I believe this reticence largely stems from its past, and while there are some encouraging signs of change, more people with conviction and passion need to step forward both to think strategically and stand up for rail.
In the 19th century, railways quickly became a monopoly and got used to getting their own way. Their failure to react fast enough in the 20th century to the rapid rise of road and air transport by adapting to the new competitors, changing their business models, and seeking to remove regulations designed to protect users from their former monopoly status, soon led to financial collapse and either state control or drastic change coupled with a massive loss of confidence - hardly a good recipe for bold action.
Thankfully the dark days of decline in the second half of the 20th century are largely over. Our feature on heavy-haul freight illustrates some of the big rail projects underway in Africa designed to transport minerals for export. Similarly, a political head of steam is building in India to construct the country's first high-speed lines. News that Mexico and Brazil, two countries which abandoned long-distance passenger rail when their railways were privatised in the 1990s, are on the verge of launching high-speed rail projects is evidence of a complete change in attitude to rail amongst politicians and planners.
Nevertheless, there are still many parts of the world where rail has yet to win over the hearts and minds of politicians and the general public. I can't help feeling that if more railway people come forward, the Obama administration's bold attempt to introduce high-speed in the United States would stand more chance of success. Mr Brian Nye, CEO of the Australasian Railway Association, does an excellent job in promoting rail, but he is often a lone voice in a culture wedded to the car, truck and plane.
There are also industry sectors which need champions. For example, Global Rail Transport's recent telecommunications conference in Malaga highlighted the uncertainty among many suppliers and railways about whether to stick with GSM-R, replace it with LTE or even its successor, or to use LTE in parallel for non-vital communications. Someone needs to assess what railways require, consider the long-term options to meet them, and develop a strategy.
Railfreight is another area, particularly in Europe and Asia, which is crying out for a champion who can encourage best practice, share ideas, and fight for rail on a continental scale. Lord Tony Berkeley of Britain's Rail Freight Group does a good job defending private railfreight operators, but again he is often a lone voice.
As we report this month, deep flaws have been uncovered in Britain's passenger franchising system, providing an excellent opportunity for fundamental reform, but few railway managers are willing to voice an opinion, so don't be surprised if only minor changes are made.
There are some encouraging signs of change. The International Association of Public Transport (UITP) has followed its imaginative PTx2 campaign launched in 2009, which was aimed at doubling ridership by 2025, with a set of tools which operators can use to promote public transport (IRJ December p3). Last month, the UITP got the city transport CEOs from Berlin, London, Madrid, Moscow, Paris and Rome to sign a declaration calling on European governments to invest in public transport as a means of kick-starting the European economy. This is exactly the sort of initiative that we need to see a lot more of.
Mr Vladimir Yakunin, one of a handful of railway CEOs who is not afraid to speak his mind and champion the cause of rail transport, has just taken over as chairman of the International Union of Railways (UIC). At his inaugural address in Paris in December, Yakunin said one of his top priorities is to strengthen the UIC's global status and authority, and increase its recognition in the international transport and economic community. He also said an important objective is the development of global transport corridors.
Yakunin is a very knowledgeable and well-connected man who has achieved major reforms as president of Russian Railways, so he is an excellent choice to drive the UIC and rail transport forward. But he can't do it alone, and needs support from his fellow railway CEOs from around the world.
While the tide may be turning in rail's favour, we cannot afford to be complacent, because the other modes are much more skilled and vocal in promoting themselves, and rail needs as much help as it can get to make progress. Just as projects need strong managers with the drive, determination and vision to see them through to completion, so causes need champions. So let's make 2013 the year when rail starts to assert itself.