Recent railway strikes in Britain and France highlight the difficulties faced by managers trying to implement even modest changes to working practices in the face of intransigent unions opposed to accepting any changes on behalf of their members. In Britain, the RMT union fights every change tooth-and-nail. One current dispute which has resulted in strikes is the planned withdrawal of conductors on commuter trains operating south of London, even though this is already permitted on other routes run by the same operator.

In France, a series of strikes in opposition to much-needed modernisation of operating rules ended last month with a victory for the unions. According to the French press, French National Railways (SNCF) has achieved little save for a hefty bill of €249m and the likely prospect of future lost business. Railways have to reduce their costs if they want to remain in business, and redeploying staff from unproductive to productive work is a good method. It is up to managers to handle such changes effectively.

We are in a crazy situation where rail transport has a lead over other modes: the ability to run trains fully automatically, albeit mainly on metros. But the switch to full automation is painfully slow while road transport is making rapid progress with the introduction of autonomous vehicles and could well overtake rail.

Not even all new metro lines open with unattended operation despite the huge benefits in terms of operating flexibility and cost, while many existing metros install communications-based train control (CBTC) but retain drivers for fear of confronting unions, and therefore lose out on the benefits despite investing in the technology.

We are starting to see the introduction of full automation on some urban mainline railways where the need for very short headways mandates it. There is an initiative to automate a heavy-haul railway in Australia and German Rail (DB) plans to conduct trials this year with driverless trains. But there needs to be a more concerted effort to introduce automation on mainline railways, such as busy commuter lines, to reap the advantages and keep one step ahead of road transport.

There is a lot of discussion about the digital railway and its potential to transform rail operation, but there needs to be a clearer understanding of which areas it can be applied and what the benefits will be before a clear strategy can emerge. But, as the slow progress with the roll-out of ETCS in Europe and PTC in North America demonstrates, the adoption of new technology is easier said than done. Several European networks such as Norway now have national programmes for ERTMS, while others remain to be convinced. Initiatives such as the introduction of ERTMS on the TEN-T corridors will surely make a difference as it will connect pockets of ERTMS to form an embryonic network.

The Shift2Rail research initiative should help to identify and nurture new technologies which are worth pursuing, and the fact that Shift2Rail embraces railways and suppliers as well as academics should make the transition from research to implementation much smoother.

As we report in the July 2016 issue , the adoption of 3D printing has considerable potential for railways. DB is currently using it to produce spare parts for trains and infrastructure which it can no longer obtain. While DB is only one year into the project, it can already see that 3-7% of spare parts could be printed in-house.

But it is not just new technology which needs to be embraced. Railways must also address crucial areas such as customer service and marketing to remain competitive. Last month's announcement at the TEN-T Days conference in Rotterdam that five European railway and freight associations and European Union (EU) transport ministers have each pledged to boost the competitiveness of rail freight on the nine TEN-T freight corridors was described by the signatories as an unprecedented effort to unlock international rail freight's growth potential.

The initiative is to be applauded, but the declaration was written in almost impenetrable language littered with unfamiliar acronyms. Such an important document needs to be clear to understand if proposed improvements have a chance of being implemented let alone communicated to freight customers.

Railways have come a long way since the dark days of decline during the second half of the 20th century where the future looked pretty bleak. Rail transport is a growth industry once more, but it does not have a God-given right to survive and prosper. Other modes are changing fast which will make life more difficult for rail if it fails to reduce costs and streamline operations by adopting new methods of working and technology. The challenge is on.