Putting Rail Staff at the Heart of the Industry’s Future

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Our ‘Over the horizon’ series brings together experts and rail professionals from different backgrounds to discuss important issues for the future of our industry. Last autumn we looked at automation, and for our second series, we have chosen another vital topic for the sustainability and continued success of the railway. That is, how we will attract, retain and develop rail talent to deliver our vision of the future railway, and meet the capacity and productivity challenges that lie ahead.

The Rail Technical Strategy sets out a vision for the future of our industry: a future where the railway is highly automated, accessible and data driven, and where the services for passengers and freight are personalised, continuously adapting and improving.  To deliver this we need talented people who are capable of thinking about the railway as an integrated transportation system, are curious and enjoy working with new technology, and who are keen to develop themselves as the system develops.


Demand for rail transport is projected to keep growing in the coming decades. Yet our ability to deliver a rail system that meets future growth requirements is under threat.  Our ageing population, the under-representation of women in the rail workforce, fierce competition from other sectors to attract skilled employees and fast-paced technological change all threaten to deprive us of the quantity and quality of people we need.  Unless we change the way in which we develop and invest in rail talent, our industry is heading towards a significant skills shortage.

Investing in rail talent means many different things.  It can mean enhancing our ability to attract new talent.  The rail industry must be fully aware of the skills gap it faces and act now to start bridging that gap.  We must promote an industry image that excites future job seekers and meets their expectations.

Network Rail apprentices

Investing also means updating our philosophy and approach to the development of people once they are part of the rail workforce.  We must take our existing talented workforce with us on the journey towards the railway of the future and we need all our people to be motivated and driven by it.  However, our development approach has not changed much over the years, particularly for front line operational roles. This series will explore alternatives for establishing a more adaptable and customer focused work force that is prepared for data-driven, cross-modal, end-to-end-journey operations.

The science of psychology has a lot to tell us about how people learn and how they are motivated.  In this series we will discuss how to use this understanding to adopt the learners' perspective and deploy innovative and cutting-edge training methods and technologies, such as virtual reality and social learning.

Investing in rail talent also requires taking the difficult steps to identify and overcome barriers to change. For this, we might need to develop new ways to assess the economic case for training and look into funding options.

Finally, the biggest step-change we need to accomplish is truly a whole-system culture shift, moving away from a procedural, box-ticking, compliance-driven industry culture, focused on task 'competence', towards a resilience-seeking business culture, promoting skills, people development, diversity, adaptability, and organisational and life-long learning.

On all these issues there are strategic choices to be made now that concern us all. This is why we look forward to hearing your own views, reactions, suggestions and contributions to the debate. How can we best invest in rail talent for the future?

Olivier Marteaux, Principal - Horizon Scanning

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