Paul Campion of TRL shares the organization’s mission to create safe, reliable and convenient transport for all 

I went to university completely unsure of what I wanted to do with my life,” begins Paul Campion, CEO. “I started off studying science but after about a year, got bored, switched to law and decided that law wasn’t for me either. I’m always awestruck by anybody who knows what they want to do at the age of 16, or indeed, the age of 60; I’m still trying to work it out, still following my nose for the things that look interesting. 

“When I left university, I joined IBM and enjoyed a long career, starting as a systems engineer, moving into sales, marketing, then into operations, and finally partnering and working with third parties to build solutions for customers. I lived and worked in the UK, in France, Switzerland, and in the US, and had roles that covered those geographies and extended worldwide, focusing on hardware, software, consultancy, and even finance. 

“I was on the industry advisory panel for what is now the Department for Business and Trade, representing the IT industry and deciding whether there could be any value in creating an innovation organization focused on the transport industry.
The reason I ended up doing that was because by then I was responsible for transport at IBM, so straddled those two industries. 

“As a consequence of our recommendations, the government created the Transport Systems Catapult as the UK’s innovation accelerator for transport and I ended up becoming the CEO. After three years, the government decided to merge the Transport Systems Catapult with the Future Cities Catapult; the thinking being that many of the things that determine whether cities can be successful, sustainable, pleasant places for people to live and flourish are associated with the way that goods, people, and services move around within them. Hence, it made sense to bring them together and this merger gave me the opportunity to look around and see what else was out there. TRL was looking for someone to take the organization to the next stage and so I became CEO, which is where you find me today.” 

TRL was formed 90 years ago as the government’s Road Research Laboratory. For 60 years, it was a government department, responsible for road travel innovation, and interestingly, inventing the zebra crossing, among other landmark developments. “This is a great example of the type of work TRL has carried out over decades,” Paul shares, “quietly forming the world we see around us, particularly from the perspective of safety. The UK’s roads are among the safest in the world, which is down to the way safety is engineered into road design, vehicles, law, and regulations. 

Transforming transport 

“Thirty years ago, the organization was privatized as a social purpose enterprise. Today, while we are a fully commercial organization, we are not answerable to shareholders demanding financial metrics. We’re here to make the world a better place, which is incredibly important to me and my colleagues. Transport has not really changed all that much over the past 100 years, but over the next 20-to-30 years, it will inevitably transform beyond all recognition. 

“There’s obviously the current transition required to decarbonize transport: the transition away from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles. Alongside this, technologies, such as digitization and artificial intelligence are going to enable new and better ways of delivering the outcomes that will transform this industry. 

Improving safety 

“Our sector, however, is a little slower than some, mainly because it’s highly regulated, and rightly so, around issues of safety. Transport infrastructure is massive and a vast sunk cost, which means it’s slow to move, but move it absolutely must because it’s not immune to change. What that does mean, however, is that we get to create the future. TRL is very different today from the organization it was. It’s forward-facing and focused on the problems and opportunities of the companies, authorities, and operators in the transport space. We write software and provide consultancy services, and boast a unique facility in East London, where companies can test and develop future transport products and services. 

“My role is fascinatingly broad,” he continues, “but also focused on helping the organization to embrace the future while ensuring that we are listening to and serving our clients. We can have the best ideas and detailed research, but until someone is exploiting that knowledge to provide a better service or a safer journey, then nothing is changing. Our mission is to make transport safer, cleaner, and more efficient for everyone.” 

Indeed, that may seem a bold claim but as Paul enthuses; “It is a deliberately highly inclusive and diverse statement. We’re here to try and ensure that everyone is enabled to flourish. Of course, transport is only interesting and important to the extent that it enables people to go to work, to take their children to school, and to participate and thrive in society. I feel very strongly that what we do all day is focused on the good of humanity.” 

This focus is particularly evident in the organization’s efforts to improve safety. “As I said,” Paul explains, “the British roads are among the safest in the world. While that’s true, it’s still a sobering thought to consider that last year over 1600 people were killed on UK roads; that’s four or five people a day, every day, killed in what we, as a society, consider routine traffic accidents. I honestly don’t think that’s good enough. Much of what we do is centered on trying to improve figures like that. 

“One of the software products we write enables countries or indeed any organization, to record, interpret, analyze and understand why accidents are happening and what can be done to improve the situation. In the State of Himachal Pradesh in India, for example, the road accident rate was reduced by about a third in a very short time period, approximately two-to-three years. This was achieved by, among other things, acting on the recommendations that came from the software we had provided. 

Collaborative partnerships 

“On a day-to-day basis, we work with our own government, carrying out longitudinal studies to understand why accidents happen, and make recommendations for how to prevent them. Over many years, we have worked in small and large ways to help organizations, regions, and countries to regulate the systems that many automotive companies are introducing, such as advanced driver assistance, automatic lane-keeping, parking and automated braking. We have done a lot of work with transport and infrastructure owners to ensure that the condition of the assets is understood and that they can efficiently and effectively manage and maintain them to ensure that roads stay safe and comfortable to travel. 

“We’re also working on many aspects of new transport types. We employ more than 100 engineers and scientists with a broad range of disciplines, which enables us to understand how materials, systems, and vehicles behave, but also how humans behave and interact with them. For example, how do people use electric vehicles? How do they change their lives? What are the factors that cause them to be able to take advantage of the features of an electric vehicle?” 

Mobility for all

Looking to the future, Paul shares what should be top of the agenda for industry leaders: “Transport, in the UK and certainly in most western industrialized nations,” Paul shares, “is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. It’s an extremely complex problem and decarbonization is non-negotiable. While there is a huge amount of activity, it’s still neither sufficient nor fast enough. Equally, safety is of paramount importance. From pedestrians to cyclists, we’re not simply talking about drivers. Thousands of people are injured or affected by accidents on the roads, and this extends to all road users, such as those operating within the freight and logistics industry. I genuinely believe the issue needs to be taken more seriously and a plan of action agreed upon. 

“Likewise, the wider issue of inclusion is under-discussed. To prosper in life nowadays requires mobility. Too many people are excluded from opportunity, whether due to economic, physical or social constraints. Any part of life requires some form of integration into the transport system and too many people are still disadvantaged because transport has historically been too often designed for a generic person, who incidentally, is, white and male. You don’t have to be disabled, you just have to be female, to see that the transport system is not serving you as well as it could. I think we can serve our citizens better than we currently do,” he asserts. 

“I’m in transport because I think it’s one of the most important and interesting places you could possibly be. We choose to work in the industry because it makes a difference and is integrated and embedded into every part of our lives. As such, we need to have a better conversation with our young people to show them that this is something that matters and a place where they can make a difference. 

“The amount of taxpayers’ money spent on transport is not inconsiderable and if delivered in the right way, it can improve lives. I think we need to be talking about the future of transport in much more imaginative and positive ways. We need to help politicians to tell better stories than frankly, the current reductive versions being told. 

Inclusive innovation 

“Jargon words, like ‘mode’ and ‘mobility as a service’, are bandied about but this is not how the average person speaks about transport. ‘I’ve got to go to the shops, I wonder which mode of transport I should use?’ is a question no human has asked ever. While it is appropriate within the sector to enable efficient communication, it is not the way to engage the average person on the street. The obligation is on us to talk a more common language,” he concludes. “If we find that people are uncomfortable with the thought of their taxes being spent on a certain scheme or find that people are not seeing the benefits of new technology, then that’s on us. People are trying to live their lives and if we are not telling relatable stories then shame on us.”  

Paul Campion 

Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Transport Research Foundation, a non-profit company established for the impartial furtherance of transport and related research, consultancy, and expert advice. TRL is a world leader in creating the future of transport and mobility, using evidence-based solutions and innovative thinking.