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Old Challenges - New Solutions: 20 years of improving our railways

Mark Phillips, Chief Executive Officer

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

3 min read Partner content

Twenty years ago, the Rail Safety and Standards Board was born.

When we were founded, Britain’s rail industry was very different. The Ladbroke Grove crash in 1999 was one of the country’s worst train accidents, and RSSB’s creation was a direct recommendation from Lord Cullen’s wide-ranging inquiry, as part of separating the setting of standards, investigation of accidents, and regulatory functions for rail. It proved a turning point.

Since 1999 Britain’s railways have enjoyed a lot of success; becoming the fastest growing and safest railway in Europe, with rail journeys doubling over 20 years. By the mid 2010s the UK was experiencing the largest shift by passengers to rail from other modes. 1.8 billion trips were made by more than 8 million people in the last year before the pandemic. Together with the wider supply chain, the UK rail sector supports tens of billions of Gross Value Added to the economy, helps promote social mobility and brings opportunity to deprived communities.

But there have been challenges too. The railways have experienced varying levels of state and private sector intervention, fluctuating economic health, accidents have not been consigned to history yet and, of course, the Covid pandemic. Rail has not always been prepared or resilient enough to manage climate change and extreme weather events. Many people feel rail doesn’t offer the frequency, reliability or price that they need. We are still working to adapt to new travel patterns, with commuting at roughly 60% of pre-pandemic levels but leisure travel is over 120%.

RSSB has been by industry’s side through both the good and bad times, as a dynamic, impartial link between innovation, standards and safety. We ensure that knowledge gaps are addressed, new technology can be operated safely and efficiently, that innovation benefits the industry and passenger, and that best practice is codified and shared. With no commercial interest in the underlying data, we can offer independent knowledge of all rail systems and their interfaces.

Our research has allowed existing and new vehicles to operate at different speeds on the same track, optimising journey times and maximising route capacity. Our revised standards for AC electrification have the potential to save over £700million over the next 25 years. This is mainly by reducing costs in the design, construction and maintenance.

Our insights and analysis have helped put rail at the cutting edge of health and wellbeing practice. We’ve started a programme to gather consistent sustainability-related data from across the industry, and our Rule Book ensures industry knowledge is reliably applied in train operations and maintenance.

The railways have a critical role to play in growing, 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 cost.

We’re enhancing our data science abilities with new datasets, like weather data, to model how the changing climate will affect fixed assets. We have access to more data than any other rail organisation, and are working with academia to lay the groundwork for blue-sky innovations.

As industry embarks on a period of change, we will ensure we can play our part in enabling the public policy agenda, whatever the party in government, maintaining our role as an independent, objective counsellor to efficiency for the future.

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Read the most recent article written by Mark Phillips, Chief Executive Officer - Bring back belief to Britain’s railways

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