Why we should change our expectations of the GB rail industry

According to recently published Transport statistics of Great Britain, buses account for the majority of passenger journeys.

Of the 8.3 billion passenger journeys taken in 2013/14:

  • 63% was by Buses
  • 19% was by National rail
  • 15% was by Underground (London & Galsgow)
  • 3% was by Light rail and trams

However, in terms of passenger kilometres, out of a total of 102 billion passengers kilometres taken in GB in 2013/14:

  • 29% was by buses
  • 59% was by National rail
  • 10% was by Underground (London & Glasgow)
  • 1% was by Light rail and trams

When it comes to travelling to work in GB, the report tells us that:

  • 68% of people travel by car / van
  • 10% walk an average distance of 14 minutes (lucky devils!)
  • 9% travel by rail for an average of 1 hour
  • 7% travel by bus
  • 5% go by “other” means

In almost anyway you cut it, rail travel is to GB what “soccer” is to the USA – i.e. not mainstream to daily life, at least according to the stats above. However, when there is a problem on the rail network something curious happens. The challenges of the rail industry catapults to mainstream news exposure – significantly more than other modes of transport, or so it seems, and significantly more than belies its 19% passenger journey status. One only needs to look at the news coverage on the Xmas 2014 over-running engineering problems which affected Kings Cross station over the last couple of days and left chaotic scenes at Finsbury station as a case in point. As a rail user myself, I thoroughly empathise with stranded and irate passengers caught up in the Finsbury debacle on a freezing cold December day. Moments like these serve only to focus on our displeasure that we are not getting value for money, instead of on the mammoth operation that Network Rail put in place over the holiday period, to undertake complex engineering works which involved, in their own words , “an army of over 11,000 engineers working across 2,000 worksites on 300 projects in the biggest Christmas and New Year investment programme ever carried out on Britain’s rail network to ensure that rail infrastructure projects were completed on time for people to return to work today”.

The Network Rail  Chief (Mark Carne) has authorised an internal investigation into what went wrong. However, regardless of the specific findings of this specific case, it is clear from his statement that he knows there are things which need to change in the end to end process of delivering safe transportation. Says Mark Carne (the emphasis are mine):

“The events over the Christmas period highlighted the unacceptable impact on the travelling public when plans go wrong. I therefore propose that there should also be a broader, industry-widereview, into the timing of our major works programmes and the passenger contingency arrangements for such works. …… We have an obligation to manage the essential safety maintenance and renewal activity that is required and we need to do this in a manner that minimises the overall impact on society at large.”

He is absolutely right about a broader “industry-wide” review. However, I would go further and boldly suggest that this industry review encompasses the transport industry, not just the rail industry (complex as it is). I say this because, as the stats above shows, all modes of transport are in the same business ultimately – i.e. of moving passengers and providing benefits to society. As such all are inter-connected and interdependent on one another. We need to insist on a change whereby hitherto vertical transport silos /divisions (i.e. rail, bus, plane, etc) are encouraged to plan, communicate and deliver its major works within a wider horizontal transport context which ultimately impacts and delivers benefits to the same wider stakeholders – the taxpayers and paying public and society. I call this the RIBS factor – where:

  • R – Risks and Issues identification and management ,
  • I –  Interdependencies and Impact analysis ,
  • B – Benefits realisation; and
  • S – Stakeholders and Society impacted

We all know that only a mad person does the same thing over and over again and expects a different result and yet we seem to be comfortable with our modes of transport divisions working in silos in a period of significant investments on our transport infrastructure whilst expecting that nothing will go wrong.


I hope Mark Carne gets collective support for his wider industry review and I also hope this review will seriously explore opportunities for the proactive involvement of society/ stakeholders in decisions rather than just a passive one. For example, wouldn’t it be great if society and employers start exploiting the full capabilities and benefits of mobile computing/ mobile working and technology to alleviate the pressures on peak periods on our transport network and thereby challenge the mentality that dictates that all transport maintenance and renewal projects (roads and rail) have got to be squeezed into narrowly defined windows (Xmas and Easter for the rail industry) which only increases the possibilities of failures? Wouldn’t this new way of thinking create a win-win for people, businesses and public funds?

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