Perennial political uncertainty is used as an excuse to do nothing while civil servants gleefully shut the door on entreprenuers


They often say the best time to invest in shares is when the market has crashed and is at rock bottom. This was broadly my sentiment when, on Friday, just after having appeared live on BBC local radio trying to apologise for and explain the strike situation, I met a senior manager from a very big and impressive overseas transport company with one eye on the UK rail market. What I was telling him was doom-laden but also a great opportunity for his company to make an impact.

With decent government support, a company with a track record of success, fresh experience and ideas would do well over here, but what might put them off is the seemingly eternal paralysis and dilly-dallying that gets in the way of delivering a strategy for the rail industry. For over a year, I’ve been trying to pull together a consortium to bid for new Passenger Service Contracts as well as attract interest in other opportunities in the sector, including acquisitions, JVs and the like, not just from an operational, but also an infrastructure perspective. There’s been some interest from fresh faces, but they are put off by the lack of certainty, or even moderate clarity.

Therein lies the problem, in that traditionally those responsible for the direction of the UK rail industry seem to perceive that the almost stubborn slowness at which they operate – shuffling policy papers and documents back and forth, waiting for tectonic plates to shift elsewhere (as an excuse for their own inaction) – is a trait that is acceptable to those in the private sector, particularly those with a global lens and a pipeline of different opportunities that they can go for instead.

During the past week, the stultifying inertia has become even more intensely frustrating with speculation that legislation to confirm the existence of Great British Railways has been delayed even further and indeed the whole concept may never happen. Rumours also abound of a disconnect between the Department for Transport and the Treasury, which isn’t exactly helping the situation. GBR’s eloquent lead director, Anit Chandarana, spoke with extreme frustration about the potential impact of further uncertainty on the UK’s railway, whilst Rail Partners – the new UK trade body for private operators – seized the moment to urge greater involvement of the private sector. Meanwhile, when pointedly asked about the future of GBR, the DfT’s press statement notably referred to future investment in the railway and the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), which has increasingly seeped into railway rhetoric and is in danger of displacing GBR as the ‘go to’ panacea for the ills of the past and current set-up. So, if Williams-Shapps is no more, then we can start asking: “When’s the IRP being implemented?” A process that, like all these reviews and reports, can be strung out for years as a reason to postpone decisions and frustrate railway executives and serving as an excuse for the indolent and unaccountable among them to do diddly squat.

All this faffing around is deeply concerning and places the sector in an irrecoverable position

All this faffing around is deeply concerning and places the sector in an irrecoverable position. There are, as I’ve oft argued, few true leaders left in the industry – indeed, at the highest level, we’re placing almost all our hopes in the excellent messrs Hendy and Haines, but with each passing month or year, it becomes less likely that genuine change and the ascent of GBR will happen within their careers. At the level below, can we count on the continued goodwill of the TOC MDs – two of which told me last week they’d never ever felt so disenfranchised by the existing set-up and the DfT’s stranglehold? And below them, how sustainable is it for their lieutenants to have so little, if any, genuine autonomy?

What of the entrepreneurs out there? They don’t exist anymore and even if they did, they wouldn’t know where to go to present their idea with any confidence that the audience would have the clout or conviction to help make it happen. I’ve stumbled across two such examples in recent times. The first involved an excellent concept called Red Star, and a smart ticketing system linked to geo-fencing that enables price capping. It was formed by a consortium of the UK’s most entrepreneurial of operators in the modern era, Stagecoach and Virgin. In one of my roles, I was trying to help this see the light of day and watched the Red Star team and interested TOCs – MDs and directors with commercial and entrepreneurial acumen – thwarted with almost deliberate and gleeful pleasure by bureaucrats everywhere they turned. On one call I watched mid-ranking civil servants talked to them with such suspicion, contempt and disdain it made me question why I worked in the sector.

The second example of innovation being sapped into submission involved one of the more impressive entrepreneurs I have come across, a chap called John McArthur who co-founded AIM-listed technology and people business, Tracsis Group. John, IPO’ed Tracsis when he was just 32 and subsequently grew a tiny software business into a successful public company now worth almost £300m. He is also a proud Scot and a passionate advocate of the Forth Bridge and for 10 years, he has been trying to unlock an opportunity to transform it into a tourism attraction a la Sydney Harbour Bridge where folk can climb to the top and feast on panoramic views.

John was prepared to invest his own money and raise additional cash from the private sector to make this happen quickly and effectively. Moreover, he wanted all of the profits of such a venture (which would be considerable) to go to charitable causes. His experiences are typical of others I have spoken with; good ideas and sound strategy thwarted by blockers from all parts of the industry. Painstaking meetings of tut-tutting bureaucrats suspiciously giving reasons why it couldn’t happen, or – worse – saying it would be driven internally by the rail sector within “a few years”.

A decade on and nothing has changed. A Google search brings up The Forth Bridge Experience homepage but the last news update is from April 2017! Transport Scotland’s website says the initial proposals were raised in 2019 and the ‘full planning proposals’ will be submitted in 2022, so one wonders when or if anything will get built. I have John’s original slide deck in my possession and it’s dated June 2012!

That’s the lot of an entrepreneur or anyone who wants to create meaningful change, you come up against behaviours created by those who prefer to take a regular salary, coasting through their working hours, not needing to take risks. Their idea of making a decision is to kick it into the long grass or file it under ‘too difficult’. The industry and the cogs within it know that the annoying upstart behind it will eventually move on to annoy someone else.
There’s little space or outlet for entrepreneurs in today’s railway, despite all the job adverts, awards nights and trade press advertorials with corporate bigwigs wittering on about innovation. I love the phrase ‘innovation hub’ – it’s the new fad in town, companies have these ‘laboratories’ where ideas are spawned in a melting pot to change the nature of our industry. I ask you genuinely, have any of these actually created anything of material impact?

Can today’s entrepreneurs even be bothered with the rail industry to generate and execute their idea? Have they the persistence and patience to navigate their way through the labyrinth?

The problem, as I mentioned earlier, is that even if you had an idea or two, there is nowhere for it to be discussed and no-one in authority to sponsor it. Can today’s entrepreneurs even be bothered with the rail industry to generate and execute their idea? Have they the persistence and patience to navigate their way through the labyrinth? Can they bring themselves to face off with jealous jobsworths and their ‘not invented here’ eagerness to kill off concepts at inception?

For me, autumn is always my time to dream up ideas, to do something new, often as a means of refreshing my energy and motivation levels as the cricket season depressingly expires and the clocks go back. I’ve a few ideas that have been buzzing away in my head, some of which are about to get off the drawing board. These range from a prospect to transform and better market scenic services across transport, through to an idea around helping tackle the workplace reform conundrum in rail by creating privately funded social enterprises under a national support framework to run remote stations. I’m working with entrepreneurs to attract investment to acquire some companies, I’ve also an idea or two around mastering the multi-modal integration challenge and it’s my burning desire to bring together new customer-centric operators to bid for Passenger Service Contracts when they eventually emerge.

But, seriously, who would I present these concepts to in the industry and who could I count on to invest the time to genuinely help pull them together and the conviction to drive them through? Can I also count on the industry being quick enough before I run out of steam?

After the excitement of the supplier workshops and follow-up meetings a year ago, we’ve heard nothing about the Passenger Service Contracts and there are still fundamental and very basic unanswered questions about the format. I gather they’re going to be delayed by a further 12 months. Is it really that difficult to complete the specification and take it to market? After all, the concept itself seems uncontroversial. Can we just get on with it please?

I know I’m not renowned for being the sharpest tool in the box but I can’t get my head round the delay. I don’t buy this excuse around there being a new transport secretary. Why can’t we create strategies and reviews, such as the Williams-Shapps contribution that everyone agrees will not be so intrinsically linked to the author and his or her longevity in a role? There’s this fear of actually committing to a course of action because there might be a change of prime minister or government. There will always be reasons not to do something and we’ll always be in a state of interminable crisis.

Really, it’s down to a deep-set, instinctive malaise and intransigence that’s in-built into the way in which business – notably government and corporate activity – is undertaken

The problem is, indeed, cultural and the industry’s inability to be ‘completer finishers’. I accept there have been times in my career when I have been as guilty as most, but there’s many more CVs I stumble across with half-finished projects and initiatives, their incompletion blamed on some policy re-think or political situation. Really, it’s down to a deep-set, instinctive malaise and intransigence that’s in-built into the way in which business – notably government and corporate activity – is undertaken. It’s a mindset that has infected whole swathes of the decision-making population in industry, including rail.

The challenge we have though is that the situation really has never been bleaker. Rail’s best leaders are getting closer to retirement age or just becoming so fed up they are jacking it in. The emerging talent is operating in an environment bereft of any creative inspiration or without the foundations of clarity around the future strategy within which they are likely to function. Entrepreneurs have fled forever more or are prevented, inadvertently or otherwise, from pursuing their dreams and making a difference because of a culture that denigrates and stultifies their passion and the the absence of any structure and framework to help nurture, guide and bring to fruition their concepts. Meanwhile, new entrants have long become disengaged and they’ve moved on to bequeath their talents, resources and money on places and sectors that provide more inspiring and supportive landscape.

The vibe I’m getting from the industry right now is almost an indifference towards what might or might not be the right approach going forward. Is it private or public, or a mix of both? Should we have a national guiding mind at the centre? Is it right to have very defined, if not constrained concession-type contracts with no revenue risk for suppliers? We’ve almost got to a point of no return whereby folk have lost interest in what the future make-up of the industry will resemble; they just want to get on with it. Any action is better than none.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 29 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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