In profile: Leon Daniels from highways to shipping and the Olympics…

Managing Director, Surface Transport at Transport for London (TfL), Leon Daniels retired from TfL at the end of 2017, and was keen to stay active and involved in the transport industry.

Setting up his own consultancy business, he now works for a variety of companies and governments in non-executive and advisory roles.

This has led to invitations to contribute to a variety of discussions and debates concerning the future of the industry. Last week, he chaired Logistics UK’s Future Logistics Conference, encouraging speakers from across industry and government to share their views on five key trends affecting the sector – alternative fuels, business models, data, communities and borders.

Next summer, he will be chairing the eagerly awaited ITT Hub conference, postponed from earlier this year owing to COVID-19 restrictions.

This will be a two-day exhibition and conference, which will provide a platform for all those involved in transport and logistics to experience the latest technologies and debate the big issues facing the industry in the coming decades.

Industry start

Leon’s career in transport began in the inflation-racked 1970s, when he was one of the team at the Department for Transport which helped create the Highways Act 1980.

After the DfT, Leon moved to shipping, before moving out of the industry altogether into publishing.

His publisher was the late vintage-vehicle enthusiast Prince Marshall. After a trip to the US, Mr Marshall sent his team out to find a sponsor and they managed to secure Johnnie Walker. This paid for the professional restoration of a bus from 1930, which Mr Marshall managed to persuade London Transport to run as a tourist attraction.

“So I was sucked into transport backwards,” Leon says, “which continues, as I’m Chairman of the London Bus Museum at Brooklands. I share a bus with Sir Peter Hendy, the Chair of Network Rail, and in fact we were out in it last Saturday.”

Capital challenge

Following 13 years at FirstGroup, Leon was appointed Managing Director at Transport for London.

Running its £3.5bn Surface Transport business must have had its pressures, but Leon remembers his time there fondly. One of his biggest achievements during his time there was his role in helping deliver the London Olympic Games in 2012.

“Successfully delivering the first part of the Olympic Games was huge,” he said. “Lots of people thought we’d never do it, it hinged around something that was very important for logistics, it hinged around getting rid of 30% of the volume off passenger and on the roads.

“Somebody who shall remain nameless from the Cabinet Office rang up and said we don’t think you’ve done enough, we don’t think enough traffic is going to be displaced, this is going to be a complete disaster and we want you to know that your name’s on it”

There followed a long campaign to persuade businesses to retime and replan their deliveries. His team worked closely with the logistics industry, retailers and the hospitality sector, helping to organise how they would receive their goods.

On the morning of the opening ceremony, however, Leon received an unwelcome phone call. “Somebody who shall remain nameless from the Cabinet Office rang up and said we don’t think you’ve done enough, we don’t think enough traffic is going to be displaced, this is going to be a complete disaster and we want you to know that your name’s on it.”

However, much to everybody’s surprise, at the beginning of the games London’s streets were virtually deserted. On the Monday, Leon received another phone call. “They rang up and said you’ve overcooked this. This is terrible, you’ve overcooked this. The retailers are screaming. There’s tumbleweed blowing down the centre of Oxford Street.”

What none of the other host cities had ever told them was that the opening week of the games is dominated by the early heats of the less popular sports. “You don’t really get into the big stuff, like the men’s 400 metres and so on, until you’ve got some of the earlier heats out of the way,” he said.

Outside the Olympic village in Stratford, East London near the tube, rail and bus interchange hub on 28 July 2012, the day after the opening ceremony

As they got into days four and five of the games, however, it all came right, and his team’s efforts to displace 30% of the traffic started to pay dividends.

Leon found the whole experience hugely rewarding, not just for the satisfaction of pulling off a major feat of traffic management, but also because of the opportunities it afforded to young people.

“It gave us a once-in-a-lifetime chance to put the promising young people into positions of responsibility, for a learning experience that nobody could ever replicate,” he says.

“So to see all those young people, many of whom have now got into really great positions in Highways England, in business, and in other agencies, that was rewarding too.”  

Transformative technology

Over the course of his career, Leon has seen the pace of change in transport accelerate dramatically. Much of this change can be attributed to the giant strides taken in technological development.

“We have to remember that the iPhone was only invented in 2007, so a relatively short time ago people didn’t have this sort of technology in their hands, they didn’t have real-time information in their pockets.”

He said this hasn’t always been a positive development for operators of passenger services, however. Passengers at bus stops faced with a 12-minute wait, for example, may decide to walk instead of wait, which can be counterproductive to bus revenues.

Leon believes that the availability of good quality data has also dispelled some of the myths around engineering.

“Really good data means that we know about the lifetime of components, right down to the drivers who are good and who are bad,” he said. “All of that information is just extraordinary.”

One event, many disciplines

As Chair of the forthcoming ITT Hub event and conference on 30 June and 1 July 2021, Leon said he is “super excited” about the event for a number of reasons.

The first is that stands a very good chance of being the first major conference on thought-leadership that people will be able to attend in person, after the restrictions are eased on business events following the pandemic.

“I am bursting to meet real people and see real products as opposed to seeing them in two dimensions on a screen,” he says.

The second reason he is excited is the opportunity the event will offer delegates to see not just the latest vehicles, but also hear from experts from the related fields of energy, data and technology.

For the first time all the ingredients in passenger and logistics are on one site. This is where the ingredients of the future will be cooking

“Never before have I seen the opportunity to bring together for the first time, the vehicle manufacturers, the data experts, the disrupters and the energy experts.

“I’ve been to plenty of shows where there’s been lines of vehicles. I’ve been to plenty of shows about technology and so on. For the first time all the ingredients in passenger and logistics are on one site. This is where the ingredients of the future will be cooking.”

Daniels also believes the event will give delegates the opportunity to get early sight of the business opportunities and challenges coming down the track.

“If people go to it, I’m sure they’ll see business opportunities for themselves, they will see business threats for themselves and they’ll see the latest products and services that they ought to be considering in their business,” he said.

Passenger transport in the balance

As someone who is steeped in the past, present and future evolution of transport, Leon is not averse to projecting future trends. While COVID-19 has rocked the transport industry across the board, Leon sees the pandemic as a catalyst for trends that were already emerging.

“It’s like we’ve had five years’ progress in six months,” he says. “There was already a trend to work from home. Fridays were noticeably quieter on the transport network. We already had online shopping and home deliveries. It’s just now we’ve got more of both.”

While he believes some sections of the logistics sector have enjoyed “a bumper time” during the pandemic, his prediction for the passenger transport industry is more sobering.

“We’ve been catapulted forward at least five years, and some of those trends won’t go back,” he says.

“I think that 20% of the passenger market has gone for good. It won’t come back. And why’s that? Because these people won’t be going to the office every day, won’t be going to work every day and they will be getting their goods delivered at home. Alternatively, they won’t have jobs at all, or the money to spend.”

I think we’ve seen the high-water mark of bus and rail passengers in transport for the rest of my lifetime. So that’s a structural change”

If Leon’s prediction comes to pass it is clearly not good news for high street retail, rail or bus and coach.

“Some of that’s permanent,” he said. “It will clearly recover from where it is, but it will never recover in my view to the numbers we were seeing.

“I think we’ve seen the high-water mark of bus and rail passengers in transport for the rest of my lifetime. So that’s a structural change.”

On the freight and logistics sector, Leon is more optimistic: “I think the last-mile delivery part at least, and potentially more, will be determined by the government as critical infrastructure, and will for the future be protected the way that telecoms and gas and electric and water are.”

“Frankly, if this coronavirus had arrived 10 years earlier,” he ends, “we might not have had the online shopping capability or the work from home capability that we’ve luckily had in 2020. And I think the government will take steps to protect it.”

This article was first published in Logistics Magazine, the magazine of Logistics UK

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