What Labour’s rail announcement could mean for the tech sector

26 Apr 2024 03:31 PM

The Labour Party has announced its plan for rail should it be elected to government.

The Labour Party unveiled its vision to deliver a “unified and simplified rail system” this month, including more detail on its long-standing policy to bring passenger franchises into public ownership as contracts expire.

A new body – Great British Railways – will be responsible for planning timetables, improving services, and the operation, maintenance and improvement of rail infrastructure. The establishment of Great British Railways as a ‘guiding mind’ (or ‘directing mind’ under Labour’s vision) was a headline recommendation of the 2021 Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail that has guided Government policy ever since.

The tech sector welcomed these proposals in order to create a simplified system, capable of driving systematic improvements through innovation and data. The draft Rail Reform Bill, currently undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny (read techUK’s response to the Call for Evidence here) by the Transport Select Committee is the Government’s attempt to legislate on these grounds.

So what does the Labour Party’s vision offer and what could this mean for the tech sector going forward?

  1. A ‘voice’ for integrated transport?

A unified railway, under a single operator, could present a unique opportunity for Great British Railways to be ‘the voice’ of integrated transport – something which is currently lacking and discussed at our recent ‘Mobilise: The Future of Infrastructure’ conference.

Taking inspiration from the Swiss system, rail services will be better integrated with the broader mobility sector such as buses and cycle hire, under Labour’s plan. While integrated transport is not a new ambition things come unstuck trying to overcome the blockers including poor data quality, interoperability and lack of leadership. Tackling these has been a focus of the Department for Transport through its Data Strategy.

However, by removing the fragmentation caused by multiple operators, Great British Railways could provide the all-important ‘single pane-of-glass’ view for rail data. This would help set industry standards, offer more complete information for passengers and enable integration with other modes, as well as journey-planning and MaaS apps.  

Getting there however, is easier said than done. Great British Railways will need to overcome a significant skills gap, ensuring it has a properly resourced, multi-disciplinary team across data science, engineering and cyber security, who are empowered and unafraid of taking a new approach.  

  1. Getting connectivity up to speed

Mobile connectivity is another area recognised as a central to improving the passenger experience, a core theme within both the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail and Labour’s strategy.

Currently, rail users can access the internet directly via their devices or can connect to Wi-Fi networks provided by train operators. These Wi-Fi links are normally served by connections to mobile masts meaning connectivity is dependent on the availability of terrestrial mobile coverage. Improving connectivity is a major selling point for trains, so Labour’s ambition is to be welcomed. But delivering good connectivity is a complex challenge especially where services pass through rural areas or tunnels with no terrestrial coverage.

It is broadly recognised that a portfolio of approaches and solutions will be needed. This includes the installation of new infrastructure such as towers and fibre cabling, harnessing satellite communications and private networks.

For this, a partnership approach is with the telecoms sector is key; a key recommendation of techUK’s 2022 report on rail innovation. If we are to finally get connectivity up to speed, we’ll need to see Great British Railways working constructively with all stakeholders to spearhead new approaches, with appropriate funding to deliver the infrastructure needed.

  1. No more tangerine tickets

Simplifying rail’s dizzying ticketing and fare structure is another core element to Labour’s strategy for delivering for passengers.

The technology for mobile pay-as-you-go ticketing has been ready to mass-deployment for years but has struggled to scale-up in part due to a lack of political action. This needs to change as innovation in ticketing, including smart ticketing, dynamic pricing, digital season tickets and automatic compensation not only makes thing simpler for passengers, but also help narrow the trust gap in rail held by the public.

This is key if we are to drive modal shift to rail as a sustainable alternative to driving, something Labour has set it would set specific targets for.

Full steam ahead!

The one thing that is clear is that rail needs to modernise. Legislative action is to establish Great British Railways, something that takes time and that government has not been able to achieve.

The UK’s world-class technology sector is positioned to help transform the sector and help it deliver for customers and the environment. It is time that we move full steam ahead.