Tomorrow’s Rail 2015

Well, what a day …

A few months’ ago I was musing that I hadn’t done any serious networking recently and ought to seek out a really interesting, high profile event where I would learn something and meet some fascinating people … and along came an advert in one of the journals for ‘Tomorrow’s Rail Conference’.

When you are running a small business based in Lancashire, the decision to spend money on a Conference, and the train fare to London, and the hotel the night before, takes some consideration, and that’s even before you think about the ‘opportunity cost’ of being away from your desk and inaccessible by phone for a full day…

I can honestly tell you, that the Tomorrow’s Rail Conference was worth every penny, and every minute of my time today …. And reminded me at every turn of the reason why I love working in this industry.

So, first off (after Pete Waterman’s introduction to the day) was Mark Carne, CEO of Network Rail, giving the audience the rationale and background to the Digital Railway. He quoted his new Chairman, Peter Hendy, as saying that ‘Mark is a nice bloke, who talks a lot about this digital railway but no-one listens as they just want to know when he’s going to sort out London Bridge’ … which I think is a pertinent point. I have heard Carne speak on a few occasions but today there was a step change in his confidence, in his candour and in his ability to ‘sell’ the idea to the audience. He believes in it, and by the time he left the stage, I believed in it, and in him, a whole lot more than I did before …

He gave us a long list of what NR has achieved, explained the ‘devolved route’ model and also provided evidence that adopting the LEAN principles used so successfully in the automotive sector, really works. He is under no illusions that there are challenges to face, but was also able to quote statistics from other industries (Heathrow, Digital Air Traffic Control increasing capacity by 60%) to support the drive forward to the Digital Railway.

I realise that I might be out of step here – but honestly, I may well have changed my mind about this chap…

Next to take the stage was Tim Shovellor, MD of Southwest Trains who has recently been in the industry news due to the ‘change in status’ of the Alliance with Network Rail.

Tim made it very clear from the outset though that he was there representing the Rail Supply Group, and to talk to us about the activities undertaken by the RSG. I would summarise this as being focused around supporting an ‘industry strategy’ which spans 10-15 years and being the catalyst for the capture of best practice in the industry, as well as learning from other industries.

And speaking of other industry sectors, enter Mike Kean, Business Development Director at Abellio, who hails from the Water sector originally. Mike shared his views, and experience, in relation to ‘tomorrow’s rail’ in the form of technology that supports the enhancement of customer experience and the trends emerging in relation to what our customers expect.

What was particularly interesting to me was the reference to Daniel Kahneman’s Peak-End Rule (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak–end_rule) – an effective use of human psychology to enhance the customers’ experience of the railway. This is particularly pertinent when considering Station strategy – the beginning and end of a train journey – which is becoming of increasing importance.

Chris Sexton was next up, the first of a number of speakers who gave us the update on Crossrail. Chris is the Technical Director for Crossrail, and one of the best speakers I have come across in recent years. Crossrail is now entering its ‘second half’, and is on time and within budget for completion in December 2018. It was clear from Chris’ presentation that there is a great pride in keeping the programme ‘within the cost envelope’ despite the suppliers bidding for their contracts in more austere times. There has clearly been some strong examples of partnership working going on behind the scenes.

Alison Munro, MD of HS2 then opened her speech with a slide on ‘Britain’s Two Speed Economy’ – a comparison in GVA per hour worked for London (£37.10) and the North West (£25.50), emphasising the need for improved connectivity and capacity on our rail network which will not only impact passenger transport but will also take 500,000 HGV lorries off the motorways every year due to opening up new Freight paths on the rail network.

I thought that Alison made a good case, and presented us with positive view of the future … what a shame she was hijacked in a most unprofessional manner by the representatives of an alternative High Speed organisation during the Q&A panel. At one point, I thought Kirsty Wark was going to be forced to bring out her referee’s whistle … On the first day of The Ashes, it just wasn’t cricket.

Tim Embley from Costain was speaking about Skills & Innovation – “we need skilled people that can innovate” – and questioning whether we are really making the most of the resources available to us in terms of our people assets. Tim introduced Lydia Walpole, who is a Chartered Civil Engineer – and it was great to see her up on stage, talking about major projects she is involved with, and doing so with energy, passion and enthusiasm.

After a delightful lunch, we went all hi-tech by linking up with Andy Byford via Skype, who has had a truly global rail career, including stints with Southern, South Eastern and London Underground in the UK. Andy talked us through some of the challenges he has faced in his role as CEO at Toronto Transit Commission – and how much best practice he has been able to bring from his time with UK Rail. Chris Burchell (Managing Director, UK Trains for Arriva) got a name check from his time at Southern in relation to supporting employees to think like a customer, and Andy stressed the importance of having a much more proactive approach to social media (sharing both bad and good news) rather than adoping the preferred ‘siege mentality’ of head down, and hope it goes away!

I was particularly looking forward to hearing from Howard Collins, CEO of Sydney Trains but perhaps better known to us as the person who led London Underground and London Rail towards tremendous operational success in the 2012 London Olympics, for which he received his OBE. I only know Howard through reputation, and he didn’t disappoint – what an energetic, humorous and positive person. I do hope we get chance to get him back to the UK before he hangs up his hi-viz & hard hat …

His overall message was ‘PEOPLE’ – it’s all about the people, and this is music to my ears. I am a big advocate of the Service Profit Chain (https://hbr.org/2008/07/putting-the-service-profit-chain-to-work) , and whilst Howard didn’t refer to this model specifically, the fact that he recognised the value of keeping the staff, and the customers at the centre of the business, suggests to me that we are on the same page.

His parting shot to the audience, representing UK Rail today, was to ‘feel proud of what you do, because you do deliver – just get on with it’…

Michele Dix, MD of Crossrail 2 gave a detailed overview of where that project is up to, and her plans for the future. It’s a compelling argument which makes perfect sense – even to a Northerner – and apparently, they can self fund 50% of it, so all the better.

Amanda White was part of the same session, representing Transport for Greater Manchester in her role as Head of Rail. Amanda gave the audience the update on transport in the North, including references to RailNorth, Transport for the North and the Greater Manchester Devolution.

I have been aware of Mike Brown, MD London Underground, for a while and have wanted to meet up with him … after seeing him on his feet today, I am going to make it my mission to secure a meeting! Focused, passionate and absolutely committed to driving continuously improving service at LU, with a keen sense of humour added in. A great speaker.

A Q&A panel followed with Councillor Liam Robinson making a strong case for the North West, in particular his consituency in Merseyside, joined by Colin Standbridge, CEO of the London Chamber of Commerce and Stephen Joseph,Executive Director of the Campaign for Better Transport.

Linda McCord, Passenger Manager for Transport Focus (the ‘new’ Passenger Focus) provided a comprehensive presentation on the ‘fares miasma’ and the importance of giving passengers what they want, not what we think they want. I thought it was particularly useful to view this as ‘my journey’ and not ‘the journey’, in a world where everything is becoming personalised why should your train journey be any different?

Peter Rayner joined the stage, in his capacity as Chair of the Accessibility and Inclusion Forum, CILT – and also with his experience of serving as a transport adviser to the National Pensioners Convention (amongst others). Peter was keen to stress that, amongst a host of presentations throughout the day talking about the future of rail being inextricably linked with technology, there are some passengers who are simply not ‘tech-savvy’ and we must not forget these in our eagerness to innovate. It has to be simple, and easy to use.

For the final slot of the day, Kirsty Wark stepped in to the role of Question Time Host – with an esteemed panel including Sir John Armitt, Richard Price (CEO, ORR), Jim Steer (SDG), Paul Nowak (TUC) and Christian Wolmar (writer and broadcaster).

I took my opportunity to ask the panel for their views on how we attract talent in to the Rail industry, which is the UK’s greatest secret in terms of an exciting, challenging and rewarding place to work! No ‘holy grail’ responses, but may be that’s not what we need … perhaps we just need to get better at blowing our own trumpets about the positive aspects of Rail, the achievements we make and the challenges we are facing for the future in order to make it a more compelling career choice for young people?

All in all, a really valuable day – superb organisation, high level and interesting speakers, and a good crowd of peers to network with over coffee break and lunch. I shall look forward to next year’s event …