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Kulveer Ranger, Atos, on balancing the tensions at the heart of rail transformation

Sarah Wray talks to Atos’ Kulveer Ranger about the challenges and opportunities digital technology presents for the rail industry in the UK.

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Kulveer Ranger, Atos
Kulveer Ranger, Atos

This article is published in partnership with Atos.

 

With new competitive sensitivities, societal shifts and economic demands, the UK rail industry is under pressure to transform. The sector needs to better tap digital technologies to increase the capacity, reliability and efficiency of networks, and to boost passenger satisfaction.

 

The opportunities presented by digital transformation are huge but the industry faces significant and unique challenges too. The Digital Vision for Mobility whitepaper from Atos explores the impact of digital transformation on the transport, personal mobility and logistics markets.

 

Sarah Wray talks to Kulveer Ranger, Senior Vice President, Strategy & Communications for Atos UK&I, about the journey ahead for rail.

 

SCW: You have a long background and deep expertise in transport, having led the Mayor of London’s Transport, Environment and Digital Strategy Policy divisions (2008-12) and served on the board of Transport for London. With this perspective, where do you think the UK rail sector is right now on its digital transformation journey?

 

KR: The rail industry is a very traditional sector in some ways – its two primary objectives are running a safe railway and ensuring trains run on time. We generally do well at that and we have one of the best rail safety records in the world.

 

Now we have to balance building infrastructure which meets those crucial operational requirements for today with creating a railway that is fit for tomorrow and capitalises on technology’s ability to transform the rail travel experience, enhance performance and possibly even improve safety even further.

 

The challenge is how to manage the tension between safety and tradition, and innovation and new technology.

 

That means embracing new ways of doing things, and that’s the tension at the heart of the rail industry’s transformation. The challenge is how to manage the tension between safety and tradition, and innovation and new technology.

 

SCW: Where do you see the biggest opportunities and barriers in doing this?

 

KR: In the UK, we have some of the oldest railways in the world. Being first is one thing but then you also have a more difficult challenge to face.

 

It’s true that we haven’t kept pace with the investment and development of our railways, compared to other countries.

 

Currently, people are using the railways more in the UK, and demand will continue to grow. Rail is one of the most environmentally friendly modes of transport so it’s going to be a key part of the mobility mix going forward.

 

Network Rail plans to invest £42 billion into the UK’s rail infrastructure over the next five years. Now, the industry needs to come together to ensure we have a very clear vision of what that future looks like.

 

This includes tough discussions around what the operating and commercial models are and what the customer experience will be.

 

We must maintain and upgrade existing infrastructure while also moving towards becoming a world-class, innovative railway that customers see as value for money. These things don’t always tally at the moment.

 

There’s an important economic aspect to the push for rail transformation too, as evidenced by the Northern Powerhouse rail programme, for example. Significant investment is going into northern cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle, as well as into the Midlands.

Alongside networked connectivity, physical connectivity is going to be essential.

 

Connectivity through the central spine of Britain, via rail, is a fundamental part of how the economic vibrancy of Britain will be further enhanced. We must keep an eye on that long-term objective.

 

SCW: You are also a board member of techUK and on the SmarterUK Cities and Communities Board. With the benefit of this broader view, what do you think UK rail can learn from other sectors and countries?

 

KR: The key thing is that railways can’t sit alone as an owner of mobility anymore rail is now part of a wider mobility mix, including mobility-as-a-service (MaaS).

 

The technology, therefore, has to centre around the individual, giving them the power to choose modes, options, pricing, convenience, etc. The commuter is no longer secondary to the railway; the commuter is primary and they have many other transport options. The railways now need to find their role in these new mobility ecosystems.

 

There are plenty of areas where rail can lead the way too. Many digital transport platforms, smart card schemes, third-party apps, etc., which also often pull in public transport, work on a city or sometimes regional level. Rail travel goes beyond these boundaries, operating nationally and even internationally.

 

SCNF in France, for example, is looking to launch a national app that people can use for SCNF services but which also allows other services to plug into the platform, moving towards MaaS. That type of role could be relevant in the UK as well.

 

SCW: How does digital transformation change rail companies’ strategies in terms of partnership and culture?

 

KR: This is really where significant change needs to happen in the railways. Our railways are part of our history; they’re part of our Britishness and our culture we took rail to the world so it’s very much a proud industry, and rightly so, but like most industries that are facing disruption and digital transformation, outside partnerships are essential.

 

Delivering the right services requires an ecosystem of new, non-traditional suppliers who bring innovation, creativity and technology and can still deliver the core functions of punctuality and safe operations.

 

It’s going to be a really exciting time when these two worlds of engineering come together railway engineering and technology engineering to design and develop the future.

 

We’re still at the tip of this shift as there’s a cultural challenge too – start-ups work differently in terms of their pace and approach to the traditional rail industry.

 

It’s going to be a really exciting time when these two worlds of engineering come together – railway engineering and technology engineering – to design and develop the future.

 

At Atos, we bring these two worlds together. We bring an ecosystem of innovators and start-ups to the table because we know the answer will not lie entirely with us collaboration is in our DNA.

 

It’s collaborating with various types of companies to shape a solution which will deliver the rail services that we need for today and tomorrow.

 

Of course, we shouldn’t ever lose the magic of travelling by rail but let’s enhance it and make it fit for a 21st-century digital Britain.

 

Download Atos’ Digital Vision for Mobility.

 

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