The Berlin-born Henrik Falk has headed Hamburg’s Hochbahn for a year. In an interview with Hamburg News, Falk looks back on the first year and towards the future and outlines his plans for making public transport smart.
*Hamburg News:** You’ve been in Hamburg for a year now. How are you Mr. Falk?
Henrik Falk:* Very well. I have not regretted my decision for a second. The Hochbahn is a very exciting company. I have been welcomed here very openly and warmly.
Hamburg News: Your name appears to be inextricably linked to digitalisation and transformation. Where does your enthusiasm for technology stem from?
Henrik Falk: I’m not so tech-savvy. Admittedly, I use my mobile a lot and privately as well. But my wife, for instance, is more adept than me with many devices. And during my time as a lawyer, I had very little to do with digitalisation. But I love challenges and that is certainly my personal strength. A move to local transport and the subject of mobility followed my professional switch to the Berliner Verkehrsbetrieben (BVG). And today that has plenty to do with digitalisation and even moreso in future. Now, my job as chairman is to lead the Hochbahn and its staff to a successful future through strategic thinking and action. The Hochbahn would face problems in future, if I lacked personal enthusiasm for the top issue of digitalisation.
Hamburg News: Draw a picture of public transport in future. How does the modern passenger get from one place to another in Hamburg 2020?
Henrik Falk: The passenger will definitely not have to worry about prices and tickets which is at the centre of the “check-in-be-out” system which we are tackling at present. The passenger checks in and out using a mobile phone and is guaranteed the best price. In 2020, passengers will have blanket WLAN coverage synonymous with swift internet. The first self-driving vehicles i.e. initially small buses without drivers will be deployed on feeder lines and across networks. At the moment, we are focusing intensely on ridesharing meaning many passengers share a vehicle on the same route. But our agenda also includes networking with all existing shared mobility offers. In 2020, really simple access to such offers will be a true alternative to a private vehicle. Self-driving vehicles may not be allowed everywhere by 2020. That will take another few years. So there are limits to enthusiasm.
Hamburg News: We are talking about 2020, which is only three years from now. What are your long-term plans in the age of technical acceleration?
Henrik Falk: You should not forget that we are providing very long-term infrastructure such as setting up an entirely new bus system. From 2020, we will purchase only emission-free buses. That little revolution is underway simultaneously. We will be putting EUR 100 million towards new underground trains this year alone. We are also working on a centennial project to introduce the brand new U5 underground connection, which will be driven automatically. This novelty holds a great possibility of allowing public transport to appear smart to the public.
Hamburg News: What do you mean by that?
Henrik Falk: All the hype surrounding self-driving cars, sharing-models – none of that is really new and we have been doing that for over 100 years. A person i.e. passenger does not drive buses and trains themselves. Sharing has always been a natural thing. But nobody actually says that. The name ÖPNV or public transport does not have the sex appeal that Uber, Mercedes or Google are banking on presently. More and more players realize that public transport and individual transport are merging. If we think sharing right through, then that means local public transport. It is up to us to ensure that people do not use public transport simply because they have no other choice, but because it is a conscious decision in line with an urban, sustainable attitude towards life. As a customer, I use my transport of choice. That has a lot to do with a modern lifestyle. That is what we have to pick up on.
Hamburg News: I take the bus, so I’m ….? How do wish to change this image?
Henrik Falk: We are developing a strategy for that. At any rate, our communication must become more provocative to touch the nerve of the city and its people even better.
Hamburg News: How are you preparing your 5,000 employees for your digital course? What do the 1,900 bus drivers think of self-driving vehicles?
Henrik Falk: That is an absolutely fundamental point, which we discuss very openly. It’s important to remember that I am not simply elated about digitalisation. I also love my privacy and do not want algorithms to dominate my lifestyle. As I already mentioned, my job is to lead the Hochbahn and its staff on a path to an increasingly digital world and to ensure success in future. The social issues behind digitalisation are the core questions and must be queried very openly.
Hamburg News: Do you have an answer?
Henrik Falk: Clearly, I can only manage things that I myself have understood. Today, nobody can say when and whether Hochbahn will have fewer bus drivers. Just taking the bus or train during rush hour gives you a feeling for the complexity of the system. That will also be a big challenge for self-driving systems. If I wish to learn more about really disruptive, critical processes, I have to look not only at what Uber und Tesla are doing, but also keep an eye on local projects that indicate possible impacts on my own system. Then, when the time is right, I can develop and work on what are hopefully the right measures for Hochbahn with our staff. Anything else would be like flying blind in a corporate sense. I wish to take all our staff along on this exciting journey.
Hamburg News: You have 5,000.
Henrik Falk: That’s why we are launching a big campaign and from April, we will provide information at 22 events. Apart from that, our new webpage for staff is going online soon and people can use the chat function to ask me questions themselves. And I will answer them. We want to create the greatest possible transparency.
Hamburg News: You recently presented provisional results for 2016 with record turnover of around EUR 500 million and an increase of 2.2 per cent in passenger figures. And you also want to invest around EUR 300 million in 2017. Are these good figures an early consequence of your digital strategy?
Henrik Falk: That would be slightly abridged. But tackling all that and implementing the strategy without any economic success would be disappointing. So it will improve!
Hamburg News: One last question – how is Hamburg positioned in terms of digital connectivity in your opinion?
Henrik Falk: Plenty has happened in that respect in recent weeks and months. Hamburg’s goal of bringing the ITS World Congress for Intelligent Transport Systems to the city in 2021 is really ambitious. The application alone is a real push as it is triggering projects that will drive the issue ahead. I’m very optimistic. Hamburg could become a model city raising the quality of life and economic success and lowering the use of private cars.
Interview by Karolin Köcher
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