6 tech innovations emerging in the rail industry

OPINION / 22nd November 2016

HackTrain, the most innovative RailTech event in Europe, last week announced the winners of its third annual hackathon: where 100 of tech’s brightest developers, designers and entrepreneurs were challenged to solve the UK and Europe’s rail industries’ greatest problems whilst on board two separate trains during the weekend of 4-6 November.

We attended the award ceremony, hosted in London by Hack Partners River Tamoor Baig and Alejandro Saucedo, and welcomed the innovations arising from the hackathon. It was great to hear the fresh ideas generated by some of Britain’s best start-ups. We know from working with operators such as GWR and TransPennine Express, that there’s definitely an appetite for change and a desire for rail companies to do things differently. We believe initiatives like HackTrain are fundamental to shaking up entrenched thinking in this industry.

There are many ways in which tech will revolutionise the rail travel experience for passengers in the coming years, here we’ve selected some of our favourites currently being trialled:

Flexible tickets

Flexible tickets, designed by FlexRail, will allow passengers to select a range of times they are available to travel instead of having to choose a fixed time, which the current systems forces them to do.

“Instead of buying a ticket at 9am on the busiest train, our engine allows passengers to select a range of times that they’re able to travel; for example, 9am – 1pm, and then 24 hours before they travel our service will notify them what train they will be on. This allows train operators to distribute the number of passengers evenly across several services, giving passengers a more comfortable experience,” said Sina Shamshiri, co-founder of FlexRail and winner of November’s HackTrain 3.0 accelerator program.

Barrier-less ticketing

A barrier-less ticketing system, which is at a functioning proof-of-concept stage, will enable passengers to walk straight through a station and directly onto a train without using ticket or smart-card. The Wi-Fi based system proposes to connect passenger’s smartphones to a station’s Wi-Fi network, which will automatically recognise where and when they got on and off a train, creating “live tickets” for each journey. Using a specially created account on an app, passengers will be charged for the journey they take, and they will able to track their journeys in real-time, or look over their previous journeys in the app.

Personal bots will replace websites

Websites, which are a very visual paradigm, have been around for 20 years. Tech is evolving rapidly and personal systems, such as chat bots will eventually replace the website function for many service providers. Rather than passengers going into a website, entering their details, and searching for tickets and services, a personal bot will be able to book tickets on their behalf. This bot will also be able to tell customers if there are any major disruptions on the railway and help plan other routes if there are.

Managing crowded stations

There are two working tech solutions aimed at helping stations manage crowds during peak times -  both have been designed by separate teams from the HackTrain hackathon 2.0 last year, and are currently being trialled. One has devised heat maps, using anonymised group Wi-Fi data, to identify traffic flows within stations in real time. Another group, Vivacity Labs (last year’s winner of the HackTrain 2.0 competition) are trialling smart cameras in London Bridge to detect congestion in the station, also in real time. The smart cameras, which have on-board video analytics capabilities, give real-time data on the population density and flow within a given space. Train companies are expected use both these tech solutions to monitor the flow of people and to alert passengers to congestion within concourses and platforms.

Instant refunds

Passengers effected by delays of more than 30 minutes, who seek compensation, have long been frustrated by the rail operators lengthy and inefficient refund process. Yet a two-man start up called Ticket, which took part in the hackathon last year, are developing an app that allows passengers to claim refunds from rail operators in under a minute. Effected passengers will be able to simply scan their ticket, using their mobile app, to receive a full refund, eliminating the four to eight week wait. It has been reported that four out of the five major UK rail operators are in trials with this new platform.

Accurate travel information

There are many new ways for passengers to find out how long it will take to get from A to B. The latest geolocation app, created by start-up i.geolise, identifies travel by time, rather than mileage. The app maps where you can get to in a certain area by time, not distance, and how long it will take using varying public transport routes. This gives passengers a more accurate analysis of where they can get to in a particular timeframe. Train companies are considering integrating this service into their websites, to enable their content teams to promote UK breaks, as well as to help travellers plan their routes once they’ve arrived at their destination.

ORM

We have digitally transformed some of the largest train operators and companies in the UK:

GWR

We work with GWR on a continuous improvement program. We refine and optimise tech to enable the train operator to provide the best possible service for its customers. We recently overhauled its live ticketing service, which used to be a separate web application that GWR had no control over, and integrated it into its newly built API driven website. This means its customers have a much smoother purchasing experience and GWR uses its newly gathered data to personalise content and tailor information to its customers. We will eventually roll out machine learning algorithms to enable GWR to continue its aim of putting the customer at the heart of its business.

NATIONAL RAIL ENQUIRIES

We have worked closely with National Rail Enquiries for many years and continue to do so. In December 2014 Apple approached National Rail Enquiries with a brief to create an application to run on its then unreleased Apple Watch. We were asked to plan, design and build the app for the new technology, with only a partial development kit, in just 30 days. It became one of the first apps on the new Apple Watch, and was the UK’s main train travel app on release. Despite many similar competing apps available, NRE’s continues to be used by thousands of travellers to find out live departure times, view disruption information, locate nearest stations and receive delay notifications. London users can also view the train status across the underground network too.

Keith Nation Keith Nation Managing Director & CTO Keith Nation