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Public transport is at a crossroads: How the rail industry should be responding to the issues that are shaping the future.

Posted May 25, 2023

Neil Thought Leadership Campaign2

With nearly 30 years’ experience working in the transport and logistics sector, our Chief Operating Officer, Neil Micklethwaite sat down to share his insight and expertise, discussing the challenges and opportunities facing the rail sector today – and what he thinks should be done to enable positive change.

Neil, what are you most passionate about within the rail sector?

Rail was my first job. I was the last intake of British Rail’s management training scheme and I think you always hold a passion for your first role.

I inherently believe in public transport as being a good thing – it supports national, regional and local economic growth – both direct and indirect, it connects people to their place of work, their friends and families, it brings communities together and it is the most sustainable mode of transport.

What do you want to change?

I would like to see the railway operate for the good of the customers it provides a service for, and to connect those communities. Right now, it appears in a real state of flux and doesn’t appear to quite know its place.

In a modern/post covid world where many businesses across all sectors have morphed into being even more customer focused, the railway appears to be a bit stuck and stands on the precipices of remaining relevant – when it should be absolutely relevant.

What do you have to say that is unique to this industry/audience and that is unique and valuable to them?

The railways can be key to drive economic growth and ensure communities are physically linked together in a sustainable way – I think they are unique in this.

Right now, public transport is at a key crossroads.

Firstly, the challenge; Passenger journeys are not back to the levels seen pre-pandemic and therefore the growth projections of only 5 years ago are somewhat unlikely now.

Now the opportunity; The argument for public transport versus the private vehicle from an environmental perspective is overwhelming and rail still takes a relatively small proportion of journeys. The potential for taking more share of the private car is significant, however, if the customer proposition is not right – then customers will vote with their feet. Not travelling at all must now be the major competitor?

What specific ideas, areas or solutions do you champion or would like to champion in the rail industry?

I have championed Community Rail Network (formerly ACoRP) all my career, supporting and ensuring the growth of community railways to support local communities – I am pleased to say that both CMAC Group and SLC Rail (the latter for which I am a NED) are both now corporate partners of CRN.

I have led projects on ticketing and retail simplification when I worked in the industry, however, due to the fractured nature of the industry – achieving anything on a grand scale was virtually impossible.

However, now with the government underpinning all revenue and costs – this should be much more achievable and also with passenger numbers not where they were, surely the time is right to try something different?

What is your opinion on the ongoing strike action?

Denying the public the opportunity to get to work, and see their friends and family is not something I want to see.

I do not know enough about the intricacies of the current dispute; however, rail modernisation is critical as all other industries have done it, particularly to survive post pandemic and in a world of lower passenger revenues when the railway is on that precipice of relevance, appears odd. The right to strike exists and surely a solution must be found.

Aside from the rail strikes, what other key topics are being discussed currently in the industry?

The drive to make rail even more sustainable. As technology evolves rapidly across other transport sectors, it is absolutely critical that the rail industry establishes ways to keep up with these advances, otherwise, it will be left behind by the climate-conscious generation of travellers.

Many rail companies across the globe are developing sustainable procurement strategies to deliver change - Network Rail is a great example of a UK organisation working hard to do this. Network Rail has a robust 30 year plan to not only manage their own impact, but also influence change across their entire supply chain – with clear targets and objectives.

Simplifying access is another key topic in the industry - whether that be easier ticketing or physical access to the trains and stations. There is opportunity here to significantly elevate the customer experience, before, during and after the journey. If you make the railway simpler to access for those people who have physical, or invisible disabilities, it will make it easier for everyone.

Extending contactless and pay-as-you-go systems to more parts of the country would remove the overcomplicated approach we currently have in place – and create better efficiency for the traveller of today. However, making the actual network simpler to access with simpler and more affordable fares has to be the answer – yet progress appears slow.

How does CMAC fit into this picture?

CMAC provides train crews with the safest way to travel to/from to ensure they are not fatigued, and this is a model that should be adopted by other industries.

CMAC connects all modes of transport together, joining up journeys between bus, train, private car and plane – and is the first port of call for when things don’t go to plan, ensuring that the transport industries’ customers get to their final destination when their first mode has unfortunately not been able to deliver on that occasion.

We are a people based, customer focused business, that constantly creates new ideas. The culture is one of ‘there is no such thing as failure, there is learning’. Our business is growing quickly, based upon its high-quality people, tallied with its extremely tech-enabled platforms, that are built with its customers in mind. I want CMAC’s legacy to be one of “we were successful, because we did awesome things for our customers and our own people”.

Where do you see the industry heading in the next 5-10 years?

I think the entire rail industry is at a crossroads of extreme challenges, yet exciting opportunities. However, it needs to determine its future more quickly than it currently is, as the relevance window is starting to close, as that new competitor of the ‘not travelling’ is more significant now than it was pre-pandemic.

I 100% believe in the rail sector, it was my first love, and you never forget your first love and always hope they do well, even if you have moved on!

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