When we think about rail travel this autumn, perhaps the words ‘delayed’ and ‘cancelled’ are the first to come to mind. Strikes and service disruptions have wreaked chaos and even as I’m writing this article, it’s from a deserted office, most of my colleagues wisely staying home to avoid a Tube strike.   

But ‘delayed’ isn’t just something we hear on the station concourse – it’s coming from the offices of Whitehall too. 

In May 2022, those working in the transport sector were overjoyed that the then government would bring forward a Transport Bill in the next session of Parliament. Six months later, however, the legislation is yet to see the light of the day. 

The Transport Bill was going to do several important things. The first and perhaps most transformative change was that it would formally create Great British Railways as the new “guiding mind” for the rail industry. Succeeding Network Rail, Great British Railways is intended to own the infrastructure, set timetables, fares, and oversee ticketing. 

For technology professionals this was significant as Great British Railways also promised to put data and innovation at the heart of the sector to deliver better and more sustainable services for customers and the environment. 

Today, however, the future is less clear. Although the Great British Railways Transition Team is in a great position to make radical changes, without a clear timeline, contract awards could be delayed, innovation stymied, and talent driven away from an industry that is already struggling with a skills gap. 

We need to embrace the technology opportunity

In techUK’s recent report “Putting data and innovation at the heart of Great British Railways transitionwe set out seven principles for tech-led modernisation of the rail sector. 

We outlined how underutilised stations could become digitally enabled ‘smart spaces’, enabling exciting use-cases which can revolutionise the passenger experience and improve environmental performance. The next generation of digital signalling can improve the reliability of services while improved data architectures can integrate rail into ‘Mobility as a Service’ offerings and modernise the antiquated and confusing ticketing system. This is just scratching the surface.  

The Great British Railways Transition Team is doing stellar work in mapping its needs and engaging with the technology ecosystem, however, until the Government sets out a clear position, innovation in the sector won’t be encouraged and the incentive to invest in British rail diminished. 

I hope the upcoming Autumn statement is a turning point. We need to see delayed policymaking kickstarted with a focus on delivery returned. 

Let’s get in the fast lane 

Another exciting measure within the Transport Bill was creating new laws to enable the deployment of self-driving vehicles. This was a welcomed step, especially as the UK has already lost pace with other jurisdictions, including the EU, which have frameworks in place to support the deployment. In August, the Government set a target of 2025 for commercial deployment, but as things stand, we have no clear timeline on getting the legislation we need in place.

Self-driving vehicles have the potential to deliver a multitude of societal and economic benefits, such as improved mobility, emissions reductions, new ways of facilitating goods transportation and as an avenue for further tech innovation. The market is said to be worth £41.7bn to the UK by 2035, according to the Connected Places Catapult. 

At a time where growth is high on the agenda, we need to ensure that government sees the opportunity presented by transformative technologies like self-driving vehicles. Without the regulatory changes needed, our competitiveness will be further eroded, and innovative businesses could divest from the UK at a time when we need to encourage high-growth industries to do business in Britain.  

Transport plays a central role in our economic prosperity. As the industry digitises and becomes more closely linked to the technology sector, I’m hopeful the Government can play its part in legislating and regulating for the future. 

If it fails to do so it won’t just be trains that will be delayed, but the strength of our economy too.