On this day, the anniversary of Russia's attack on Ukraine, I reflected on their efforts to change some fundamentals of the railway system. Here is a country at war and battling for survival, but it has found the time and energy to tackle longstanding historic structures upon which its railway system operates. Changing the origin measurement point for track distances from Moscow to Kyiv, the language on tickets, and some of the organisational labels is no mean feat in peacetime, but to do so at this time is arguably a testament to Ukrainian pride and strength against adversity.
Three thoughts occurred to me as I reflected on this bold campaign.
Never doubt the emotion.
I like to think of myself as a commercially minded advisor with an eye on the strategic importance of the transport system and its outputs. I recognise the importance it can and does have in the everyday lives of many people. You tinker with it with appropriate caution and sensitivity. However, after 30 years' I am still always somewhat surprised by the strength of emotion and sentimentality associated with transport. Part of this is driven by the impact I noted before whether that's the daily commute, the impact on house prices or the flight path's noise.
I sense, though, that the emotion goes far beyond the immediate impact on our lives. Our transport system has legacy. It reflects our society of today and that of previous generations. It is a representation of our nations. It is driven by a cohort of committed people, many of whose ancestors were involved in the decades before us. The system's experience, look, feel and language is therefore more important than the utility of mobility it provides and what we typically use to drive our investment cases.
I am a great fan of industrial heritage, and that includes the railway. Some of my favourite photos are those of the marshalling yards at Tinsley, the freight yards at Liverpool, and the faces of characterful staff and passenger of yesteryear at our major stations. Our railway has some historic features of which it can be proud, but I wonder what and where that legacy might become a problem to our pluralistic society. If Ukraine can re-orientate its railway during a war, what ambition might we have to revolutionise our railway and some of its principles? Perhaps distance measured in miles and chains should disappear? Would leveling up be helped by changing Up and Down?
Personal passion and the future
I said earlier that I like to think of myself as a strategic and commercial thinker sensitive to the transport user and employee. However, as I reflect on 30 years' working with transport I have to admit I wouldn't have done it if I didn't have emotional passion for it. There is nothing more rewarding than getting trains to run on time and in delighting customers in need. There is every enjoyment to be had in savouring the legacy, quirks, and history of our transport system.
Perhaps one of those historic moments will come again as we respond to the challenges of today's Britain. Perhaps our shared passion is now more freight, more devolution, improved economics, and acceptance of fundamental change to be fit for the next 50 years. Perhaps we can consign nationalisation, Beeching, Serpell, Sectorisation, Organising for Quality and the 1990s privatisation process to chapters in history and create our own new watershed moment. To do so will no doubt take passion and pride in what we have but a willingness to embrace change.