I was delighted to be a guest writer in Rail Matters this month. Rail Matters is the newsletter by Hitachi Information Control Systems Europe. I have been enjoying its format and content so getting to write for them was super. You can sign up to receive Rail Matters here
In 2025 we will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the passenger railway in Great Britain.  
Those who built that first line between Stockton and Darlington could barely have dreamed of the technological advances that would be made in the 200 years since then. Our modern track laying machines that can lay over 1000m per day may have astounded the navvies who worked by hand to lay that first iron road.

They would have been less astounded to hear that politics, funding, public opinion, landowners, neighbours, business cases and governance all still play a huge role in shaping rail projects today. Perhaps some different language would have been used, yet those issues that people faced in that very first project are still some of the trickiest to navigate today. A way to manage those effectively is by allocating project sponsors to rail projects.

What are project sponsors? 
The Sponsor of a rail project is often the person accountable for the success of the project. They are the project champion who align the project with strategic objectives, funding and stakeholder needs. They advocate for the project, manage stakeholders, promote the benefits and outcomes – and often manage the internal and external politics.

Why should we have sponsors? 
In an age when everyone is talking about roles being replaced by artificial intelligence there is little worry among the Sponsor community that they will be replaced by AI technology on rail projects.

When it comes to building rail projects the technology, materials, and digital tools we have at our disposal are not only the most advanced they are also advancing at a rate inconceivable in 1825. The rate of advancing change for the 21st century is predicted to be 200,000 years of progress within 100 years.

Our collective ability to plan and manage rail projects is also in exponential growth. This should mean that railways are easier, cheaper, safer, and faster to build. Yet with all this technological and skills advancement we still face challenges in projects.  When projects really do get stuck these days it is rarely the technical challenges that cause the biggest exponential cost rises. We have the finest minds working with the most advanced solutions. The scale of what we can resolve and achieve now is often astounding. Whilst it may take some thinking and time it rarely derails a project.

The biggest challenge in these projects is the same as the biggest asset: people. That’s one area where rail projects really need Sponsors. A great Sponsor is highly valuable in a variety of ways when it comes to managing the people impact on projects.

People in funding and politics  
Rail projects have been political since 1825. Whether you need enabling acts of parliament to grant permission and powers to build and operate railways, commercial agreements to fund passenger trains or funding upgrades to infrastructure, politics play an influential role. Sponsors make the case for rail investment and secure the terms on which it is offered. Knowing the political context, socio-economic conditions and party allegiances is as crucial as understanding the passenger demand and timetable capacity.

Successful rail projects hinge on effective collaboration among various stakeholders, including government bodies, local communities, private enterprises, and advocacy groups. Project Sponsors excel in fostering these collaborations and acting as intermediaries between divergent interests. Through comprehensive stakeholder mapping, Sponsors identify key players, understand their concerns, and develop communication strategies to address and incorporate their input. This proactive approach helps build consensus, ensuring that the project aligns with the broader societal and economic goals of the region.

There are operational staff and teams who have been burned by previous handovers of incomplete or poor quality projects. There are maintainers being squeezed ever tighter on engineering access. Sponsors play a crucial role in understanding their needs and factoring them into the project scope, business case and plans.

Managing expectations  
External stakeholders have high expectations of what rail can do for them. This is often combined with limited knowledge or experience of making changes in a regulated and safety critical environment. Sponsors help explain the art of the possible balanced against the start of the sensible.

Rail is rarely a low-cost investment for politicians. It is a high return on investment option and Sponsors are accountable for championing the benefits of rail projects especially those which occur beyond the boundary fence.

Regulatory relationships  
Rail projects are subject to a myriad of regulations – ranging from safety standards to environmental considerations. Navigating this regulatory maze requires a thorough understanding of the legal landscape, which Sponsors bring to the table. By liaising with regulatory bodies and ensuring compliance, Sponsors play a pivotal role in expediting approvals and mitigating potential obstacles.

In the context of advancing rail projects in Great Britain, good Sponsors emerge as catalysts for success. Their strategic vision, financial acumen, regulatory expertise, political acumen, and stakeholder engagement capabilities collectively contribute to the seamless execution of these complex undertakings. As the demand for modern and efficient transportation solutions continues to rise, the role of Sponsors in championing the cause of rail projects becomes increasingly critical, paving the way for a robust and sustainable transportation future in Great Britain.
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