A year like no other

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Jacqueline Starr / Andy Bagnall, RDG.

The Rail Delivery Group’s Jacqueline Starr, chief executive officer, and Andy Bagnall, director general, look back at a year of pandemic and start to discuss what the future may hold for the industry and the nation.

On 23 March last year, the unthinkable happened: the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on TV and told us we must stay home in order to protect the NHS and save lives, in a phrase that became familiar to us all as we grappled with the health, social, and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The PM’s first lockdown speech remains a landmark moment in the worst post-war crisis our nation has faced, in a year that was like no other in our lives. It was likewise a year without comparison for the railway and its workers.

Rail needed to keep going. As the nation’s lifeline of connectivity – getting essential workers to the frontline and essential goods to our front doors – putting the brakes on was never an option. The amount of freight carried on the railways actually increased last year. Passenger services had to adapt quickly, both to changes in demand and to what passengers undertaking essential travel needed on the ground. Rail workers stepped up to the mark in offering advice and reassurance, from extra cleaning to working with British Transport Police to successfully drive up the number of people wearing face coverings.

We should take this moment to look back and remember with heartfelt compassion family, friends and colleagues who tragically died. We should give thanks for all essential workers and the sacrifices they made, including the railway family. As a nation we will always be grateful for their resilience and selflessness throughout the year.

We should also thank the passengers who adapted to new timetables and new safety measures, helping keep our rail workers and the network safe.

Discussing the future

As a nation we have shown we can adapt while preserving the best of what went before – our innovation, our tenacity, our togetherness. As we prepare for the recovery, we know things have changed and more change will come, for the nation, for the rail industry, and for many more sectors and businesses that are part of the UK’s social and economic fabric.

The rail industry must of course have a voice in the wider discussions about how we rebuild our economy and society in the recovery. But we must also listen. What do our businesses need? What do our communities need? What do our high streets need? What do our customers need? What do the rail industry and our workers need?

To kick off a public discussion to ask these questions and consider the answers, RDG is launching our Big Conversations podcasts next week. Each episode in the series of six invites an expert guest to give insight into, and analysis of, the challenges and changes ahead in their sector. RDG’s director of nations and regions, Robert Nisbet, hosts the discussion and explores the issues and rail’s role in the recovery with guests from business, consumer, environmental and community groups. The series starts with Jo Causon, chief executive of the Institute of Customer Service, discussing the customer of the future.

These are the conversations we need to engage with to meet the challenges ahead, to take every opportunity to build a better, greener economy and society. All of us, in every sector, need to draw on both the versatility and original thinking that saw us through the year we could not have imagined.

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