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Image of graphic recording of UK Rail Summit

Our Founder & Director, Jo Field went to the Transport Times UK Rail Summit on Tuesday 13 September. Here are the core themes and learnings that emerged from the day...

Three key issues examined

The UK Rail Summit aimed to explore three important industry issues: 

  • Is franchising working and is it possible to balance the competing objectives of the treasury and DfT?
  • Challenges facing Network Rail in increasing capacity and meeting the needs of the customer
  • Priorities for rail across the UK

Two core themes from the day

The two key themes that emerged from the day were collaboration and customer focus.

Other themes that came up were: 'political influence', 'no north / south divide', 'lessons from TfL' and 'improving gender balance.'

Secretary of State's keynote speech

The conference began with Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP, Secretary of State for Transport giving the keynote address. He noted that the railways have been in a constant state of change since the Second World War. He said privatisation was the most successful factor in stopping the railway's decline. The three key topics of today's event, he said, were the consequences of the rail industry's success. He continued that we are now experiencing a rail renaissance. There are more trains running than ever before. And most franchises are delivering for passengers and taxpayers. 

The Secretary of State acknowledged that the railway is operating on the edge of what it can cope with. As demand continues to rise, the Government is delivering the biggest modernisation programme for over a century.


The Secretary of State acknowledged we need more integration across the rail industry. He called for more collaboration with Network Rail, rolling stock companies, and train operators working as one team. He said the separation of track and train into different businesses was a mistake. And that's why the Government will continue to incentivise new franchises to form joint track and train teams. The Secretary of State said collaboration would also underpin Network Rail's devolution plans. Its route businesses could form partnerships with local train operators. He added, they don’t have to work for the same company or organisation, but they do have to work as a team to deliver for the customer.

Collaboration was a core theme throughout the day. Especially from the session on franchising. Most of the speakers in this session did not think the separation of track and trains was a mistake. But they acknowledged integration was a problem. A core theme was Network Rail and the train operating companies need to work better together to deliver for passengers

Customer focus

The shift towards a rail industry which focuses on the customer was also very clear. The Secretary of State noted this in his speech and it was also a key theme running throughout the day. Anthony Smith, Chief Executive of Transport Focus, noted that customers are generally happy with rail franchising. This is because franchises are delivering excellent customer satisfaction. He cited Heathrow Express, Hull Trains and Grand Central as examples.

And examples from Scotland and London show that rail devolution improves customer experience. John Provan from Transport Scotland noted Scotrail passenger satisfaction is higher than ever. And Mike Brown, Commissioner of Transport for London (TfL), said the Overground example shows that devolving responsibility for rail to local elected representatives gives better customer experience

Political influence

Another key theme was political influence. Politicians have huge influence on the invention, starting, stopping and building of rail. Speakers raised this throughout the day. It was thought the industry itself should have more influence on the schemes needed. There was also concern over funding. And planning for rail infrastructure needing to go beyond five year funding cycles.

No North / South divide

It was interesting, and may have surprised some delegates, to see that TfL and Transport for the North (TfN) had their messaging aligned. Both Mike Brown and David Brown, Chief Executive of TfN were crystal clear. We need an integrated programme of national rail infrastructure. This should include Crossrail 2 and Crossrail for the North. It's not an either / or debate. David Brown said TfN is about delivering for the North, not about competing with TfL.

Digital opportunity

In the Network Rail session, the overwhelming core theme was the opportunity of the digital railway. There was agreement over the need to use technology to increase capacity and run more trains on existing lines, to meet continued demand. Lee Jones from Amey cited the Northern line upgrade as an example of how it is possible to digitalise a railway without too much disruption on customers. Sir Peter Hendy CBE, Chair of Network Rail said making better use of technology to get more out of the existing system was essential.

Lessons from TfL

Sir Peter Hendy also said the demand for the railway is now so great it's like the demand on the London Underground. For this reason, he advocates running the railway more like a metro system. Sir Peter also noted the railway cannot operate a metro service using 19th century signalling systems. This is interesting because the Network Rail narrative is like TfL's narrative a few years ago. A need to upgrade ageing systems and make the most of technology to cope with increasing passenger demand. Some would say this is because Sir Peter used to head up TfL. But it shows the way TfL continues to lead the way on coming up with new and innovative ways to move masses of people with relative ease. David Brown of TfN also said he was learning from TfL.

Improving gender balance

Some speakers mentioned the need to improve gender balance in the sector. Mike Brown said the industry has to get better at attracting women and minorities. He said it’s morally wrong and we aren’t going to get the talent we need unless we crack this. Sir Peter Hendy said we're good at getting people to join the industry. But we need to get better at showing the opportunities for a lifetime of employment in the sector. He said the good work of Women in Rail and Young Rail Professionals needed to continue.

In the final session, I asked how we can get more women in transport, how we can keep them and get them into senior positions. The panel agreed that as an industry we all have a responsibility to make this happen. 

People, collaboration and rail

To sum up, I'm borrowing from Sue Kershaw, of KPMG, who chaired the final session. Sue summed up the event in three words, which I thought captured the essence of the day: people, collaboration and rail.

The two core themes for the day were collaboration and customer focus. It is all about people - the customers and also the people who work in the industry. And it's about collaboration and the whole industry working together to deliver for customers.
Thanks to Transport Times events for a good conference. The images are from the superb Gaz Roberts of Thick Black Line, who captured the essence of the day in graphics.