The Sleeper's Blog


How can UK rail become a global leader?

Alison Dervis, EY director, explains why more diverse thinking, innovation and industry collaboration will help deliver transformative change to the railway industry.

From late Georgian steam engines, to the multibillion-pound civil engineering projects of modern day, Britain’s railways have a legendary and inspiring tale to tell of technological revolution, societal change and economic growth. That legacy continues today, but is under increasing pressure due to growth in demand and expectations far exceeding the pace at which the industry can modernise.   

The growing economic power of cities and the accompanying demand for infrastructure is one of the key factors of today’s global economic and political landscape. In the UK, the role of the regions and cities in driving UK-wide balanced growth has never been more important, and the recent Industrial Strategy is a positive commitment of the UK Government to boost productivity across the whole country.

However, in the last three years little progress has been made in the reduction of geographic imbalances between the south of England and the rest of the UK. While there are some positive and encouraging signs, the most recent EY UK Regional Economic Forecast showed that rebalancing is a more significant and complex challenge than previously considered, and requires radical thinking.

With 66% of the world’s population predicted to live in cities by 2050, it is clear that cities need effective infrastructure investment and sound planning if they are to remain competitive, resilient and an attractive place to live, work and do business in.

Competition between the regions for talent and investment is set to intensify. Slow, inefficient, and unreliable transport networks damage businesses, tourism, quality of life and a region’s reputation. Finding ways of developing our railways and wider transport system to cope with the growing demands of increasing city populations is a key priority for all regions.

It is therefore very encouraging to see record levels of funding committed to UK rail in recent years, driving the largest railway modernisation programme in more than 100 years and providing the potential to drive regional economic growth and increase national productivity.

While there is much to celebrate about the UK railway industry, there is more that can be done to improve performance, customer experience, sustainability, investment and export opportunities – all of which will be key to delivering long-term benefits to citizens, businesses and government. Small step-changes are unlikely to be enough to push UK rail back to the front of the pack on the global stage. Now is the time for more radical and accelerated innovation, and industry-level transformational change.

We need fresh ideas and approaches introduced at a faster pace in order to prevent UK rail from falling behind other countries. Greater customer focus and diversity in leadership and project teams will help achieve this – by bringing a wide variety of perspectives, experience and opinion to deliver a modern railway fit for the modern world.

Innovation must be at the heart of the railway, from the creation and application of new technologies to the way in which projects are run, managed and delivered. Innovation has the potential to decrease costs and carbon footprint while also increasing capacity and customer experience.

How an individual moves around and connects, and the quality of their access to economic and social opportunities, is ultimately what matters. Mobility shapes access to people, goods, information and services. The more efficient this access, the greater the economic benefits through economies of scale, networking gains and reduced opportunity costs. This contributes to higher GDP and productivity.

Behaviour is critical to mobility. People expect technology to help give them more convenient and cheaper ways to get around. Congestion and dissatisfaction among transport users suggest a clear opportunity to make a change. The proliferation of smartphones is an example of a key influence that should inform transport planning. This means a transport system that is not only integrated, but interactive. With individuals hyper-connected through social and digital channels, the same approach needs to be taken to policy around mobility. Citizens want intuitive, spontaneous interaction, and this extends to transportation.

There is a huge opportunity for the UK rail industry to push ahead as a global leader to deliver the best possible service to its people and drive local and national economic growth, but this will require commitment from all industry stakeholders to this shared vision. It will become a reality by embracing more diverse thinking and a relentless focus on innovation and creating the conditions for innovation success.



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