“I need to prove initiatives are value for money, deliverable and strategically important. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes it is doable if we put the work in, but sometimes with tech and innovation you need to take a few risks.”
With over 10,000 miles of rail line spanning across the UK, rail has remained vital mode of transport. Who is that ensures that this mass of lines, their operators and other modes of transport stay connected? Setting the direction taken by the UK rail industry and funding investment into the industry is the main role of the UK Department of Transport. Working to keep the nation moving seamlessly, working on strategy and policy development, all the while keeping up to date with the latest innovations is the job of this week’s interviewee, Gavin James. Sitting down with SmartRail World Reporter, Sarah Wright, James discusses his passion for the latest technologies, the challenge of bringing about change and the importance of rail innovation.
SW: How did you get into the rail industry?
Gavin James (GJ): I’ve been in the Department for Transport (DfT) for eight years, but I only joined rail a couple of years ago. It was quite a change from climate change strategy, my previous post. One of my motivations came from looking at DfT’s organisation chart, and the only part of the organisation where I didn’t know anyone was rail. I took a leap of faith and I’m glad I did! I never thought I would become fascinated by rail, but I have. This is true of many generalists who end up in rail I think.
SW: What do like most about your job?
GJ: I love that my job straddles three industries: rail, telecoms and tech. All three are so different, but they have a lot to offer each other. I like that I get to be the person to bring them together to solve challenges in the rail industry that cannot necessarily be solved by traditional means. This comes together in trains in which components talk to each other and to the outside world. We’re investing in equipment on trains and working with the telecoms industry to get good connectivity on the railway. It gets really exciting once we open up this platform for the tech industry to innovate on.
SW: What’s the biggest challenge in your role?
GJ: My biggest challenge is what also makes the job interesting; I can’t just make people do what I want. Even requiring train operators to do something in a new franchise requires negotiation with my colleagues who specify the franchises. I need to prove initiatives are value for money, deliverable and strategically important. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes it is doable if we put the work in, but sometimes with tech and innovation you need to take a few risks. Innovation is really important to us in DfT and we are pushing for it across the board, especially in new franchises.
SW: What will be some of the biggest differences between rail now and in 10 years’ time?
GJ: Well HS2 should open in ten years, which will be transformational. I like to think that some of the most astounding changes will be tech-driven. Just look at the impact that Uber has had on the taxi industry for instance!
SW: What’s your favourite rail journey?
GJ: Lunch on-board a round trip from London Victoria on the Belmond British Pullman was a luxurious experience. My favourite journey was under much less favourable circumstances however. My wife and I had hired a car in Italy. After a short stay in Riomaggiore, a tiny fishing village, we returned to find one of tyres was flat. With nothing in the car to remove the locking wheel nut we called the roadside assistance. It turns out in Italy that roadside assistance consists of gruff man shouting at you in Italian, angrily throwing your bags out of the car and towing it away. Fortunately Riomaggiore has a train station. Rural Italian trains may not be as luxurious as the Pullman, but they were surprisingly regular, well connected and cheap; and that day they got us out of a pickle!
SW: Its moments like that that make you realise just how great public transport can be! Thank you so much for your time Gavin!
Hear more about the importance of passenger satisfaction, high-speed rail and how the Department of Transport are embracing innovation. Join Gavin at SmartRail Asia 2016 in Bangkok where he will be joining us as an expert speaker.
5 minutes with… You? Each Friday the team here at SmartRail World will bring you a great 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: firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.
The last 5 minutes with... Allyson Teevan, Marketing and Communications Manager at Alexandria Transit Company (DASH)
Next week's 5 minutes with... Jim Baker, Chief Executive Officer, Xentrans.