Empowering and equipping the workforce: the next steps towards rail modernisation

In conversation with Neil Robertson, Chief Executive Officer, National Skills Academy for Rail and Tricia Williams, Chief Operating Officer, Northern Railway


Published: 23 March 2023


By Ruby Savill-Downs

Since its inception, the rail industry has been defined by its dedicated workforce. However, with the new age of technology bringing digital skills the forefront of every industry, rail must keep up. I spoke with industry giants, Neil and Tricia, who are committed to keep the industry innovating.


(RSD) We’re transitioning into a new age of working with digital and database skills being a top priority for most industries. However, rail is facing a skill shortage – in technology-focused skills in particular. What are the main factors that have contributed to list?

(NR) You’re absolutely right. We’re facing a big shortage, and we’ve got data to support that assertion. There are three reasons, the first being that we’ve got skill shortages in most areas. Digital doesn’t stand out that much, and that’s because we haven’t invested enough in training. We’ve increased our training from not very much, to two and a half thousand new apprentices a year, but we need to double that – we’re doing about half the training we should be doing.

It’s a big stride to get to where we are, but sadly, it’s only half mark, so we’ve got to do more. We’ve got the right kind of training, but it’s about companies investing in that training. In this industry, the model we prefer is apprenticeships. This means, however, that they model we prefer is apprenticeships. But apprenticeships take up a lot of time, as they rest on training and sharing knowledge. So that’s a general point, which partly explains it.

The second is that digital is still quite new to rail. So we don’t have the traditions and structures that we have some of the other engineering areas, for example We’re at the very early stages of our digital journey, and most sectors are ahead of us, which is bad in some ways, but the good thing about it is we can see the future because they’ve been through it. We know where they went wrong. We’ve got a very clear idea what skill sets we need, how many of them are required, and increasingly we know where we need them.

My last point is very specific to rail, in that we are competing with other sectors for digital skills. We’re not competing with other sectors for train drivers because we are the ones with the trains. If you want to be a train driver, you come to rail. Whereas if you want to be a data analyst, you can go anywhere, especially into financial services, and make a lot of money. The digital workforce needs to be treated and managed differently, and that’s challenging for us, frankly.


(RSD) Tricia – in what ways does rail have an inefficiency problem and how might that be resolved by integrations with technology?

(TW) Our large range of unconnected systems makes decision making and data access fragmented. Part of the solution is not acquiring more systems, but actually consolidating what we have within TOCs and also across the industry. We then need more analytical power to harness the data we have within systems, to extract it and transform it into something meaningful – through tools such as Alteryx, Tableau and other analytical platforms.

To give an example, rostering trains and traincrew has historically been an inefficient process. We’ve brought in technology through a new system which will help make the process more efficient, more accurate and ultimately gives us a better solution so we can better react to changes in train and crew availability. The system is in place for train units, and we’re currently at the point of configuring the system for traincrew which will speed up our decision making, make it less manual intensive and less reliant on spreadsheets and paper-based systems. The key outcomes will be reducing delays and cancellations, which will give a direct benefit to our customers!

(RSD) And Neil – what’s your view on this?

(NR) Rail has got a lot of inefficiency challenges, and we spent three years asking that question. We think there is a 30% opportunity in efficiency overall, and that approximately a third of that – so 10% – will be offered by technology. Not just data, but all aspects of technology.

So, if the railway, say, for example, costs £15 billion, then 10% is £1.5 billion. In fact, that is the target that the government has set the industry to save. However, we don’t think we should look just to technology for it – there’s three places you look. One is focused on workforce and having the right amount of people with the right skills, the second is technology, and the third is the way we organize ourselves in the industry, the way we work, duplication, , the regulatory system. They’re the three main areas of resolution – and digital is definitely up there.

(RSD) What could a wholly data and digital driven rail industry look like?

(NR) A close example that we could look to is aviation. I used to work in hospitality, and that’s become a very data-driven industry – for example, they really focus on the website. For rail, we don’t know enough about the details of demand, we don’t know really what we could do to attract more people to because we don’t know enough about their journeys. And we know that price is an issue. But we’re also pretty sure that if we package things differently, it’s not necessarily about running different kinds of trains or different kind of tracks. It’s more about people’s whole journeys and this question of mobility as a service.

So, we’re fairly sure that we’re missing out on business. When talking about a more data-driven industry, you would talk about your whole journey, not just the train aspect of it. I think we see small examples of this with the oyster card type developments, because they’ve got lots of data about how people actually use their service – for example where we want night trains. Technology has great potential here… what happens if we put an additional train on this line? Do we need to fill it? A data-driven industry would see this kind of technology being used everywhere.


(RSD) Tricia – do you have any industry examples of this that you’re seeing currently?

(TW) In industry, at the most basic level, we need to see the elimination of fax machines and paper. We use archaic methods of internal communication which limits our ability to keep up with the pace of consumers. Wholly data and digital world means a better-connected workforce, and a better-connected customer base that we can communicate with. Better data means a more proactive approach. Identifying patterns and abnormalities, predicting potential incidents, issues, and events before they impact on operations, means better outcomes for customers.

For example, one of the areas that will benefit from increasing levels of passenger count data is the management of events. Each year we proactively manage train plans and ticket sales for around 500 events across the region, where train travel is expected to be a major form of transport for those attending. A new dedicated team within our commercial function looks in detail at historical ticket sales associated with events. By delving into sales information for each train, they’re able to devise a proactive plan aimed at managing customer numbers. This is mainly achieved through adjusting our advance purchase ticket offer, alongside the option of reducing fares on services expected to be less in demand. The team wants to move to a much more automated system for events and are already working with the system supplier to create a more intelligent system. This will enable them to manage customer demand even more effectively in future. But it’s the expanded availability of customer count information that will really benefit their work. Ticket sales information can only tell them so much, but with the introduction of this new data source, they’ll have much more insight into exactly who is travelling and where. The team will then be able to better identify where there is spare capacity, further informing their proactive strategy.


(RSD) And how has the power of data impacted Northern’s goals and motivations?

(TW) In the last two years we’ve made good progress in our plans for data, from establishing a Data Strategy roadmap to centralising more data than ever before for analysts to utilise in their roles. Colleagues believe they can do things better and have some great ideas for change. They see examples of working smarter, and elimination of repetitive tasks, and then spot opportunities in their own areas to do the same. Word spreads about the value of utilising your data more effectively for decision making.


(RSD) What should the industry’s priorities be for recruiting and retraining?

(NR) There’s four things that we think the industry really needs to worry about. Firstly, data analysis. Secondly, software management. Thirdly, systems engineering and, and fourthly, cybersecurity. We need to ensure there are apprenticeships for each one, and that there is set standards. Companies have got no reason not to do this other than the fear of the unknown. They need to develop these capabilities, different levels of them tomorrow. Or preferably today… or Monday morning.


(RSD) Tricia – what’s your experience of this?

(TW) A mixture of in-house pathways to grow and retain our existing talent as well as external targeted marketing efforts, partnerships with universities etc. A broad spectrum of opportunity creation, so that we create a diverse recruitment into the industry. Companies with diverse workforces are known to perform better financially. Our engagement with youth organisations on STEM as a whole – targeting young people who wouldn’t have otherwise considered a career in the industry. An important aspect of this is showing them role models of those already working for Northern in e.g. engineering roles. As we bring more technological solutions into the business, we will need to seek those with the skills to test these systems, making sure that they work for us and with our existing IT infrastructure.


(RSD) Which sectors should rail look towards to hire from?

(NR) Unfortunately, we’re not very good at hiring from other sectors. We hire people and then we keep them for 40 years! That’s our model. One area where we’ve had success and should continue to focus on the armed services. The great thing is that the armed services typically operate, particularly in the Navy, in systems, and so we are increasingly thinking about how we train people in systems. In a sense, we should be stepping up our activities with the military because they’ve got a unique experience, which directly translates to other sectors that we should be recruiting from.

Most importantly, we’ve got to be more innovative about our recruitment. An excellent opportunity we have here is work experience. Work experience is a way of trying out interesting people before you employ them, and there’s been recent progress on this that’s very exciting.

In terms of other sectors, we should be looking to the digital sector for skills. We can’t compete on salary, but we can offer value. What we do is a good thing that makes the world a better place Another area we’d like to recruit from is utilities, as they are ahead of rail in this space. There’s lots for us to learn from them.

(TW) Data and analysis is at the heart of most industries today, so there are many places the rail industry can look to, to fulfil skills gaps. For example, financial services are heavily reliant on data, major banks have all made big investments in their data capability. Technology, also, requires big data teams to manage their products. And lastly, retail. Retail is a very fast-moving market with strong competition. All are using data science and analysts across many parts of their businesses.


(RSD) Lastly – what is your vision for the rail industry in 2023?

(NR) I’d quite like it to be more technology-focused, fewer strikes and to see the development in technologies like oyster cards and apps. Less obviously, but I think more significantly, I would like to see managers incentivized on productivity. When they are, they will invest in digital, they’ll invest in skills, and they will continually improve. The problem is we give managers quite a set of competing priorities and the financial aspects of it are often further down the list. That’s what will really bring the changes in the future I’d like.

(TW) In the short-term, the focus will be on supporting efforts to restore confidence in our rail services, as meeting customer expectations is key. Alongside that we need to continue with our agenda for change – seeing real benefits from the progression of key areas such as our engineering transformation programme.

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Neil Robertson

Chief Executive Officer, National Skills Academy for Rail

Neil joined the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR) in 2015, from the utility sector where he was CEO of the Energy & Utility Skills Group. Before that he was CEO of the British Institute of Innkeeping.

Prior to these sectoral CEO roles, he held senior positions in government departments for education and business where had responsibilities in skills, employability, English and migration, regional economic development and European Structural Funds.

Neil has also worked with Babcock, City & Guilds and the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

NSAR’s current priorities are workforce planning, standard setting, company support and quality assurance of training and assessments.

In his spare time, he likes riding motorbikes and planting trees.

Tricia Williams

Chief Operating Officer, Northern Railway

As Chief Operating Officer for Northern Trains Limited, Tricia Williams leads the team responsible for the safe day-to-day operation of Northern’s trains, stations, engineering and control. Improving journeys for customers is Tricia’s key focus and she ensures performance is constantly reviewed and improved to meet customer needs.

The independent Northern Power Women platform includes Tricia on its Power List of female role models promoting gender equality across the north. She has also been recognised by Salford University with an Alumni achievement award for her continued passion for diversity and inclusion.

Tricia is a motivating leader with significant experience of leading large and diverse teams in regulated environments to achieve transformational change in performance and customer experience.

Prior to joining Northern Tricia held Executive roles at Manchester Airports Group including Chief Customer Officer, Chief Operating Officer for Manchester Airport and Group Organisational Development Director. During a period of sustained customer growth and transformation Tricia helped deliver significant change and stability to operational performance.

Before joining Manchester Airports Group Tricia worked for 20 years United Utilities Group; 13 years of those were in Operational Leadership positions and 7 years in Strategic Transformation roles.

Tricia is a proud Northerner and lives in Liverpool with her husband and 3 sons.