How digital technologies are improving customer experiences of rail travel


7 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Mobile Technology

In its bid to improve customer experiences in the railway sector, the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) held the Rail Innovation Exhibition on 21 January. The expo showcased the latest cutting-edge innovations in the industry, many of which were funded by the Department for Transport (DfT) through Innovate UK, including Calvium’s Navstaour mobile indoor wayfinding system for people with invisible disabilities. 

The expo’s competition had four themes: environmental sustainability, optimised railway operations, optimised and cost-effective maintenance, and customer experience.

In this article I am focusing on customer experience, as Calvium supports the rail sector’s commitment to improving people’s overall satisfaction with its services. So, let’s take a look at what the industry is currently doing to achieve this goal… by starting with some of the pain points.

Demonstrating NavSta wayfinding app

Passenger Dissatisfaction

The UK rail industry carries 1.7 billion passengers every year. For us to better appreciate what can be done to improve their experiences, we first need to step into their shoes to see what lies at the root of their dissatisfaction.

On top of this list is how much passengers are paying for their commute. The biggest rail fares consultation conducted in the country discovered that 8 in 10 passengers want a system overhaul, 9 in 10 want smart or electronic tickets, and 8 in 10 want the fare system to be reformed. 

According to the BBC, commuters in England’s biggest cities are spending as much as a fifth of their salary on season tickets. Rail fares went up 3.2% in 2019 and 2.7% in 2020. All in all, ticket prices in the country increased by 36% between 2010 and 2018

An overly complex ticketing system is also a cause of passenger dissatisfaction. In fact, there are a staggering 55 million different fare types that currently exist. This includes several anomalies like split ticketing (cheaper to buy than single journey tickets) and paying a peak-time fare when half of a passenger’s trip is on an off-peak service. 

During our research for NavSta, we found that inaccessible and overly-crowded areas (trains and railway stations), delays and cancellations, poor wayfinding and environmental disruption can cause extreme anxiety for neurodivergent people. Regrettably, inaccessibility continues to hound the sector – two-thirds of passengers with disabilities saying they experience a range of barriers to their travel – be they environmental, economic or social. 

Enhancing the Railway Experience

Despite the pain points and hurdles, however, the Rail Delivery Group found that passenger satisfaction in rail travel is up three percentage points year-on-year, and there is clearly a desire from the train operators, station managers and government to innovate.

Let’s look at how the rail sector is successfully enhancing customer experience:

1. Digital Solutions

One of the positive insights that I took away from the Rail Innovation Exhibition is that cutting-edge technologies have a bright future in improving customer service. The industry only needs to be open to adopting them. 

  • TransPennine route — In 2017, the government announced its biggest modernisation programme since the steam age. Investing a record £13 billion in the project, the TransPennine route will be the UK’s first digitally controlled intercity rail line in the north. Its digital signalling technology will be used to cut journey times between Leeds and Manchester to 40 minutes.
  • Use of robots — Once a figment of science fiction, Hitachi unveiled its vision of the future of railways. That future includes the use of AI robots that will greet passengers and help them find their way around stations.
  • Digital Railway — The brainchild of Network Rail, Digital Railway aims to replace two-thirds of the country’s signalling system within the next 15 years. This strategy involves upgrading digital systems to improve signalling and train control of over 4,000 trains. Already, London Underground has increased trains on the Victoria Line from 28 to 34 trains an hour, which can only be good news for passengers.

London Victoria Station

2. Using Data

With previous punctuality data recording trains as being on time even if they were as much as 10 minutes late, from April 2019 Britain’s train operators were obliged to record punctuality based on new data requirements known as ‘on time measures’ which measures delays to the minute. This is now being used to analyse and improve train performance, prepare for and improve coordinated responses to changes in weather, and support new cross-industry timetabling task force to make sure that the rollout of 6,400 additional trains will go smoothly.

As of the first six weeks of 2020, 85.8% of trains were recorded as punctual. Cardiff, in fact, saw a 5.4% improvement in train punctuality. 

To help passengers review the performance of their train journey and ask ‘was my train on time?’, Britain’s rail companies and Network Rail have worked together to create My Train Journey—a tool that provides passengers “to the minute” historical train performance based on this more accurate data. 

3. Making Railways More Accessible

Due to poor overall accessibility, the majority of disabled passengers have to plan their journeys meticulously (e.g. travel at off-peak hours, book ahead, check that a station has necessary facilities etc) in order to have a better experience.

Last year, the government invested £300 million to make railways more accessible as an extension of DfT’s Access For All programme. This includes installing lifts, ramps, step-free access, and adjustable ticket counters within the next five years.

Rail Delivery Group (RDG), meanwhile, launched Access Map—a tool specifically designed for disabled passengers to feel more confident when taking the train. All passengers need to do is search for a station and the app will display some basic accessibility information.

I have also written about several accessibility tools that people with disabilities (both visible and invisible) can use for better wayfinding, including BlindSquare, Aira, and, of course, NavSta.

4. Easy Fares For All

A solution proposed by the RDG, Easy Fares For All is a “root and branch” reform of the rail fares system, getting rid of traditional peak and off-peak rail fares and introducing more flexible commuter tickets, among many other improvements. 

According to the proposal, the ‘tap-in, tap-out’ and pay-as-you-go system could potentially see a decrease in overcrowding by up to a third in some busy long-distance services, more savings for commuters who travel during off-peak hours and those who only travel fewer than five days a week, and the ability to mix-and-match different types of single tickets for easier travel plans. A reformed fares system would also “help make the most of technology like online accounts, smartcards and smartphones to make ticket buying simpler, so that customers are shown fares which match their needs while screening out irrelevant choices that cause confusion.”

Putting customer needs at the heart of the railway experience

The use of the railway system is only going to grow in the UK. As we can see, there is a real desire to embrace the opportunities that digital technologies can bring to enhancing, or radically transforming, people’s experiences of the railways.

The industry is now starting to think longer term and appears to want to put the passenger experience front and centre of its operations. Core to successful outcomes is that the rail sector works with customers and digital design specialists to deliver the right solutions so as to achieve a better, and joined-up, passenger experience for all.

NavSta is an excellent case study for those wishing to see what I’m talking about.

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