The UK rail industry is going through a period of substantial change. Facing as many challenges as it is, the sector needs dynamic and capable leadership to set it on the right trajectory and ensure that it is truly fit for the future.

This includes ensuring that the network is able to handle the continued growth in passenger numbers that’s expected over the coming years, as well as making the railways a more diverse place to work – and truly representative of the public it serves in all its diversity.

While this might sound like a daunting undertaking, particularly for interim executives who are only likely to be in post for a fixed period, there is growing demand for interim leaders in the UK rail sector. In this post, we’ll look at some of the main reasons why – and suggest how you can get ahead.

The uncertain political outlook

One of the main factors driving demand for interim executives in UK rail is the impending general election. The incumbent UK government must call a general election by January 2025, but most observers believe that it will take place a few months early – probably this autumn.

Needless to say, given that the UK rail network is dependent on government support – and several franchises are now operated by Directly Operated Holdings Limited on behalf of the UK government – this creates something of a vacuum. It may then become more challenging for companies in the industry to employ new executives in a permanent role, because it’s harder to predict just what the future might hold for UK rail.

The Labour Party, which is currently way ahead in the opinion polls, has indicated that it will nationalise the UK rail system if it forms the next government. This has compounded the uncertainty facing the industry, as it is unclear whether existing franchises have a long-term future.

While Labour has confirmed that it will not extend HS2 from Birmingham – cancelled by the Conservative government last year – many in the industry will be waiting to see what the party has in store for investment in other rail projects, particularly in the North and Midlands.


UK rail’s transitional period

Even leaving the possibility of nationalisation to one side, the UK rail sector is already going through a crucial transition period. It is faced with a number of problems it must solve and hurdles to overcome if it is to put itself on a firm footing for the medium to long term.

In particular, the industry faces a burgeoning skills shortage, an ageing workforce and a deficit of young recruits coming through to replace those approaching retirement. This has left the UK’s rail industry in a difficult situation.

Part of the sector’s struggle to attract younger workers is connected to its image problem. Specifically, that it’s seen by many younger people, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds such as women and minorities, as an unwelcoming place to work.

In fact, UK rail firms are already making concerted efforts to change this and attract more people from underrepresented demographics. But it will take diverse leadership – including interims – to help it reach out to more recruits from these backgrounds.


The need for adaptable leadership

Taking all these challenges into account, and the relatively short time which the industry has to take decisive action, the need for adaptable leaders is paramount. UK rail needs leadership-level talent that can come into an organisation and get to grips with the complexities involved quickly.

This is why interim executives are now so sought-after by the UK railway industry. Interim leads can be brought in to oversee specific projects or for certain periods of time, allowing organisations to bolster their talent pool and fill leadership gaps to meet their changing business needs.

However, this means that it takes a certain kind of candidate to succeed as an interim. In particular, they need to be able to take on a complex, demanding brief and devise a concrete, practical plan for addressing these challenges, all within a limited period of time.


How to get ahead as an interim in UK rail

If you’re new to the interim field, or you’re looking to make a move into the rail sector for the first time, you might be wondering where to start. Of course, a lot of skills needed as an interim – adaptability, the ability to network and strong leadership skills, for instance – are transferable from other industries.

Indeed, being able to build a strong network is crucial if you’re going to succeed as an interim in UK rail. Attend industry conferences and other events, participate in seminars, join professional organisations and generally put yourself out there. This can help you make very useful contacts. Be active on LinkedIn, too, and make yourself visible to prospective employers in the industry.

You’ll also need to be able to demonstrate specialist knowledge and expertise in areas which are particularly relevant to rail industry employers. Be sure to highlight relevant successes in your previous track records and show how you achieved measurable outcomes.

Perhaps most important of all, you must be able to cultivate strong relationships in the sector. This is, again, a transferable skill, at least to a large extent. Effective communication and interpersonal skills are always valued in interim leadership – but you’ll need to demonstrate a thorough understanding of the specific challenges facing rail and how you can help prospective employers deal with them.


At Intuitive, our expert team help connect talented, diverse interim leadership candidates with forward-thinking employers in the UK transport industry. Get in touch with us today to discuss your career plans and learn how Intuitive can help get you on the right track.

WE would love to get to know you!

Please do give us a call, drop us a message or follow us on Twitter & Linkedin!

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