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“We want to get as many people as possible excited about railway travel!”

This was the strapline of OBB-Infrastruktur, part of the Austrian Federal Railways, shown at a presentation in Vienna last week. I was part of forty railway professionals from the UK, learning about ambitious work both planned and in progress to transform the contribution of rail in all of Austria and neighbouring countries.

ÖBB-Infrastruktur AG

We were told that a new culture is needed, that there is a lot of change ahead. There is an ageing workforce, a recruitment challenge and a need to communicate effectively with a wider range of talent.

Does this sound at all familiar – are Train Operating Companies, HS2 or Network Rail in the UK any different?

RSA YRP Study Tour

The new Wien Sud intermodal freight terminal enabling freight to move overland from the Baltic to the Adriatic


I asked our speaker, Franz Hammerschmid, what they needed to do as leaders to invite and model the culture change they are seeking. After all, it’s one thing to say culture change is needed, another to make it happen.

The key phrase I remember in Franz’s answer is this:

“We need to communicate that there are many new and interesting things to do in rail.”

The new Semmering Base Tunnel, 27 km long due to complete in 2026

The new Semmering Base Tunnel, 27 km long due to complete in 2026 taking 30 minutes off journey times


And in the three days we were in Austria, we saw many of these things – significant investment in tunnels, new stations, freight transport, tubes, trams and buses. Nothing is wasted either – nostalgia and historical trams are now focussed on tourism too.

RSA YRP Austia Study Tour

New Wiener Linien underground station Altes Landgut under construction, due to open September 2017


I kept thinking. How can we make culture change work in progress rather than a goal or aspiration that we still need to start?

How can we, as leaders and professionals in the rail industry, be the change in culture ourselves? If it was easy, we would have done it already, after all.

RSA YRP Austria Study Tour

RSA and YRP group photo, taken outside the Wiener Lokalbahnen depot


Then it occurred to me, that on our Study Tour, we were doing it already.

This was the first study tour which was a combination of RSA and YRP. Where the Railway Study Association (RSA) had joined forces with the Young Rail Professionals (YRP) and put together a Study Tour to include everyone.

RSA YRP Austria Study Tour

Participants sponsored by Hitachi and Go-Ahead Group


Collectively, we had invited and begun the change. We had begun behaving as one unit, where we all had value, aspirations, wanted to contribute and learn. It was not just about the “new”, often younger people joining the “old”, the existing incumbents. It was something we created together.

RSA YRP Austria Study Tour

The Museumstramway Mariazell, which connects the railway station of Mariazell with Erlauf Lake.


You will not be surprised to learn it was not perfect as a new experience. There is more we can do next time to maximise the benefit from having wealth, breadth and diversity of experience, perspective, and raw ambition all in the same room together.

But we made a start.

RSA YRP Austria Study Tour

Train Dispatch Centre, observed by members of staff from TfL


A high proportion of the evaluation forms were strongly appreciative of the opportunity to create shared experiences, learn together and from each other, with ideas put forward on how to improve for the trip next time.

Here’s the thing. Maybe culture change is always like this. A “feet first” experience, work out the detail later, revise it for next time- a cycle of doing, reflecting and going again. RSA and YRP did not really know how it would work as a shared Study Tour, but we were willing to take a risk, yes it was a small one, and give it a go.

RSA YRP Austria Study Tour

Wien Hauptbahnhof, the main railway station now offering international connectivity


As we return to work in the UK, I am hoping this experience of working together will encourage us to take further steps in culture change. Rail does have an aging workforce and a recruitment problem. We do need to be more inventive about how we encourage a wide range of people to join in and get excited about railway travel. There are many skills required to respond to our current challenges, to deliver the new and interesting things.

What could your next step be in making this culture change happen? My hunch is that practical steps will have more impact than “chalk and talk”.

I’d love to hear your story, work alongside you and help make it happen.

RSA YRP Study Tour Thank Yous

Nigel Taylor, RSA thanking Helmut Hantak for his extensive help with organising the Study Tour


Many thanks to the very many members of RSA, YRP, OBB, Wienen Linien, Siemens and many more who contributed to the success of this Study Tour, in particular Nigel Taylor, Helmut Hantak, Graham Paterson and Jamie Goddard.

Gill is a member of the Leadership Board of the Railway Study Association and was pleased to conduct the evaluation of the Austria Tour.

Gill is passionate about working with client organisations to help them work out the nuts and bolts of culture change, to help them succeed with their desired results.

If you would like to meet Gill for a coffee, to explore how she could contribute either to your client team directly or to join your larger consultancy project on a collaborative basis, please contact her here.

If you would like to receive more of Gill’s blog, sign up here.

Photo credits: Martin How

Gill How

Helping leaders grow, step up and deliver outstanding results

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