If there is one thing that we have learned during the past 20-year maelstrom of railway reform, restructuring, liberalisation, concessioning and privatisation, it is that today's railway managers need to keep a firm focus on the commercial aspects of their business.
For operators such as the Class I railroads of North America, or the private mineral railways of the southern hemisphere, the message is not new. But for railways emerging from state control after anything up to 100 years, the transition to a commercial world can be disconcerting. Throw in different models of competition and the degree to which politicians are prepared to relinquish control, and the complexity has never been greater.
Gone are the days of simply running the railway because it is there, and expecting the taxpayer to pick up the bill. Today every route, main line or branch, needs a proven business case to justify its continued existence.
Profitability is by no means assured, but many operators achieve positive results by focusing on what rail does well. As we have remarked before, it is in areas such as heavy-haul freight, high speed inter-city and long-distance high-volume freight that the rail mode has reinvented itself to harness its inherent technical advantages.
This is not to say that every line must be profitable in strict business terms. The huge volumes of commuter traffic flowing in and out of the world's major cities rarely cover their true costs, but today few decision-makers would question the contribution that rail makes to economic prosperity and quality of life. Regional routes have a role to play in terms of social mobility, offering a lifeline to economic prosperity. But in all such cases the social benefits need to be quantified and reimbursed through a concession or operating agreement that puts the public-sector financial support on a sound contractual basis.
The rail sector is well-placed to capitalise on growing concerns about energy use and environmental sustainability which will increasingly drive transport policy. It is encouraging to see the investment going into new railways in countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia and China, and to see where rail's benefits are being recognised. However, the competition is not standing still. New cars and aircraft are more fuel-efficient, quieter and emit fewer pollutants. Our industry needs to demonstrate a willingness to press ahead with technical advances and continuous improvement.
Rail has traditionally been an engineering-led business, but today's management teams need a much broader skill set. It is heartening to see how new entrants are challenging entrenched views and bringing expertise in economics and marketing, for example. Nevertheless, a good understanding of the engineering issues involved in running a railway, large or small, is vital for success. We have seen too many examples in recent years of what can happen when technical skills are dispersed or sidelined.
A stronger magazine
In this diverse and increasingly global market, it is perhaps more important than ever before to exchange ideas and share best practice. As the rail industry's leading business-to-business magazine, Railway Gazette International has long been committed to facilitating the exchange of technical and commercial innovations across our broad readership spanning many different disciplines.
Over the past couple of years, we have been giving considerable thought to our role in the internet era, with near-instant communication changing the way people do business. As I talk to operators, suppliers and government officials around the world, I hear regular comments about information overload - the technology to deliver news and data is outstripping people's ability to process and absorb it.
And it is not just online news - more and more niche magazines are targeting sub-sectors of the rail industry, both technical and regional. But focus on a small sector and you risk missing the big picture. Track and trains, engineering and operations, commercial and financial, political and social - today's industry leaders need at least a good working knowledge in every aspect of the business. And in a global market, it is important to compare and contrast at an international level.
I believe our role remains clear: to seek out the news, to filter and interpret the data, selecting and presenting the key business and technical information that our readers need. What is changing, though, is the way in which we deliver this information.
This month we are relaunching Railway Gazette International with a stronger, more business-like style. We believe the new look will make the magazine easier to read, and help readers identify the different elements of each month's contents.
Our revamped Intelligence section will continue to provide comprehensive reporting and analysis of key developments and market information across the whole rail sector, both main line and urban. This will be backed up by regular online news reports at www.railwaygazette.com and the weekly electronic newsletter we launched in February.
Each month's feature articles will cover two main themes - generally one looking at a technical or operational discipline, and one at an important geographical region. For more immediate coverage, our In Focus section provides the opportunity to look at topical subjects in depth. And our new Viewpoint column gives industry professionals the chance to air their thoughts about important issues month by month.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, we are launching a new Forum section, dedicated to building and strengthening relationships across the world's railway community. I believe that we have a vital role to play keeping people in touch, and I would like to encourage everyone to participate in this section as it develops. Forum will also be expanding online as part of our forthcoming web development strategy.
Editor-in-Chief, Railway Gazette International