Improving train reliability could be just half the digital transformation story. Rebecca Crook at the BIO Agency suggests that we have an enormous opportunity to improve the customer experience at a fraction of the cost

Earlier this year, Network Rail’s digital transformation director told a conference audience in London that more trains, better connections and greater reliability are the three aims of Network Rail’s Digital Railway strategy to apply technology in order to make the most effective use of existing infrastructure.

This £300 million programme has so far looked at ways to operate more trains on an under-pressure network, without the costly need to construct more track or rebuild parts of the route to accommodation double-deck rolling stock. It has also looked at better reliability, greater connectivity and lowering costs, rather than simply adding more services.

These aims are all necessities. After all, according to the Office of Rail and Road, passenger journeys across Britain reached 418.5 million during April, May and June of 2016 – an increase of 1.6 per cent from the 412 million recorded during the same period in 2015.

While, compared with our European neighbours, only France recorded a higher number of passenger kilometres last year than Britain with 91.7 billion compared with 66.4 billion passenger kilometres in the UK.

However, what this digital strategy appears to lack is a more comprehensive focus on the passengers themselves and ways to improve their existing journey experience.

Taking a people perspective
The digital transformation of the railways should be the same as for any other form of transport. It 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, when they want it and where they want it.

On 13 October, the Department for Transport announced that rail passengers will now be entitled to 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 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 claim payouts only when services are delayed by at least 30 minutes, but one railway regulator estimates that just one in five people actually do so.

The reason? Either not enough people actually know about it or for those that do use it, it’s generally a long difficult online process that results in passengers giving up or just not bothering.

It’s no good just reducing the delay time for available compensation. 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 a mobile app.

A mobile app could also double-up as an effective means to track delays, along with those people most affected. It could then allow the operators to provide additional meaningful loyalty rewards and usage compensation such as money-off season tickets or vouchers to spend at the station.

Digital therefore could help improve the customer service experience both on the ground at stations and give passengers more control on the go.

Taking the stress out of train travel
On trains, technology could be used to direct passengers to emptier carriages rather than forcing them to stand. When pre-booking, passengers could be advised of quieter trains so that they can choose alternative travel in order to get a seat.

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.

One thing I’ve regularly noticed at stations throughout the UK is that staff have no more information than what’s already available on the TrainLine app, and therefore they’re providing no additional value to passengers.

Station staff need greater connectivity with a centralised point in order to have exclusive access to realtime 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 real-time data. Station staff across the country therefore should be equipped with iPads and other technology that would give them the knowledge that commuters so desperately require on a daily basis.

And if it all goes wrong?
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 hailing a taxi or Airbnb has done for overnight accommodation, then it needs to utilise the swathes 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’. There is a huge opportunity here for an app that recommends alternative routes of travel or information personalised for each effected 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, there needs to be a national initiative 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 time-frame.

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.

rebecca-cookRebecca Crook is business development director at The BIO Agency