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07.11.16

Paul Maynard: Time to innovate

Source: RTM Oct/Nov 16

Though the rail industry faces many challenges in the coming years, it will also have unprecedented opportunities to innovate and evolve. And that is exactly what Paul Maynard MP, the DfT’s new rail minister, wants to focus on.

‘Innovation’ is one of those words that’s used far too frequently in our modern world. Companies employ innovation managers while politicians give speeches on innovation nations. Tap ‘books on innovation’ into your internet search engine and you are rewarded with 116 million results. Today, innovation appears to be the norm, which is precisely the opposite of its real meaning. 

And there’s another irony. Ask people which industries they see as the most innovative, and the same answers crop up – IT, aerospace and defence among them. By comparison, the pace of change in rail is perceived as painfully slow. Critics may claim – not without justification – that the speed, frequency and comfort of train journeys haven’t progressed much in 80 years. 

Yet the truth is more complex. Firms like Google and Apple have grown up fast in a highly innovative market. While in rail, shrinking for decades and only opened up to competition in the 1990s, change has not been part of the culture. 

Nevertheless, the progress made by the railway over the past 20 years has been remarkable. Journeys have doubled since privatisation, and more trains are running than ever before. The railway has moved from a position of managed decline to one of extraordinary growth. 

To grow, rail must transform 

To do that, it has had to innovate. For example, track and train operators are working more closely together, and franchises are now investing considerable funds to improve services while reducing the burden on the taxpayer. The new Northern and TransPennine franchises will oversee £1.2bn of funding, while East Anglia will introduce British-built carriages providing faster services, more seats and free wi-fi. 

We want to encourage further improvements during the lifetime of a franchise. That’s why we are leading the Innovation in Rail Franchising programme with support from partners like the RSSB, and are now into the third year of Train Operator Competitions, which invite franchises to bid for money to finance particularly creative and novel projects. Last year’s £6m award benefitted new technologies to personalise travel information for passengers, to allow ticket payment using smartphones, and to help rail staff deal with disruptions and overcrowding. 

We’ve also set up a pilot innovation fund through FutureRailway to bridge the gap between research and bringing new technologies to the market. Our £30m investment has been matched to create a near-£60m fund to help a wide range of projects, from systems that remotely monitor the condition of the network to ultra-light rolling stock. 

Anticipating problems at a faster pace 

I want the rail industry to show that true innovation is about pre-empting problems which may not yet exist. We have known for a long time about smart and contactless ticketing technologies, for example. Yet the pace of delivery has been disappointing. Part of the problem has been the fragmented structure of the railway. So working across boundaries is a pre-requisite for innovation today. 

In an era when the railway is a mass transit system used by millions every day, the industry needs to recruit people with a wide range of abilities and experience beyond traditional requirements. It needs to offer brilliant catering and on-board services. It needs to use cutting-edge tools to analyse passenger flow in crowded environments. And it needs to spearhead use of mobile and data technologies to transform the way the railway is used and managed. 

Having a long-term innovation strategy is vital. But the most important priorities for the railway are to increase capacity and tackle overcrowding, reduce costs so fares can come down, and further improve rail’s environmental performance while maintaining safety and security. These are the main challenges to be met through innovation. 

Moving onwards 

Important progress is being made. But as the new rail minister, I’m conscious that there’s still a lot to improve. For example, recent performance on the Southern network has been unacceptably poor, exacerbated by futile union strikes. It’s passengers who are suffering, while the operator is attempting to improve on-board service. It’s equally crucial that passengers are able to find and buy the right tickets for their journeys at the best price. And when things go wrong, the railway has to do a better job of communicating with passengers and compensating them quickly. I will be working with operators to make sure these objectives are met. 

But if we face challenges over the coming years, we also face unprecedented opportunities. The record investment, new technologies, and expanded infrastructure are all essential. But it is by building a culture that is open to change, and focused relentlessly on the customer, that the railway will show itself to be truly innovative.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com

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