Five years ago this month the Government set the rail industry a challenge. A challenge which also provided great opportunity.
Sir Roy McNulty’s report launched in May 2011 Realising the Potential of GB Rail was a document which outlined opportunities for cost savings to create a sustainable rail industry future. But it naturally opened up bigger areas of focus around advancement in rail innovation and technology.
Developments in the area of information systems and innovative ways of improving customer experience, such as online retail options and real-time Passenger Information Systems (PIS), were also explored.
The McNulty report captured the need to create sustainable solutions for the rail industry if it was to continue growing at the pace it hitherto had done.
And many of the challenges McNulty set out (such as of cost reductions, technical integration and innovation growth) remain as important today as they were five years ago.
There has undoubtedly been some progress over the past five years and the efforts of the Government and partners have all played an important role in this. Other areas have proved more challenging to develop due to the complexity of the industry. For instance, McNulty’s call for the successful creation of a team to lead a substantial programme of change or the implementation of more integrated whole system approaches (p.10) have not been fully realised.
As an industry, we could argue this is perhaps where the main challenges still remain – in leadership, integration and collaboration. Nomad Digital is keen to rise to the McNulty challenge, working with technology partners, train and freight operating companies, Network Rail and Government to bring the benefits of technology and innovation to the UK rail industry.
For this reason we recommend that any such strategic initiative ‘to lead a substantial programme of change’ should be part of the Rail Supply Group (RSG) activity as set out in ‘Fast Track to the Future’ as it has strong cross-industry support.
We know that many of our customers share this desire for change. In fact many of the operators we work in partnership with are driving forward innovative thinking to help further improve their relationships with their passengers. Some operators we are talking to are sharing their vision of developing their own applications that sit on our connectivity solution — for example one has developed on-seat ordering for catering.
What we see from our customers is a common theme - the desire to tangibly improve the passenger experience through bringing new market-leading products and services to their customer base as well as improving the availability and reliability of their fleets, and so indirectly improving the passenger experience still further.
The last five years have seen the rapid improvement of communications, not least in the roll out of 4G communications and similar advances in the associated technologies. While the UK industry has seen rapid advances in train design and train technology, there has been relatively slow acceptance of new communication technologies. Trains are lighter, more energy efficient, but beyond that…?
While to the best of our knowledge there is little evidence to suggest anyone is talking to the developers of 5G networks about UK rail and the unique benefits that it will bring—and it is not so far away!
Rolling stock is still being ordered with no internet backbone, no WiFi technology and no intelligent PIS. The DfT has a great opportunity to influence the inclusion of an IP backbone in the train build. Some train builders are leading the way by already doing this, with the UK-built Hitachi Rail Europe Intercity Express fitted out with our IP backbone and Remote Online Condition Monitoring (ROCM) solution to allow the extraction of data, enabling intelligent fleet management.
And UK ROSCOs are investigating how they monitor older fleets to provide operators with real-time information on train performance, to facilitate significant savings.
The challenge we are faced with is that no-one in the UK rail industry has yet quite seen the holistic picture of cost-benefits through ROCM, with enhanced passenger experience impacting on increased passenger revenues.
Working together is always going to aid efforts. One of the key ways the Government can contribute to the agenda is by encouraging businesses to collaborate. Collaboration will be crucial to future success through a much wider use of partnerships. What we are doing with Nomad Tech, our partnership with EMEF (the Portuguese rolling stock maintenance company) is testament to this. As a global business we can influence and learn from partners from Denver to Delhi; Melbourne to the Midlands. And many of our peers in the technical arena are equally partnering with operators and maintainers to ultimately benefit the end user.
We believe that the industry in its entirety has a golden opportunity to work much closer together to produce a truly world-beating package of innovative products to take the UK into the position as a leading technology hub. Innovation and collaboration will be key to ensuring the next five years are even more productive than those since McNulty’s report.