“CAN I tell you something?” asks UITP secretary general, Mr Mohamed Mezghani. He is softly spoken, but there is an urgency in his voice that commands attention. “Generally speaking, the majority of public transport users are women, but women make up just 20% of those working in the transport sector.” Mezghani pauses to let the scale of this disparity sink in.

This shrewd, non-pushy communication style has helped Mezghani quietly and effectively articulate the needs of public transport to global decision-makers since he took up his post in 2018. His low-key approach simply underscores the issues he is passionate about, particularly the under-representation of women, a subject also highlighted this month by IRJ’s Women in Rail Award.

“Often, men don’t even recognise that there is a problem,” he says, noting that there are multiple issues relating to gender (in)equality in the transport sector. The most obvious is recruitment and Mezghani points out that solutions can be as straightforward as including images of female staff in recruitment posters. The subconscious power of role models can be surprisingly effective. And Mezghani speaks approvingly of the dedicated recruitment information sessions for women he encountered on a recent visit to Chile.

However, progress on improving gender equality needs to go far beyond recruitment, he says. As an organisation that generates and assimilates large amounts of data, UITP is well placed to think more analytically about its data sources. Much of the information currently collected isn’t gender-specific. “So when we talk about, say, modal share being 24%,” Mezghani says, “we currently have no idea how many of that 24% are women and how many are men. We need to know this to be able to improve users’ travel experience.”

Similarly, Mezghani is keen to hear more from young people, male and female, as the transport sector, along with many others, faces an ageing workforce, especially in Europe, where a large portion of staff are due to retire over the next few years. He is keen for transport operators to develop much closer partnerships with high schools and universities to foster greater enthusiasm for the sector.

“Although UITP doesn’t talk directly to the public,” he says, “we can provide our members with some useful tools.” And the benefits go beyond simply filling vacancies: younger workers bring in fresh ideas and new ways of working while keeping sustainability front of mind.

For Mezghani, progress and effective communication are synonymous. “When it comes to dealing with young people we need to be able to speak their language. Similarly, when I deal with politicians I need to speak the right language.” Equally important is being able to assist politicians in providing the language they need to deal with voters unhappy about the disruption caused by public transport development projects.

A natural diplomat, Mezghani is adept at making the case for public transport improvements gently but firmly. “Policymakers recognised the value of mobility during the Covid-19 pandemic,” he says, and they are increasingly understanding public transport’s role in promoting social inclusion.

However, he is frustrated by what he describes as the innate need felt by many politicians for quick wins to fit in with short-term electoral cycles and what he sees as their short-sighted focus on car drivers as potential voters.

He also admits that he is disappointed with the slow speed or lack of progress in some areas of public transport, and increasing modal shift in particular. “I can show you reports I wrote 30 years ago,” he says, “and yet most politicians are still very reluctant to embrace the concept beyond metros, which are expensive and slow to develop.”

Mezghani says the key to effective modal shift is to focus thinking away from numbers of vehicles and towards the number of people travelling. And he describes rail as the backbone of future mass transit initiatives, pointing to the Grand Paris Express project as a prime example of rail-led urban development.

Stations, he believes, will be increasingly redefined as mobility hubs, where passengers will move seamlessly between transport modes and, particularly in the case of large stations, will feel safe using them at any time of day or night.

Looking ahead to the next 30 years, Mezghani believes that digitalisation will undoubtedly bring the biggest changes in public transport. “The Covid pandemic helped us as we learned we can work quickly and co-develop ideas effectively, which is useful at a time when the pace of change is accelerating.” The dividends are likely to be reduced costs for operators and funding authorities and greater comfort and safety for passengers. But he warns against innovation for the sake of innovation and highlights the risk of losing sight of IT’s core purpose as a tool to enable better outcomes for passengers so that it becomes an end in itself.

Mezghani says this is particularly true of artificial intelligence (AI) and cybersecurity, this year’s hottest topics at the UITP-promoted IT-Trans event held in Karlsruhe, Germany last month. While AI can bring huge benefits, including predictive maintenance, data on passenger loadings and driverless trains, the flip side is that the large amount of data being generated and the increasing amount of hardware connected to IT networks have substantially increased the risk of disruption from cybercrime.

Until relatively recently cybersecurity was rarely discussed openly, but since UITP set up a committee dedicated to the topic in 2022, operators are increasingly open about the issues they are facing. “We have to recognise there are threats and talk openly about them to raise awareness,” Mezghani says.

Other challenges facing public transport include the unintended consequences of a global drive towards net zero carbon emissions. One of these is the well-documented shortage of people choosing to make a career in public transport. “It’s not just about attracting people in,” says Mezghani, “the real challenge is finding people with non-railway skills, such as experience in IT. And for these kinds of people we are competing with other sectors, like banking and accountancy.” Another consequence is pressure on the supply chain and the ability to deliver what is required by growing networks and rolling stock fleets. A solution here, says Mezghani, is for OEMs to partner with suppliers in other countries to boost production capacity.

Mezghani’s extensive travels around the world and experience of all kinds of public transport systems put him in an ideal position to identify areas of best practice. He praises Japan and the Nordic cities in Europe for developing rail-based solutions that are aimed at the population as a whole. “The image of public transport is improving now in many countries where it formerly wasn’t well regarded, such as the United States which is likely to be a key player going forward,” Mezghani believes. He points to the globalisation of light rail as a positive movement, with developments in Senegal and Chile meriting mention. For developing countries without huge budgets for new networks, Mezghani says much can be done to improve the image of public transport - and make it accessible to all. “We need to make sure it is affordable,” he says, “and that’s not about giving it away for free, but creating the sense it has real value. The best way to do this is to improve quality - people then understand what they’re paying for.”

Now approaching his seventh year as UITP secretary general, Mezghani says the organisation’s three core missions - advocating greater use of public transport, creating a knowledge centre, and providing a networking platform for the industry - remain unchanged.

He says the future will depend on greater collaboration and the identification of further synergies. “We are already seeing this with train manufacturers,” he notes. Greater standardisation and interoperability will also be key for future growth. And while UITP’s essence remains the same, he says new tools and an increase in the pace of working will change how the organisation runs.

However, Mezghani’s focus is very much external, looking to the decision-makers who can enable new public transport projects. In particular, he has elected representatives in his sights. “We need more daring politicians who can think beyond their electoral mandate and make decisions in the long-term interest of the people,” he says.

  • urban mobility policies and travel demand management
  • institutional organisation and the regulatory framework of public transport
  • relationships between public transport stakeholders, and
  • trends and innovation in urban transport
  • urban transport energy efficiency.