How can SMEs break into a devolved rail industry?

The impact devolution has had on the rail industry cannot be underestimated. Devolution gives local authorities the opportunity to be more responsive to local requirements and put ‘passengers first’. This process has resulted in a wealth of opportunities. From more localised funding, employment, increased local expertise and a wide variety of benefits for local communities who are now involved and invested in important decision making. From ensuring railways and stations are the cornerstones for local and future regeneration, to making them part of a joined-up transport network, the list of improvements, thanks to devolution, is extensive.  

But the industry is still grappling with the architecture of a railway network constructed centuries before devolution existed. While considerable progress has been made, there is still a long way to go, and many parts of the rail environment remain highly fragmented and complicated. This complex structure can make it difficult and daunting for SME newcomers entering the market, with so many separate divisions to navigate to reach the right people.  

From regions to projects, programmes of workstreams operate predominantly in silos from one another. So, what can SMEs do to overcome some of these barriers? As an SME who has successfully broken into this well-guarded market, we thought we would share some of One Big Circle’s learnings over the past few years and identify the opportunities worth looking out for.  

The William-Shapps plan 

Let us start by saying that the recent announcement of the William-Shapps plan is welcoming news for SMEs. It promises a sustainable, modern railway with greater control for local communities and exciting opportunities for innovators. The plan pledges to reduce the red tape and make it easier for SMEs to enter the market. We are fortunate that One Big Circle is already doing what the William-Shapps plan sets out to achieve – we work with the industry as a single entity, rather than as multiple parts and have adopted a joined-up approach ever since our inception. This makes life easier for us as a business when the plan gets rolled out. 

Having a single organisation to report into moving forward undoubtedly makes it much easier for SMEs to talk to the right people and collaborate effectively with other like-minded businesses. The plan also promises to prioritise transparency and open data, which is positive to hear, particularly for those of us working within the technology sector. One Big Circle relies heavily on data for AIVR to function, and so the more open data that is readily available, the more challenges we can solve both independently and collectively. 

Finding the right people  

The UK rail network is huge and made up of many distinct entities. Because of this, one of the biggest challenges we faced when we first set foot in the industry was finding the relevant contacts to talk to. Reading the trade press and getting involved in industry events was vital in helping us identify who was talking about, and passionate about innovation in rail and what opportunities exist. From there we could make initial introductions with those individuals who had backgrounds in innovation and introduce AIVR to the right people.  

Adapting to different areas and disciplines 

A lot of our work involves collaborating with different areas and divisions of the same organisation.  For instance, when working on a graffiti project with Network Rail, it involved teams from three different geographic locations. The beauty of AIVR is that it is a multiple discipline system, from track worker safety to signalling and planning, which enables hundreds of users across a variety of areas to access the wealth of data that it provides. We found that by listening carefully to the experts and what they needed, we could then tailor and develop AIVR to meet their demands. We knew what we could deliver in terms of video footage and data, so we ensured we worked closely with our clients to understand how AIVR could be adapted to provide specific solutions to their problems.  

At the same time, we didn’t enter into the process with too many preconceived assumptions around how the different elements of the network operated and we engaged our clients early in the development process and demonstrated how AIVR could be evolved to meet their needs, rather than providing them with a complete end product. We listened to any concerns they had and showed them how we would mitigate those.  

Gaining industry rapport 

Cross referral has played a significant role in our success as an SME operating in a devolved industry. Because we have developed an innovative piece of video technology that provides unique benefits in terms of safety and operational efficiencies, we have received cross-referrals across the network. We have managed to develop a bespoke product that directly responds to the industry’s main concerns and brings new ways of working at a time when it is desperately needed. For example, AIVR’s capability to capture video data on a moving train and make it instantly accessible online has enabled operators to remotely monitor safety issues from virtually anywhere, reducing the need for workers to physically go out on-site in danger zones.  

For that reason, it has gained traction across the network. Earning trust from peers is so important for SMEs when navigating a fragmented sector such as the rail industry, as communication between different areas isn’t always straightforward. Building credibility can help to break down some of these barriers and get your business noticed across the board.  

Collaboration is key 

Collaboration between SMEs and bigger corporations is vital and working together as a partnership, rather than as supplier and client, makes a huge difference in the results that can be achieved. There is real value in being in an environment where lots of organisational innovators are working with SMEs to find solutions in a flexible way.  

The SME community working together as a united force is equally important as it makes us stronger than the sum of our parts. Some of the rail challenges are so huge that the bigger corporations would struggle to fix them independently. SMEs can bring specialist skills to the table and are small and agile enough to work quickly and try things out.  

We have found that testing processes and possibilities early, on behalf of our clients, makes life much easier for them as it removes some of the initial legwork. Any work we do that gets the groundwork running is hugely appreciated because we have already tested the technology and integration, so we can confidently determine what works and what doesn’t. We can then take that as an offering to the client.  

All in all, we believe that the William-Shapps plan will play a major role in helping SMEs to break into the rail market. Co-operating with one national organisation should help to strengthen devolved railways by improving consistency in the passenger experience across the network, increasing joined-up planning while considering the needs of local areas, and maintaining key standards across the board. It will help to dismantle the legacy of fragmented railways as devolved rail authorities will need to work closely with Great British Railways to support a single national network. This should make it much easier for SMEs to tap into the market and seek out exciting opportunities moving forward.   

Find out more about AIVR and how it can help you work smarter and safer. 

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