Putting People First.

Achieving Transformational Change in the Rail Industry

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Johannah Randall

An article by Matthew Parris (The Times, 26 May) urges the government, particularly the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to act and implement the Williams-Shapps Rail Plan. Parris highlights the potential negative consequences for the Conservative Party in the next election if the rail system continues to deteriorate.

Whilst this this maybe a challenge for the Conservative Party it is also a problem for the people that operate and maintain the railway. Here, we explore the importance of prioritising people in the rail industry and review the key challenges and solutions.

The Williams-Shapps plan proposed the creation of Great British Railways (GBR), a single entity responsible for infrastructure, safety, maintenance, and planning. GBR would set fares, standardise fare structures, oversee timetables, and receive fare revenue on behalf of the state. While passenger services would still be privately run, they would operate under fixed-term contracts with GBR. Parris acknowledges similarities to the old British Rail system and suggests the plan could benefit from more competition and commercial energy while acknowledging it as a promising starting point.

The Importance of Employee Engagement

One of the challenges faced by GBR in achieving transformational change is the historical lack of emphasis on employee involvement. The Williams-Shapps Plan falls short in fostering meaningful engagement and transforming the relationship between leaders and employees. Several factors contribute to this challenge:

  • Traditional Command-and-Control Structure: The hierarchical decision-making structure limits employee involvement, hindering ownership, motivation, and innovative ideas.
  • Historical Neglect of Employee Engagement: The rail industry has not prioritised engaging employees in decision-making, missing out on valuable insights, expertise, and creativity.
  • Absence of a Comprehensive Engagement Plan: The Williams-Shapps Plan lacks a clear vision for transforming the relationship between leaders and employees, requiring a comprehensive engagement plan beyond training and HR programmes.
  • Resistance to Change: Overcoming resistance to changing established power structures is crucial. Leaders may hesitate to relinquish control or fail to recognise the benefits of employee engagement.
  • Fragmented Governance and Accountability: The complex governance structure in the rail industry creates challenges in establishing clear lines of responsibility and accountability, complicating the implementation of an employee engagement strategy.

Addressing the Challenges

To overcome these challenges and prioritise employee engagement, GBR needs to develop a clear and ambitious engagement plan involving employees at all levels. This can be achieved through measures such as establishing employee forums, encouraging meaningful dialogue, involving employees in strategic activities, and providing channels for feedback and suggestions.

Why People Matter

Recognising the value employees bring to the rail industry is essential for achieving meaningful change if we are to overcome the challenges and break the cycle of poor employee relations. Research demonstrates that engaged, motivated, and empowered employees drive successful organisations, contributing their knowledge, expertise, and innovative ideas to improve operations, enhance customer experiences, and increase efficiency.

Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report, demonstrated that employees who are not engaged, can be indifferent and represent a risk to the business. Many employees who are not engaged are looking to be inspired and may need an extra push to perform at their best. (Employee Engagement vs. Employee Satisfaction and Organisational Culture (Gallup 2022)

Approaching employee engagement as a business strategy yields better results. Gallup’s meta-analysis of employee engagement data consistently shows that engaged employees produce better business outcomes, regardless of industry, company size, or economic conditions. Business units that score in the top quartile of their organisation in employee engagement more than double their odds of success in terms of profitability, productivity, employee retention, and customer perception compared to those in the bottom quartile.

Engaged employees are more likely to show up to work, do more work, and stay with their employers. They are also more committed to quality and safety, which helps improve customer relationships and organic growth. The behaviours of engaged employees result in increased profitability for organisations. Creating the right organisational culture that prioritises employee engagement requires more than just an annual employee survey.

It requires a close examination of how engagement aligns with performance development and human capital strategies. Although engaging employees takes work and commitment, it is not impossible, and organisations that prioritise employee engagement can see improvements in performance.

Lack of employee trust in management affects business outcomes and employee relations. When employees trust their management, it motivates them to participate in decision making, which in turn improves their job satisfaction and commitment to work.

Insufficient employee participation in decision making can lead to low job satisfaction and employee commitment, which in turn affects their intention to quit or “poor industrial relations”. (Participation in decision making: a case study of job satisfaction and commitment (Steven H. Appelbaum, Damien Louis, Dmitry Makarenko, Jasleena Saluja, Olga Meleshko and Sevag Kulbashian).


Building a Culture of Trust and Collaboration encourages open communication, idea sharing, and problem-solving. Valuing employees’ contributions fosters an environment that taps into the collective intelligence and creativity of the workforce.

Investing in Employee Well-being and Development is crucial for transformational change. Prioritising work-life balance, mental health support, and professional growth leads to improved productivity and customer satisfaction.

Embracing Diversity and Inclusion brings fresh perspectives, innovative ideas, and a broader range of skills to the rail industry. Actively embracing diversity fosters a culture of creativity, adaptability, and continuous improvement.

Empowering Frontline Staff with training, resources, and decision-making authority enables exceptional service and responsiveness to customer needs. Their insights and feedback should be actively sought and considered when making operational decisions.

Reaching a Universally Successful Destination

  • To achieve the much-needed transformation in the rail industry, it is imperative to prioritise people.
  • Placing employees at the forefront and creating a culture that values their contributions drives positive change.
  • Engaged, supported, and empowered employees become catalysts for innovation, efficiency, and customer-centricity.
  • Legislative changes, such as the GBR plan, must be accompanied by a deep commitment to putting people first.
  • By doing so, the rail industry can improve service quality and create a thriving ecosystem benefiting passengers, employees, and the nation as a whole.

Link to Matthew Parris article:

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