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11 Jul 2022

Delivering the future railway - What are the implications for rail's people?


Top 10 takeaways from our top table dinner

Delivering the future railway - What are the implications for rail's people? That was the question posed to a room full of railway professionals on Wednesday 6 July 2022 at the latest in our series of top table dinners co-hosted by Stephenson Harwood and SNC Lavalin Atkins. Martin Thayne, Director People & Culture of Great British Railways Transition Team kindly delivered a few thoughts pre-dinner.

As always, there was lively debate around the tables and a few unplanned diversions onto wider issues affecting today’s railway. We were delighted to see more than 40% of people in the room were women. And the answer to the question: what are the implications for rail's people? Keep reading below to find out.

  1. A Strong Regional Railway: Rail is a truly national industry with strong regional roots in which you can provide a pathway to development by moving both across the industry (i.e. working within different teams and elements of railway operations) and within it – free movement of people.  The industry should be making more of the variety of roles that are available within it to battle the perception that it is "just" engineering, by emphasising the diversity across customer service, data management and technology deployment and finance and legal roles.

  2. Sector Wide Plan: In order to be a truly national industry the rail industry must provide industry wide apprenticeships and outreach programmes developing skills that not only benefit rail but also Great Britain Plc. It is incumbent on us all to embrace this programme from the smallest SME through to Great British Railways (GBR). We all need to make the difference.

  3. Our people represent our communities: If the purpose of GBR and the implementation of the Williams-Shapps reforms is to produce a simpler, better railway for everyone within the United Kingdom then it needs to better represent the communities that it serves.  This is a once in a generation opportunity to get this right and there is clearly a need to include and bring up younger people within the industry now into leadership roles as they will be responsible for taking the industry forward in the future.  There are early stage plans being developed to establish a "shadow board" of people at the start of their railway careers to hold the GBR board to account in terms of meeting its objectives.

  4. To change the culture, we need to reach out to different types of people: In terms of the culture of the railway, people won't come to the industry if they can't see themselves within it.  This means actively and consciously breaking with the existing somewhat old fashioned culture and projecting the industry as a place where you can work regardless of background, ethnicity or orientation.  It was pointed out that TV advertising campaigns do not hold the same sway on younger generations as they once did as so many of them get their entertainment from on-line instead of watching TV so consideration needs to go into both promoting the industry within the places where the coming generations are but also in talking about the industry in a way that resonates with those generations, e.g. in terms of the environmental benefits that rail can offer.

  5. Diversity of thought and innovation are key: It goes without saying that the industry can only benefit from having greater diversity and the different ways of thinking that this brings.  It was agreed that organisationally the industry should make it easier to innovate by allowing greater freedom on the front line rather than being prescriptive on what can and cannot be done.  Empowering individuals to make things better and adapt flexibly to situations and problems can only be beneficial in the long term.

  6. How we advertise and interview for jobs needs to change: HS2's practice of using blind CVs was praised as enabling the organisation to focus on candidate capability and experience rather than background and personal circumstances.  It was also pointed out that job specifications should not be too prescriptive given that this can prejudice against, in particular, female candidates who tend to dissuade themselves from applying if they do not meet a significant part of the criteria while consideration should also be given to how interviews are carried out, e.g. does it have to be people in suits sitting across a desk?  Consideration should be given to assessment centres, group activities and softer skills in recruitment practice and thinking about what is wanted generally from the role.

  7. Don't just get people in, think about how to retain people for their careers: In terms of retaining people within the industry, the consensus appeared to be that organisational integrity was important – it is not enough to talk about how you want to support diverse people, you need to follow through on that as well.  Strong consideration should be given to job sharing, particularly at higher leadership levels in order to retain women within the industry because when it is put in place properly, it has been proven to work well.  Consideration should also be given to offering creche and childcare support to encourage more women into the industry, and to stay with us.

  8. The railway as a magnet for world-class talent: The railway could really become a magnet for world-class talent but the industry needs to think about what its product is – i.e. it is not just about getting people from a to b but also about investing in and transforming local communities and regions, building up skills, working towards a more sustainable future.  Given Britain's historic role in the development and promulgation of the railways, we should be drawing on the pride of that history while also emphasising the place that the industry as a whole has in terms of a greener future.

  9. Cost cutting may have an impact: One key issue that the industry does need to address is that cutting costs can exacerbate falls within the talent pool, which has a knock on effect down the industry's supply chain.  For example, if GBR is solely focused on cutting costs and driving efficiencies, then it is going to be difficult to persuade suppliers to take on people via apprenticeships or other training schemes to service contracts and likewise, a stream of stories about cost cutting and wage freezes – especially given the current economic uncertainty – may well drive some younger people away from looking at rail in favour of more "glamorous" industries. Of course, giving the supply chain visibility of what is coming up will be essential to encourage ongoing investment in people.

  10. Create roles with meaning and with a legacy: The rail industry used to be described as a job for life and it certainly offers a career path across a number of sectors within it.  Millennials tend not to be entirely salary-driven and are instead drawn to roles that carry some meaning (e.g. by assisting with sustainability) or which offer opportunities for education and personal growth.  Given the shortage of certain skills within the industry, in addition to apprenticeships GB Railways should be looking at funding university places in core areas (including bursaries and other support) to encourage people to join and stay.


Tammy Samuel

Tammy Samuel
Partner and co head of rail

T:  +44 20 7809 2227 M:  +44 7766 991 053 Email Tammy | Vcard Office:  London

Suzanne Tarplee

Suzanne Tarplee
Partner and co head of rail

T:  +44 20 7809 2389 M:  +44 7718 247 220 Email Suzanne | Vcard Office:  London