/ CALL US + 44 (0) 20 3873 0260
  • SmartTransit Congres, Boston - 2020

5 Minutes With … Sayeh Ghanbari, Partner, EY.

Posted by Luke Upton on Dec 2, 2016

Sayeh Ghanbari, Partner, EY speaks to Luke Upton SmartRail World “If an industry is behind a change, a change can happen quite quickly.”

Humans are creatures of habit and routine. Not convinced? Think for a minute about your morning commute into the office. Do you always try and board the same carriage? Aim for the same barrier to swipe your ticket? Check the same websites in the same order on your smartphone? If you are anything like me, you probably do. What would make you change your routine? I recently attended the launch of HackTrain 3.0 and one of most interesting presentations was by Sayeh Ghanbari of EY (the multinational professional services formerly known as Ernst & Young) who discussed the idea of the ‘nudge’ and how it can be used in the transport to change passenger behaviour. Keen to learn more Sayeh took some time out of her busy schedule to welcome me down to the EY offices in London Bridge for a wide-ranging chat covering making the most of our existing infrastructure, differences between airports and train stations, challenges, opportunities and of her course her favourite rail journey…

Sayeh Ghanbari (SG): Thanks for the time today, as an introduction, is there such a thing as a typical day for a consultant?

Luke Upton (LU): No problem at all. I think it’s one of the clichés of the consulting world that there is no such thing as a typical day. I don’t think I have two days that are ever alike! My work is split in two really. Most of my time I’m working with our clients on solutions to a problem they have today or talking about future opportunities and how best to take advantage of them. Or it’s a bit more focussed on our own business here at EY, whether that’s working with some of our people, coaching and helping them develop their careers or looking at our own internal business, as with any commercial organisation really!

LU: And what’s brought you to working with public transport?

SG ( @sayehghanbari ) : Well, I come from an engineering background, I actually studied aeronautical engineering at university and then I worked at the European Commission, what was then Transport and Energy now Transport. And I’ve also spent quite a lot of time working in public policy and with governments. I think when you combine, the engineering background, the public policy experience and what I find personally very interesting about public transport, which is basically that it can make people’s lives better. I think transport is such a big component of our daily lives both in terms of the time we are on it, the amount of money we spend on it and the feelings of well-being, or otherwise that we get from the experience. So I’ve always been interested in it long before EY, and having recently worked on things like the Olympics, I’m now almost solely focussed on transport, with clients including Network Rail and High-Speed 2.

Read the Rail and Metro Innovation Guide 2017

LU: You presented recently at the HackTrain 3.0 launch, and you spoke of how the ‘nudge’ concept (that suggests indirect suggestions can influence the motives, incentives and decision making of individuals and groups), could you tell us how you think it can be further harnessed for transport?

SG: I think it’s a fascinating concept and has seen success on an individual level of human behaviour. It’s a cheap way of making people behave differently for what are often quite instinctive decisions. My fascination is about if you can take learnings from that and help a broader, larger group of individuals change their behaviour.

To give an example, look at what happens when there’s major construction work around stations. It often causes delays, congestion and unexpected changes to schedules. I believe there could be more work done between businesses and the relevant public bodies to think about how they incentivise their workers to travel differently during this time, perhaps by travelling at different times. In Germany for example, they don’t have the same peak of travel as here in the UK, people have contracts that allow them to come in at a much broader range of times, working around core hours of 10am-3pm and easing congestion and pressure on public transport during rush hours.

Currently incentives around travel times are typically financial and not normally enough to make major changes. But you can’t make wholesale changes until you have an integrated approach between transport operators, businesses and the government. And there is some precedent here in London, when businesses and government encouraged a more flexible working day during the 2012 Olympics to ease pressure on the Underground.

At the moment, we look at flexible working from an individual point of view, what is the benefit to you or the employer? But the point I’m trying to make is that we are looking at a transport network that is creaking at peak times but it is not at off-peak times. So let’s think differently about this. So it’s not a nudge when it comes to the individual, its taking these learnings and applying for the collective.

And the reason for me thinking about this is that we just cannot build any new infrastructure, most inner-city metros have no more space to build. Could we use technology like sat-navs, Google maps and other things to redirect people? So you don’t build new infrastructure, you help separate traffic not by hardware but by software. And in the advent of driverless cars, we can see that kind of thing more and more. We need to think about moving people around our existing infrastructure in a different way.

LU: We know that change like this is important, but it’s not always easy to execute in an industry like rail is it?

SG: No, no its not. But if an industry is behind a change, a change can happen quite quickly. One example from airlines comes to mind. And that’s the shift from the traditional tickets that used to be printed and sent to you to what we have now, where you print it yourself, collect it from a machine or increasingly have the ticket on your phone. This has become standard practice.

Rail tickets Sayeh Ghanbari, EY talking to SmartRail World Why did they make this change? Because airports have a huge amount to gain by removing ticketing complications and getting people into the departure lounge and spending money there as quickly as possible. Whereas at a train station, all you normally want to do is arrive and get on the train. If trains had a similar commercial incentive to refresh their practices then this would likely help the industry get behind change quicker.

LU: So, on that note, what’s the biggest challenge in your role?

SG: I work in both a changing industry, and by that I mean consulting and in a rapidly changing world, so bringing those things together gives the challenge of not just keeping relevant but also staying ahead. I always need to be in my clients shoes, thinking of the challenges they face and this is always calling for new solutions and new ideas. There’s so many unknowns in the world at the moment, that is the biggest challenge.

But if I were then to put the flipside on this, it is one of the things that makes me love what I do. It’s a constant intellectual challenge. You cannot assume the solutions you have today are going to apply to tomorrow. That excites me. I also think, from a consulting perspective, the 1990s model of a consultant writing a report and leaving it behind are long gone. As a result, we are much closer to clients issue and sharing pain and gain. This puts a pressure on us as to how we work and the kind of people we hire. But it makes it more interesting.

LU: With the bigger picture still in mind, what will be some of the biggest differences between transport now and in 10 years’ time?

SG: That’s an interesting question. If you’d asked someone this twenty or thirty years ago they probably would have imagined everything to be driverless, even flying cars and that kind of thing. But the reality is, there isn’t much that is so different. How different is the tube, in some ways from when it was first built?

So on the one hand, I’m inclined to say maybe a lot will change but I do think this is an industry has been a little bit of a late adopter and I don’t think it can afford to keep doing that. I don’t think the infrastructure side will see a major difference, though we will start seeing driverless cars I don’t think within a decade they’ll be dominant. I think there will be more changes on the softer side, much more passenger experience focussed, ticketing would be one example of where we’ll see change. I would love it to take it beyond that and look at how we can use data to move people around in a more efficient way.  What can data do? Can it help us not need to build as much. We have a pretty decent infrastructure here in London, are we using it as effectively as we can?

Trans Siberian Express - SmartRail World

LU: And finally…. What’s your favourite rail journey?

SG : I hope it’s one that is coming up actually, a friend is getting married in May in Dalian in China, and I would really like to go there by train. My ideal would be London to Paris on Eurostar then Paris to Moscow and onto the Trans-Siberian express via Ulan Bator to Beijing then onto Dalian. It doesn’t take as long as you think, it can be done in about 10 days. That’s my little dream at the moment anyway! 

5 minutes with… You? Each Friday the team here at SmartRail World brings you a new 5 minutes with... interview. This fun, fast-paced feature will help you get to know more about personalities across the industry, their ideas and experiences and of course their own favourite rail journey! Want to take part? Email: to find out more.

The last 5 minutes with... Tom Kirschbaum, Co-Founder and COO, Door2Door.

Next week's 5 minutes with... Min Cheol Jeong, CEO and President, NeoTrans Co.

Topics: 5minuteswith

Luke Upton

Written by Luke Upton

Get The Latest Updates From SmartRail World

Please use the form below to leave a comment about this story.