experience from working with railway operators, systems integrators and signalling suppliers to help bring people together in delivering the national rollout of ETCS.