Revolutionising Rail: The role of people change in the digital railway

Revolutionising Rail: The role of people change in the digital railway


Constant change is the new normal. We are seeing tectonic shifts across all industries as digital transformation revolutionises information, customer experience and delivery models.

These shifts have started impacting the way rail systems are delivered. We already use digital technology in air transportation, creating vital additional capacity and driving operational efficiencies, yet rail still operates largely in an analogue world. With contemporary railroad operations under pressure to find cost-effective ways of improving safety, network reliability and efficiency, digital railway programs are becoming more common in networks around the world. However, many rail organisations have faltered and stalled in their efforts to enter the digital world, sometimes hampered by technical complexity but more often by their inability to navigate the people component of digital transformation. This lack of people buy-in can slow program execution, erode a business case, or even stop a digital rail transformation program. (More about Why Automation isn't easy)

So, how can rail network owners and operators boost their chances of completing a digital rail program successfully? We believe that three critical elements for successful digital transformation in rail have been neglected by many organisations so far.


  Agile Change Approaches

Digital transformation programs in rail are multi-billion-dollar, multi-year endeavours with tens of thousands of stakeholders and potentially millions of final customers. The environment is inherently complex and likely to continuously change across the lifespan of the execution schedule as governments turn over, union consultations open and close, and other complex transformation programs are stood up and executed within the same network infrastructure.

In this context, traditional people change management strategies that rely on once-off, linear approaches to planning, structuring and delivering change are ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of digital rail programs. Indeed, numerous digital rail and rail autonomy programs across Europe, the United States, and Australia have struggled with patchy stakeholder buy-in, unforeseen delays, and even unrealised return on investment due to people adoption issues.

Successful people change management for digital rail requires approaches that are flexible and agile by design, continuously reassessing the environment, stakeholders, and levels of adoption to update and refine communication and engagement approaches, key messages, and change management schedules.


  Internal Change Leadership

Successful digital change must also be driven from within an organisation. Numerous attempts across dozens of programs in engaging external consultants as change agents has repeatedly failed to drive results. The deep, disruptive, and authentic change required to deliver a digital railway requires organisational leaders to own and drive change. While skilled external advisors can coach leaders in approaches and techniques to engage and motivate their teams, internal leaders ultimately have the relationships, positional power, and operational context to drive the change in their organisations.

In digital railways programs, leaders across the rail organisation all have pivotal roles in delivering the change. Station managers, trackside supervisors, and maintenance crew chiefs are all vital to driving digital changes into their largely analogue world. Operational leaders have a role in translating the vision of the digital railway into the day to day work of their crews, a role in managing resistance change, and a role in inspiring their teams.


  Data-Driven Change

Many traditional change management practices rely on instinctual approaches. However, digital rail programs are too complex to attempt to deploy “people change by gut-feel”. Data is required to finely gauge the full landscape of change across the operating model, to determine individual and team capability and capacity to change, and to assess current states of adoption or resistance. When these data sets are cross analysed a fact-based change approach can be developed that addresses context and program specific issues, identifies areas of risk, and deploys change management effort where required most.

Combined with an agile approach to change that reassesses the landscape at regular intervals, programs can make decisions and drive adoption based on real-time sentiment analytics from stakeholder groups and can deploy their internal change leadership efforts with those teams that most require support.

Revolutionising Rail requires people; not just technology.


Digital transformation will revolutionise rail. Autonomy and real time management of the rail network through data-based orchestration will deliver passenger and heavy-haul operations that are cheaper, safer, faster, and more reliable. However, the programs to deliver this promise of a digital railway are lengthy, complex, and expensive. The key to delivering the promise of the digital rail is not a data set or an emerging technology; it is the ability of an organisation to successfully lead its people through a fundamental transformation.