Kanwar Brar: Innovators needed for the journey ahead

This article first appeared in Passenger Transport magazine (13 November 2020)

Kanwar.jpgEncouraging a diverse range of people to seek out a specialist technical career in public transport has been a shared aim over the last few years. It’s a vital way of bridging a growing skills gap that could hinder future efforts to deliver for our customers. Despite all the challenges we are facing, it’s more important than ever that we continue to attract people.

Bus and rail both provide great opportunities to build rewarding and lengthy careers. At Go-Ahead, I’m proud to say we’ve had people who started as apprentices and became managing directors at bus companies. It’s also not uncommon to find three generations of the same family working in a rail or a bus depot.

Over the last decade, our home-grown talent and experience has been bolstered by new technical expertise from outside. Transport authorities, operators and companies all along the supply chain have strived to attract the right type of talent to help drive innovation.

Through that blend of new talent and traditional industry ‘know-how’ we have been able to adopt and promote new tech ahead of other fields. For example, the roll-out of contactless payments within transport, which led to a much wider use of contactless payments across London’s vast retail sector and elsewhere.

Go-Ahead has been at the forefront of using new technology. We are always looking to improve the customer experience and convenience through innovative use of smart cards, mobile apps, account-based ticketing or customer information systems - such as the recently launched Seatfinder service from Southeastern, which helps you to social distance by finding less busy trains.

And it’s not just in rail. Over the last two decades, ever more technology has been added to the bus driver's cab. It’s no longer just a ticket machine in there – there are modern radio systems, vehicle tracking for a real-time customer information, destination blinds box controls, enhanced customer Wi-Fi, along with smart devices and apps to aid vehicle inspection and safety.

Many traditional back-office services have also benefitted from new ideas. The service scheduling, duty allocation, and maintenance regimes have all been overhauled by having the right mix of industry experience working with new talent.

However, the current Covid-related reduction in people travelling by bus and train risks making the business less attractive to talent, as well as reducing our ability to invest. That said there are also opportunities to source talent as people are let go from sectors such as the travel industry that have badly hit by the pandemic.

We are looking at a difficult winter, and 2021 is very uncertain, but beyond that we have to hope that things will eventually get back to some sort of normal. During this period, it’s vitally important that we maintain the right skills mix across the industry. This will allow us to provide the best in class service our returning passengers deserve and expect.

So how do we do this? Firstly, we must continue where possible with the graduates and apprenticeship schemes. I’m greatly encouraged on this by the recent update from the Strategic Transport Apprenticeship Taskforce, which announced that over 11,200 apprenticeships had been created in road and rail over the last four years. The pace must be kept up.

Secondly, for those already working with us we need to boost their professional development through individual and cohort-learning. A culture of mentoring and coaching should be embedded that nurtures the talent we have.

Finally, though budgets may be tighter, we have to continue seeking out and sponsoring those innovation labs that encourage the start-ups who can bring new tech to us with the necessary scale.

We have been heading in the right direction over the last few years but we have just hit a nasty bump in the road – and without labouring the metaphor too much – we need to keep our foot on the pedal.