Greater reliability, better connections and more trains: these are the three aims of Network Rail’s Digital Railway strategy for using technology to make the most effective use of existing infrastructure.
So far this £300 million programme has looked at ways to operate more trains on an already under-pressure network, without the cost of constructing more track or rebuilding parts of the route to accommodate double-deck rolling stock. It has also looked at improved reliability, greater connectivity and lowering costs, rather than simply adding more services.
And with passenger journeys on the increase – journeys across Britain reached 418.5 million during the three months from April 2016, up 1.6% from the same period in 2015, according to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) – these aims are imperative.
But what this digital strategy appears to lack is a more comprehensive focus on the passengers themselves – how can the UK’s railways improve the journey experience?
As with any other form of transport, the digital transformation of the railways should be about overhauling passenger communications, the ticketing processes, service flow, how operators use travel data, the interoperability of systems and improving the overall customer experience to give passengers what they want – where, when and how they want it.
On 13 October, DfT announced that rail passengers can now claim compensation when trains are more than 15 minutes late. The policy, Delay Repay 15, will be launched first on Southern trains, which have suffered months of high-profile disruption over disputes about the role of conductors. It will then feature on other Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) services in the coming months before being rolled out across the country.
Previously, passengers could only claim pay-outs when services are delayed by at least 30 minutes, but, according to the ORR, just one in five people actually do so. The reason? Either not enough people actually know about it, or for those that do it’s generally a long, difficult online process that results in passengers giving up or just not bothering.
Reducing the delay time which makes passengers eligible for compensation, though, is not going to cut it: the Government needs to provide a simple digital solution that will allow passengers to quickly and easily engage with the policy and receive compensation in an efficient manner, such as via an app.
Further opportunities abound with the introduction of a mobile app: it could double-up as an effective means to track delays, notifying those people most affected. It could allow the operators to provide meaningful loyalty rewards and usage compensation, such as discounted season tickets or vouchers to spend at the station.
Digital, therefore, can improve the customer service experience both on the ground at stations, and give passengers more control on-the-go.
TACKLING PASSENGER GRIPES
How can technology help? Standing seems to be a real pain-point for passengers in the whole ‘lack of value’ argument, so a mobile app or other digital solutions could eradicate this pain-point easily. Passengers could be directed to emptier carriages rather than being forced to stand, or they could be advised of quieter trains when pre-booking, so that they can choose alternative travel in order to get a seat.
One thing I’ve regularly noticed at stations throughout the UK is that staff have no more information than what’s available on the Trainline app – providing no additional value to passengers. Station staff need greater connectivity with a centralised point in order to have exclusive access to real-time data and updates.
Even on the London Underground, it’s obvious that a TfL representative with a walkie-talkie has less information on tube delays and incidents than the passengers who are now able to access Wi-Fi underground in the UK capital.
With the introduction of contactless and app ticketing, the role of station staff is no longer to sell: it’s to provide informed customer service and up-to-the-minute data. Station staff across the country need to be equipped with iPads and other technology that gives them the knowledge that commuters so desperately need on a daily basis.
DEALING WITH DISRUPTION
No existing app or train operator is currently providing any valuable digital disruption for passengers. If Network Rail wants to do what Uber has done for travelling by taxi, or Airbnb has done for overnight accommodation, then it needs to utilise the multitude of data it collects about routes and passengers, and use it via digital technology to provide help and advice for struggling passengers.
When my train is delayed, my app will simply state ‘cancelled’ or ‘delayed’. Why not suggest alternative routes? There is a huge opportunity here for an app that provides personalised information and recommendations for each affected commuter.
One of the more complicated areas of train travel is ticketing. It’s a service that is becoming ever-more digitised in a bid to reduce the amount of paper, but still remains a problem area, especially when people travel on long journeys and need to use multiple train operators.
Again, a national initiative is needed to simplify this. Connectivity in rail travel shouldn’t just apply to the infrastructure and the track: it needs to apply across all train operators, all station staff and all trains.
This, to my mind, is achievable at a cost a lot less than the £300 million that Network Rail is currently investing in reliability, and could certainly happen over a much shorter timeframe.
Passengers understand that replacing rolling stock and mending track takes time, but in the digital age they don’t understand why the Government hasn’t embraced all the opportunities that passenger data and digital technology presents.
Our white paper on the Connected Traveller offers more insights on the opportunities and threats of digital disruption in the travel industry.