“There’s so much more of a focus now on not just getting passengers from A to B, but from A to B then to C and making it an enjoyable experience. The passenger experience has been largely ignored for years and with other methods of transport advancing and disrupting the market, rail needs to be delighting its customers!”
Innovation is word that’s used quite liberally in transport press and for good reason. For it is the introduction of new methods, ideas and products that is pushing on the industry to make it more dynamic, efficient and – crucially – safer. So, it’s fantastic to host someone from an organisation that can be considered something of an authority on the subject for the latest 5 Minutes With…, Rhianne Montgomery from Innovate UK, the public body that is part of the UK’s Research and Innovation organisation.
Rhianne is the programme manager for rail innovation at the non-departmental public body and she generously gave her time to provide details about her diverse role, explaining to Dave Songer the demanding nature of her job at Innovate UK, the path she took to get to where she is now and why it’s of vital importance that passengers are placed front and centre of the rail industry’s future plans.
Dave Songer (DS): Hi Rhianne, it's great to meet you. Can you tell me about Innovate UK and its key priorities for 2019 and beyond?
Rhianne Montgomery (RM): I’d be delighted to! Innovate UK is the UK’s innovation agency and we cover innovation across every sector from aerospace, to agriculture, to medicine. It’s an incredibly diverse organisation and it’s an inspiring place to work. We are based in Swindon, but a huge proportion of the workforce are field based, spending most of their time in their specialist industry.
Innovate UK sits within UKRI alongside the other UK research councils with the intention of strengthening the links between academic research and providing a more joined-up approach when it comes to funding and prioritising. We help companies of all sizes in all sectors access the research, partners, investors and markets they need to innovate and grow. Innovate UK is at the heart of delivering government’s Industrial Strategy and target of UK R&D expenditure reaching 2.4% of GDP.
DS: You work in the rail innovation department – what is your involvement there?
RM: I make up half of the rail team in Innovate UK, which people are usually shocked by! I’m the programme manager and responsible for more than 50 projects across the country, with more set to go live soon. These projects are funded by the Department for Transport (DfT) as part of their commitment to investing in rail innovation, through four competitions with Innovate UK and another one currently live. I’m also working with Network Rail at the moment, who are delivering their first competition with us, so it’s a very exciting time in the rail team!
It would be very difficult to describe a typical day in my role; the beauty of my job is that every day is so varied and brings its own challenges. In one week, I could be meeting a project in Canary Wharf, presenting in Parliament, visiting projects at train depots and being blindfolded through King’s Cross station, to experience what a journey is like for those with visual impairments.
DS: That’s a great initiative. You worked for more than eight years at Network Rail – what is it you most like about working in the rail industry?
RM: I started my career as a signalling apprentice and then moved on to become a signalling technician, later joining Infrastructure Projects to deliver large construction projects across the UK. I remember when I joined rail, a colleague of mine told me if I stayed in the industry for more than five years I’d be there for life and I think he’ll probably be right! My favourite days in Network Rail were those spent several feet deep in snow, clearing the tracks to restore the train service, which is such a contrast to my role now. I loved the sense of achievement I felt, working under pressure to fix a failed set of points – it was thanks to me that people made it home that night. However, my role now provides me with the opportunity to help shape the railway into one fit for the future, which I’m very privileged to be a part of.
Rhianne will be speaking at this year's SmartRail event in June!
Taking place in Munich on 17-19 June, infrastructure managers, passenger rail and freight operators and industry suppliers will also in attendance to discuss the latest developments – with fellow confirmed speakers slots including CTOs and CIOs from Deutsche Bahn, SNCF and FS Italiane.
Visit the show website to see the agenda, speakers and register for the show.
DS: What would you say has been the most pronounced change in that time?
RM: I think that the rail industry, even since I joined, has changed beyond recognition. Full high-vis PPE had just become mandatory and the focus on safety has increased year-on-year. Our railways are the safest in Europe and the safest they have ever been, yet these good news stories aren’t published – rail gets a really hard time from the press. There’s so much more of a focus now on not just getting passengers from A to B, but from A to B then to C and making it an enjoyable experience. The passenger experience has been largely ignored for years and with other methods of transport advancing and disrupting the market, rail needs to be delighting its customers!
DS: What is the main challenge facing the industry?
RM: As anyone who has ever worked in rail will know, it’s not an easy industry to navigate, something that I think often prevents new companies and technologies from entering the market. As an industry, we really need to make it easier to work with us. Network Rail has launched their Open for Business campaign and has even invited suppliers to challenge standards which are outdated and unnecessary – this a huge and very positive step in the right direction.
Through DfT’s competitions, such as a First of a Kind 3, which is currently open for applications, we are trying to make it much easier to commercialise technology on the railway from outside the industry and bridge the gap between the lab and the real environment.
DS: And where do you think the big changes will come in the future, from an innovation perspective?
RM: As I mentioned, passenger experience is becoming more and more of a priority and social media makes it much easier for customers to tell a company where they’re getting it wrong. Customers in the future will have a greater choice over how they travel and when, so the challenge will be to make rail the preferred choice, not the choice out of necessity. I think personalised journeys will become the norm, allowing for much smarter and connected travel.
DS: What’s been your biggest professional challenge?
RM: In complete honesty, I’d say coming into what is typically a male-orientated industry and convincing not only my colleagues, but myself, that I’m just as capable. There’s not an easy way of gaining respect from your colleagues, but for me, it was hard work and sheer determination not to fail. The industry now, even in the space of 10 years, is far more diverse and the culture is starting to change, so I would certainly encourage more women to look at the rail industry as a long-term and rewarding career option.
DS: Karla Jakeman, Innovate UK’s connected transport innovation lead, recently took part in a government report launch relating to smart cities – do you have any details about that?
RM: Karla was asked to share a panel with experts including Zoe Green, urban planning and development lead, PwC; Laura Shoaf, managing director, Transport for the West Midlands; and Shashi Verma, director of strategy and chief technology officer, TfL. The event was to discuss the launch of the new report from PxC, Creating a Smart Future and its challenges. Karla was particularly thrilled that from the start of the report, as the citizen was placed at the forefront – all transport from concept, decision to physical mode MUST be citizen focused. She did, however, express a hope that the activity down the line would consider behaviour change more; you may have the best innovation in the world but if people aren’t bought in they won’t use it, even if it is focused around them and their needs.
The report also expressed how important collaboration is so central and local authorities, SME’s, academia and Catapults all work together to tackle the challenges in a structured way. Some thought it may be a case of too many cooks… but those of us who have seen the benefits of collaboration know how beneficial these collaborations can be in bringing all the right people to the table to get the best, most efficient and innovative solution. She looks forward to seeing how the report is developed.
DS: We look forward to that too. Finally, we always like to ask interviewees about their favourite train journey. It can be anywhere in the world, where’s yours?
RM: I’m really embarrassed to say this, but I get quite travel sick on trains! However, I recently had the pleasure of travelling first class with LNER from York to London and it was such an enjoyable and stress-free journey – that’s how train travel should be.
DS: Thanks very much for taking part, Rhianne.