“The job took me abroad for several years in and led to memorable encounters with Michael Jackson, Barack Obama, Mikhail Gorbachev and George Clooney. But I wanted a fresh challenge, working in a new role, in a high-profile sector.”
When dealing with the cut and thrust of the rail industry, effectively getting across one’s point across when dealing with a complex subject is tough. That challenge is ratcheted up a notch when that subject in question is of national importance and changes on a seemingly daily basis. For 5 Minutes With… we often feature those working at the coal face of the industry in engineering-focused roles, but far less often from those responsible for telling the positive and sometimes negative aspects. So, it’s with great pleasure that we welcome in Robert Nisbet, the director of nations and regions at the Rail Delivery Group (RDG).
We spoke last year with his RDG colleague, Laura Wright, about the important position she holds in helping UK rail navigate through choppy Brexit waters, and we were keen to speak to Robert (who may already be familiar to our UK readers) about his very job at the rail membership body. Robert will be making a keynote speech at this year’s SmartRail and he speaks to Dave Songer about his previous prestigious job, the importance of putting the passenger first and what he’ll be covering at our show in June.
Dave Songer (DS): You’ll be familiar to many UK residents because of a previous job you held; what can you tell me about that?
Robert Nisbet (RN): For over 20 years I was a TV correspondent and presenter for both the BBC and Sky News. The job took me abroad for several years in Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Brussels and led to memorable encounters with Michael Jackson, Barack Obama, Mikhail Gorbachev and George Clooney. But I wanted a fresh challenge, working in a new role, in a high-profile sector. As I’ve always been passionate about rail travel, this job was just too tempting to turn down.
DS: What does your job at the RDG (@RailDeliveryGrp) entail and how does your previous experience help you in the role?
RN: My job is essentially twofold: to be the broadcast spokesman on behalf of the train operators and Network Rail, but also to engage with stakeholders and members across the UK’s nations and regions to ensure their voices are heard in our London offices. Obviously, my long career in radio and TV has helped with the former, in that I understand the grammar of news, but it has taken some adjustment to answer questions instead of ask them!
DS: What do you enjoy most about it?
RN: I love representing an industry which excites such passion – not just among the quarter of a million people in the UK that work on the railways and its supply chain, but also those that use it. That means customers can have an emotional response to performance challenges, which we as the trade body have to manage. And there is a great story to tell, despite much of our rail infrastructure dating from Victorian times, the public/private partnership has overseen a renaissance on the railway with passenger numbers doubling in 30 years and record investment rolling out across the network. That’s not to say we shouldn’t apologise when things go wrong and do our best to correct them (and it has been a difficult 12 months), but we shouldn’t be shy about reminding people of the daily effort required to move four million customers every day.
Robert will be speaking at SmartRail on 17-19 June in Munich!
In addition to his keynote, there will also be infrastructure managers, passenger rail and freight operators and industry suppliers discussing the latest developments – with fellow confirmed speakers including Deutsche Bahn, SNCF and FS Italiane.
Visit the show website to see the agenda, speakers and register for the show.
DS: How do you envisage that the rail industry will change in the future?
RN: I think there will be a move to bring customers closer to the people who run their service. That is likely to mean a closer relationship between track and train, and devolution where it makes sense, with an arm’s length body overseeing the bigger picture. I think as technology – and climate change – fundamentally alters the way we live, there will be a greater emphasis on environmentally-friendly public transport which fits seamlessly with other modes to deliver people from door to door.
DS: What do you think are the most significant challenges facing the rail industry?
At the moment I think it restoring trust with our customers. That involves getting the basics right, like punctuality and a simpler fares structure. That is the focus of our members and Network Rail, especially after last year’s timetable changes which brought disruption to parts of the UK over the summer. I also think the industry has its work cut out delivering the record investment which is being rolled out across the network, especially when line upgrades can result in disruption now for benefits later.
DS: We spoke with Laura Wright in 2018 and she told us she spent 80% of her time on Brexit-related work. Does the issue have a similar burden on your day-to-day?
RN: As I write, it’s a significant part of RDG’s workload, preparing for any and every eventuality!
DS: What are the RDG’s key priorities for 2019 and beyond – any specific projects/targets?
RN: We want to ensure that our call for significant change to the structure of the industry to benefit customers is delivered through a major government review. That is now underway and is being chaired by Keith Williams, the former boss of British Airways. You will hear a lot about our proposals over the next few months. So, there is really a twin approach: telling people about the changes we are bringing in today (thousands of new services and trains, revamped stations) while also fixing the industry for the future.
DS: What is the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced?
RN: At Sky after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris. I had to anchor three hours of live TV on Sky News with no autocue and a terrible phone link to the gallery, telling me what was coming next. It was especially nerve-wracking as I was being jostled by large crowds of confused and shocked onlookers. Then it started to pour with rain…
DS: You’re due to speak at SmartRail in June – what are you going to cover at the show?
RN: I will be talking about our plans to make our fares system much easier to use and understand. It was the first part of our submission to the Williams Review, and is designed to help restore trust in the UK’s rail sector and take advantage of technological advances. I will also explain why we need to look to operators in Europe and further afield for help in rebuilding our railway for the future – to adopt best practice from around the world.
DS: What’s your favourite rail journey – anywhere in the world – and why?
RN: That’s a choice between the Tran-Siberian Express, which is one of the most amazing holidays I’ve ever taken, and the Bernina Express between Switzerland and Italy. They both completely blew me away with their beautiful sceneries.
DS: We thanks you for your time, Robert, and really look forward to welcoming you at SmartRail.
If you liked this 5 Minutes With… check out our last with Rhianne Montomery from Innovate UK.