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

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 and has been guiding policy decisions ever since.

The tech sector has repeatedly welcomed these proposals and has been excited by the prospect of a simplified industry, 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 that was highlighted at our ‘Mobilise: The Future of Infrastructure’ conference as lacking. 

Under Labour's plans rail services will be better integrated with the broader mobility sector such as buses and cycle hire. While integrated transport is not a new ambition, the vision has struggled to get off the ground, blocked by poor data quality, interoperability and lack of leadership. Tackling these issues has been a focus of the Department for Transport through its recent 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 (explained in our 2023 report into transport skills), 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 crucial and was a recommendation made within techUK’s report on rail innovation in 2022. If we are to finally get connectivity up to speed, we’ll need to see Great British Railways working constructively with all stakeholders in the connectivity sphere 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 deploy 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 helps 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 said it would set specific targets for.

Full steam ahead!

The one thing that is clear is that rail needs to modernise. Legislation is needed to establish Great British Railways which takes time and that Government has not yet 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.

Ashley Feldman

Ashley Feldman

Programme Manager, Transport and Smart Cities, techUK

Ashley Feldman is the programme manager for transport and smart cities at techUK. Through working closely with the technology industry, his role is to promote the contribution of digital technology in driving positive outcomes for cities and transport. Through maintaining close ties to government, he also works to ensure the policy and regulatory conditions are optimised for businesses to scale innovation in the UK.

He is fascinated by cities and the built environment, having worked as a consultant on major regeneration projects across the country before joining techUK in 2022.

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