A blog by Anit Chandarana, Lead Director

6 April 2023

Anit Chandarana

Last week, I spoke at the Rail Industry Association’s Innovation Conference in Nottingham. It was a dynamic two-day event providing a welcome showcase for the many positive examples that demonstrate private sector entrepreneurialism is well, and truly alive and kicking – from One Big Circle Ltd's demonstration of their Automated Intelligent Video Review to Lumo’s chief executive explaining their innovative approach to open access operation. 

However, going into the conference I also knew that the perception from business leaders is that the current system hampers value for money and actually gets in the way of innovation. Indeed, when I asked the audience: what the barriers are to innovation, more than a third said ‘procurement’ – the top answer – which aligned to what the industry told us last summer. Namely, rail is too siloed, too slow and too prescriptive.

But the main aim of my speech was to get across an ambition for Great British Railways to become a great enabler for innovation in the sector. And of course, this is an area where rail has a proud and rich history of innovation. From the ultimate rail innovation, exported around the world, with the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825, and on to Stephenson’s Rocket.

More recently, we’ve seen rolling stock trialling innovative ‘tri-train’ technology such as hydroflex hydrogen to allow the use of electricity, battery or hydrogen. Likewise, the creation of a rail data marketplace by Rail Delivery Group has the potential to open up data by default and drive customer innovation from app developers or tech firms. In terms of infrastructure, we’ve seen huge and complex engineering projects such as the Eurotunnel or Crossrail, as well as ongoing works on High Speed 2 and the digitisation of the East Coast mainline.

So how will Great British Railways enable innovation?

Well firstly, as rail’s guiding mind, Great British Railways will be set up to take a joined-up view across track, trains, stations and talent. Lean at the centre, commercially minded and with an empowered local leadership to deliver a more reliable service. Crucially, its job will be to co-ordinate and to empower all parties to bring their best to the railway – not to control nor micro-manage.  

Secondly, we’ll bring a whole system thinking approach to decision-making across both track and trains, as well as revenue and cost. Currently, decisions about infrastructure and train operations are made in separate places – which is inefficient and does not deliver the full benefits of key infrastructure projects to customers. The supply chain has specifically identified this as an opportunity from an integrated system, not open to them in today’s industry.

My colleague Rufus Impey, GBRTT Lead Strategic Planner, had talked during a previous session about how the Battery Powered Trains pilot in Essex was a really challenging and not easily repeatable project within the fragmented industry structure. Crucially, Great British Railways will bring about improvements at scale that have a longer payback period, unlocking private sector investment and building stronger links with centres of industry.

Thirdly, and linked to the above point, we know that suppliers want clarity on rail’s strategic priorities. By publishing a long term strategy for rail before the end of the year, this will give clarity on rail’s strategic priorities and enable industry to invest over a longer period in areas like electrification, decarbonisation, digitalisation, and customer improvements.

Going a level deeper, Great British Railways will be able to create specific strategies in priority areas, to lay out what it is looking for in the long-term. For example, the freight strategy will look to increase the amount of goods transported by rail, bringing significant economic, environmental and social benefits.

The wider long term strategy will be a crucial enabler to innovation and investment by providing the clarity for the supply chain to understand what the industry needs to be successful and to help us deliver to the Government’s key strategic priorities.  

Fourthly, we hope to foster an even stronger role for the private sector across a wide number of areas, including operators, retail and capital delivery. This will deliver better value for money and unlock innovation. A guiding mind will have the scope, working with the private sector, to identify customer journey improvements and invest in technologies that leverage system-wide benefits.  

For example, open data can also support things like personalised live travel information. And by opening up this data by default, we know that we can stimulate innovation – across the whole system – in areas that Great British Railways can’t possibly control (nor would we want to).  

No single organisation can own innovation in rail, nor hold a monopoly on good ideas. And in my final closing remarks I wanted to stress how I envisaged Great British Railways becoming a positive enabling force for ever-greater innovation by taking a highly collaborative approach with the rail industry. 

On the very same day as my speech, we held a further Commercial Partnership Sounding Board, to test our emerging thinking with business leaders and hear their feedback on whether the changes we’re proposing will deliver greater value and innovation across the supply chain. 

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the supply chain community for engaging with our work to date and also, thanking RIA for facilitating this latest opportunity to engage at their innovation conference.