Who's Who

Neil Scales OBE: scaling-up for smart mobility

Neil Scales
Neil Scales

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 detections all the way down the M1 and along other routes. So, during the Commonwealth Games in April (2018), 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 (2020). 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.

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