Keith Nation
Managing Director & CTO
Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are under increasing pressure to improve the end-to-end customer experience for their passengers.


Everything from browsing for tickets, making a purchase, informing passengers of delays to then providing a slick onboard experience needs to be digitally enhanced to keep pace with customer expectations.


The incentive for TOCs to digitise is also being driven by competition too. TOCs are not only having to compete with other modes of transport to attract passengers on to their services, they’re having to go head-to-head with the digitally savvy Trainline (which has ambitions to become the Uber of Rail) for sales of tickets on their own services.


Yet, compete they must and we’ve highlighted some of the changes customers will expect sooner rather than later:


1. Visual seat selectors

As with airline tickets, passengers want to be able to select their seat in advance of travel. So, whether they are purchasing tickets from their mobile or desktop they should be offered a visual seat selector that shows which seats are busy, and which are still available. This is live on some TOCs, such as LNR, but not across the entire network.


Rail is more complex than air travel because coach layout and configuration isn’t necessarily available ahead of time and the exact direction of travel may not also be known. This makes creating an accurate visual seat selector a much harder proposition.


2. Alexa skill

With an uptake in conversational devices in the home AI-enabled voice ecommerce has become de rigueur. In May 2018, Virgin Trains, in conjunction with SilverRail, announced that its customers could now book Virgin Trains Advance Single tickets via Alexa using the Amazon Pay service. Customers can book tickets in one simple voice-based transaction, making Virgin Trains the first travel company in the world to sell tickets this way.


Although voice powered commerce will be the ultimate aim for every TOC as we move into 2019 and beyond, there are hurdles to overcome – not least navigating the industry’s complex ticket fare structure. The good news is that the Rail industry has recognised this and there are working groups now looking at how to simplify this, which in turn should benefit conversational UI experiences.


3. Disruption updates

Conversational devices will come into their element when TOCs use them to update passengers on possible delays and disruptions to their services. This will enhance the customer experience considerably.


Once again Virgin Trains is pioneering the use of this technology and paving the way for others to follow. In November last year, it launched an Alexa Skill that allows its customers to enquire about rail information, train times and delays by simply asking Alexa.


Now that industry disruption data is readily available in real time, TOCs can convert this information into actionable, personalised, user-friendly insights for their customers.


4. Travel assistance

Assisted Travel is an important service TOCs are legally required to provide. Many are investing significant sums into upgrading stations and providing step-free access and improved signage.


In terms of the digital experience, currently, most TOCs put a passenger assistance request form on a website, which customers submit if they require help, for example if a wheelchair user needs help boarding/disembarking a train. Yet, with mobile technology customers are now able to alert staff in real-time of their exact needs and automatically share their location, making it easier for on-station staff to help service them.


5. Account-based ticketing

Account-based ticketing systems are being rolled out in various countries around the globe. In Singapore its Land Transport Authority (LTA) has been trialling an account-based ticketing system to mobile wallets, such as Apple Pay, Android Pay and Samsung Pay. Currently, more than 100,000 commuters have signed up for the Mastercard pilot, which averages over 60,000 daily transactions. It has been such a success that since September 2017 the scheme has been available to Visa users too.


Here in the UK, Chiltern Railways, in conjunction with SilverRail, is trialling a similar system called Ninja. Passengers who have set up a mobile account, can travel anywhere on their network without a specific ticket. Like with TfL Oyster’s fare capping, Chiltern Railways works out the best value price for the trips taken and bills the passengers account accordingly.


6. Onboard entertainment

For the most part once onboard, rail customers are a captive audience and providing value-add services during this time is another way to improve the customer experience.  


Virgin Trains is again leading the way in this space. Back in 2016 it launched BEAM, an on-board entertainment app, which includes 200 hours of shows and movies.


The free app uses an on-board server, meaning there is no need for passengers on its west coast routes to use WI-FI or mobile data which can often drop out in areas of poor reception.


Of course, with the rise of Netflix and other media hubs these services need to compete for eyeballs and without great content they’re unlikely to be successful and drive engagement.


ORM's view

More than ever, rail is now a customer service industry and customer satisfaction matters, which is why TOCs have started to put the customer at the centre of their business strategies. If they can improve the quality of their customers’ lives by making it easier for them to purchase a ticket on any device, choose a seat on their desired train, update them in real time on disruptions, and tell them how else they can get home if there are major delays, they will be rewarded by happy, loyal customers.