Neil Scales OBE: Scaling-up for smart mobility
Leaving school at age 16 to become the last craft apprentice in the UK’s Sunderland Corporation Transport didn’t put the brakes on a fulfilling career for the current Director-General of the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads (TMR), Neil Scales OBE. He’s worked in transport extensively across the UK and Europe, including roles with the World Bank and European Commission.
As CEO and Director-General, he turned around troubled UK transport authority, Merseytravel, putting it back in the black after just two years. In this role, he oversaw a workforce of 1,000 staff, managed a £250 million budget and was responsible for about 200 million passenger journeys every year by train, bus, ferries and through two tunnels.
In fact, he has an OBE for services to transport and was named one of the most influential people in UK public transport – above Sir Richard Branson actually! He has a Bachelor of Science, a Master of Science (Control Engineering and Computer) as well as an MBA. He even has work underway on a PhD.
Scales is a Commissioner for the National Transport Commission (NTC), the Chair of the Austroads Board and the Deputy Chair of the Australian Road Research Board (ARRB). He is also a board member of the Queensland Transport and Logistics Council, the Tourism and Transport Forum, Roads Australia, the Australian Centre for Rail Innovation and the Queensland Police-Citizens Youth Welfare Association.
Can you tell us a little about TMR in 2019?
TMR is about creating a single integrated transport network accessible to everyone. To do this, we manage assets worth more than $75 billion and have an operating budget of almost $6 billion. I’ve been with the department since March 2013 and since then have set about helping build that network. But, the job will never really be done, because the network is always changing and evolving. For example, dockless electric Lime scooters were recently launched in Brisbane. It’s a different way of getting around the city – offering us a new option for mobility as a service.
What’s important about managing a transport business?
My mission is to create a safe, secure, cost-effective, sustainable and integrated public transport system that’s accessible to all. It’s not just about engineering solutions. It’s absolutely critical to consider the needs and perceptions of customers. My management studies have helped me value the importance of people management and motivating staff.
Can you tell us more about how you use data?
Here in TMR, we recently did an audit of data we have access to – not just from the network, but also from other sources such as through Bluetooth detection all the way down the M1 and along other routes. So, during the Commonwealth Games in April, if you had a mobile phone in your vehicle, we were counting your car in real time. We used that data, combined with interpretive algorithms, so on a screen you could see in real time where congestion was.
Where are we heading?
We’ve got lots of data – the next step is to use that to make the system safer. So, our next step is an autonomous vehicle that we’re currently fitting out so we can partner with key stakeholders to deliver a pilot project in Ipswich next year. The pilot will not only involve an autonomous vehicle, but 500 other vehicles.
The point of this isn’t to cut another ribbon or have the biggest trial, but to show how all these vehicles interact, how they use the road network and generally test things out. For example, as the vehicles operate within the white lines, there is a physical infrastructure side to ensure the lines and signs are in the right place, so the instrumentation can read them. It’s not all high tech. A lot will be pretty mundane to ensure the infrastructure can connect to autonomous vehicles.
We are very excited about delivering this demonstration project, the same as our colleagues are, particularly in America and Korea. We’re doing small incremental steps along the way. We’ll not be leading this tech; we’ll be chasing this tech, and how we integrate it will be the issue.
What’s something the average road user wouldn’t know about you?
I’m a champion of the Woorabinda Aboriginal Community in northern Queensland. I find that very interesting and rewarding, especially having only just become an Australian citizen. I have also been a strong advocate for the issue of domestic and family violence for four years. It just cannot be right that one woman each week is killed by a person she knows. Blokes are victims, too. No one person can solve the issue. (Scales was the Queensland Public Sector’s CEO Champion against domestic violence from 2015 to 2017. He also won the Australia’s CEO Challenge Race in 2017 which raises funds and awareness for the issue).
Who’s your transport hero?
One of my absolute heroes is Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He built dockyards, ships, bridges, tunnels, and railways. He lived in the 1800s, and was the consummate engineer and transport polymath. He would get around the country [England] in his horse and coach, and at one point had the equivalent of two billion sterling in work. His designs truly revolutionised transport and engineering in general. (Brunel is best known for building a network of tunnels, bridges and viaducts for the Great Western Railway in the UK. He also built the first propeller-driven, ocean-going, iron ship, which, when built in 1843, was the largest ship ever built).
Where to next for you after TMR?
This is the best job I’ve ever had, so I’m not planning on moving anywhere.
What advice would you give to someone looking to work in transport technologies/smart mobility?
Do a business degree as it will teach you how to think. Then, make sure you’re up to speed on what’s happening with data analytics.
I’ve got four degrees – almost none of which I now use in a day-to-day context. But what I do still use – and what’s still key is having all the tools in the toolbox – how to analyse situations, strategise, make decisions, and so on. I believe that if you’re not committed to lifelong learning, then you’re going backwards. Have the agility to change your viewpoint or you won’t have the benefit of new technology or ways of working.
How much of a shift do you see ahead for public transport in a MaaS age?
Public transport is an integral part of MaaS, we refer to it as the spine and it’s important that MaaS encourages the use of public transport. Strengthening that spine is important, incorporating our customer expectations and preferences in the improvements that we endeavour to make. It’s more of a pivot than a shift, MaaS will introduce new business models and ways of delivering services that will help to achieve our vision of a single integrated transport network accessible to everyone.
How much of a shift do you see the public having to make in regards to public transport in the MaaS age?
At TMR, the customer is as the centre of everything we do and in a MaaS age, we would consider this, even more the case. In Queensland, MaaS is about co-designing with our customers, government and industry to ensure local solutions are implemented for local issues by local people. Customers will need to trust in the MaaS value proposition, that connections to public transport are seamless and safe, options are affordable.
MaaS assists the customer by removing the complexities of travelling on our network. There is a potential for a great shift, but we need to ensure that we consider and meet customer expectations around those things that are important to them, like personalisation, affordability and safety. Based on international deployments of MaaS, we know the customer behaviours that are needed to make it successful, but for TMR it’s important that we consider the Queensland context and the Queensland customer.
When do you think we will see a true, non-conceptual MaaS at work in Australia?
Elements of this are already in play. The technology foundations are being built, new modes are emerging and elements of MaaS are being trialled. TMR’s response to the transport requirements for the 2018 Commonwealth Games showcased this, incorporating MaaS elements such as booking services and real time information to our customers to help them make choices about how they travel, incorporating different modes.
A true non-conceptual MaaS ecosystem isn’t far away, we acknowledge that the pace of change in the MaaS space will be rapid, it’s about how we work together to bring together the elements already in play.
Will MaaS work? What barriers are there to its taking off?
A collaborative approach will mean that MaaS will work. At TMR, we see ourselves as an enabler and broker of transport into the future, where we consider the customer, government and industry in the ecosystem. Considered as challenges to work through (not necessarily barriers) are:
- Customer acceptance and the customer value proposition
- Ownership of the customer in a MaaS model
- Delivery models across urban, regional and rural communities
Do you think MaaS will be available in regional Queensland? Where might its spread stop, and what might stop its spread?
MaaS should be for every Queenslander, it helps us to connect communities, connect people to people and people to places. For Queensland, we are considering MaaS across all of our channels in the regional, rural and urban context. We understand the importance of the technology option, along with the integration of existing channels that incorporate face-to-face and phone options. Many of our customers want to talk to people, the human element is important. We don’t consider the spread of MaaS stopping, we want to co-design MaaS so it is tailored to communities and the available transport services.
What’s more important in MaaS – the pricing, or the multiplicity and easy availability of mode options?
The customer will drive this, the question I pose to you is what’s important to the customer? Dependability, good value, personal relevance, confidence, safety and integration will need to form part of the customer value proposition.
If MaaS has a strong take-up in major cities, how soon do you see it as having an impact on single-occupant car journeys? And what might be that impact?
This really links to your question around customer behaviours. MaaS challenges the current thinking around two-seat journeys and sharing. Sharing is key in MaaS, it links to the trend of a sharing economy which can be seen now in other industries, look at Airbnb and Netflix. If we can build the customer value proposition to encourage sharing in the MaaS environment, the impact will be substantial.
What do you see as the Transport of Tomorrow in the short-term? (5 years out)
For the business that I lead, the Transport of Tomorrow is about technology, disruption and customer expectations. I have many opportunities to use emerging technology to create better experiences for my customers, it’s about how I do that in a way that makes sense to the customer and incorporates partnerships with industry.
What do you see, if your crystal ball/wish list extends this far out, in the Transport of Tomorrow in the medium-term? (20 years out)
In 20 years MaaS will be well established along with other innovations that industry is already exploring or already mature in, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics. These are all elements that we have discussed as part of intelligent transport systems and the continued emergence of autonomous vehicles will drive a shift towards MaaS business models. 20 years out, to be honest I predict much sooner than that, sees a single integrated transport network accessible to everyone, that’s my vision and the vision of my department. MaaS and all of these innovations present new opportunities to achieve that vision.