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A fresh start for rail: getting the UK railway industry back on track in 2024 Partner content
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Britain’s railways can help the economy grow

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Mark Phillips, Chief Executive Officer

Mark Phillips, Chief Executive Officer | Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB)

3 min read Partner content

Rail is not always top of a government’s to-do list. Yet, with over 680,000 responses, the ticket office consultation proves that access to a punctual and safe train service is higher on voters’ agenda than sometimes assumed. Indeed, if you want a growing economy with lower inflation and better-paid jobs, you need decent and reliable public transport and infrastructure. Britain’s railways can truly support national growth, but only if they are free to grow themselves.

There is still too much uncertainty about where rail goes from here. What is the role of the private sector in the future of passenger train operations? What does the railway look like in 30 years’ time? History shows us that it is during these periods of uncertainty and change when roles and responsibilities can become blurred. Risks and costs increase, accidents happen, while safety, health and morale can be compromised.

At RSSB our purpose is to provide independent and objective counsel to industry and government about the risks facing the railways and how best to address them. We generate efficiency by avoiding duplication and unnecessary cost to taxpayers and fare payers. We can also take weight off the shoulders of policy makers by helping industry manage its own direction while retaining independent, expert oversight.

Britain’s railways can afford to take back control in post-Brexit technical rail standards. We worked with policy makers to develop solutions which meet the requirements of both UK and EU regulation post-Brexit. These should now be converted into RSSB’s tried-and-tested industry standards regime, to enable rail to take back control of its own standards, while the state retains an accountable and objective oversight in RSSB. The result: red tape and costs removed, and a more responsive and adaptable industry that can meet the needs of passenger and freight customers.

Another area where industry is best suited to lead is anticipating and preparing for future risks. Our ‘Futures Lab’ is a new initiative to allow the private sector and the supply chain to look at challenges over a longer time horizon. There is limited headspace or bandwidth in the operational railway to truly capitalise on the strides made in data, artificial intelligence and blockchain, to name just three opportunities. We need to change that, or else miss out on the chance to generate more efficiency and growth in rail, or indeed waste time and money researching other things that yield no benefit.

Finally, it’s vital that rail is given the time and space to collaborate on shared risks. Industrial relations challenges are costly and take time away from the bigger challenges. Some pockets of progress have been made, but the trust bond with the workforce has been weakened. Minimum Service Level agreements have the potential to be as ineffective as they are divisive, particularly as the safety critical requirements are difficult to achieve. They can also affect the health and morale of the workforce.

Now is not the time to take our eye off safety, sustainability and health. With a forensic and independent focus on the right data, we can help keep trains moving and design better timetables. Traditional engineering assumptions can be challenged to allow faster and longer freight trains. We can reduce emissions, generate more network capacity, and we can improve the health and wellbeing of the workforce, which tackles the colossal costs of sickness and absence.

Rail has a critical role to play in growing, strengthening, connecting and decarbonising our economy, with immense social value and huge opportunities for young people and career-changers. Unlocking this potential is crucial, but needs to be achieved while also getting to grips with costs.

The country cannot afford to rely on a railway that is constantly leaning on government for the next move. There are bigger policy challenges elsewhere, so let’s encourage greater freedom, time and space for railways to seize their own opportunities, and help the UK grow and prosper.

For enquiries or more information please contact Alexi Ozioro, Head of Government Relations and Public Affairs, RSSB: alexi.ozioro@rssb.co.uk 

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