At last week’s HackTrain 3.0 conference we heard about the ways in which digital is enhancing the rail sector, from wearable tech for maintenance engineers, visual sensors on the engines to detect vegetation on the rails, and how crowd control at stations is being managed by AI. Yet, talk about the customer experience was largely absent from the debate.


We know, working with several major UK train operating companies, that the rail sector lags behind its airline counterparts in terms of getting the customer experience right. Just buying a ticket is a complex process involving a myriad of options, let alone obtaining real-time information or personalised content.


However, together with our industry partner SilverRail, we are working towards combating some of these issues, including moving our clients on to a single platform API, building proprietary booking engines, and introducing account based ticketing, which allows for ticketless travel.


Exploring the progress we’ve made within this sector, we interviewed SilverRail’s Commercial Manager Stuart McLay to talk about the ways we’re collaborating to improve the CX within rail. Here’s what he had to say:


What are the challenges facing train operating companies in today’s climate?

There are four common challenges facing train operating companies which include:

  • meeting the ever-increasing customer expectation
  • competing with other modes of transportation
  • ensuring interoperability
  • keeping legacy systems in place yet still driving growth through embracing new technology


What does good customer experience feel like in rail?

Great CX is knowing that your journey from A-B will be seamless and on-time, essentially having full transparency of your whole journey, from ticket purchase to arrival at your destination. In addition to this it’s about reducing ticket buying complexity, creating a positive, reliable and trustworthy purchasing experience.


What is a single platform and what are the benefits of adopting this approach?

A single retailing platform can pull together multiple sources of information and data and present this across an omni-channel retail environment. Ensuring that there is a single source of the truth on every channel with no conflicting information.


Having some form of common approach to whichever retail channel the customer chooses provides the customer with simplicity and commonality. This builds a level of trust with the customer who then in turn views the train operator as having credible, reliable information and retail proposition.


How important is it for TOCs to build their own booking platform?

Almost 50% of digital ticket sales are delivered by one or two large third-party retailers. Adopting an omni-channel single API driven approach enables the train operator to drive value from the original ticket sale, as well as capturing and engaging customers within the train operator’s ecosystem, without having to give up commissions to third-party retailers.


This also allows for a customer relationship, enabling them to provide functional information around service delivery for example, such as real-time seat availability, service disruption and so on. TOCs should use proprietary data to deliver unique content as well as operate a distinct and unique level of service that a third party can not.


How can train operating companies optimise the customer journey or improve conversion rates?

There are four possible ways


  1. Provide a fast seamless experience: speed of search, booking and buying is really important to customers, so having a good search platform and booking engine is vital to complement the front end delivery and ultimate checkout.
  2. Provide additional personalised information: enabling travellers to keep up-to-date with information, subscribing them to service disruption information, serving them local personalised content related specifically to their journey are all ways to add value to the customer. These ancillary services aren’t available to third party digital services because the scope and the breadth of what they’re trying to offer are not as focused.
  3. Create great content: good content gives people a reason to visit the website, once there it adds value to the customer. Plus having a smooth, easy to use booking engine helps to really drive ticket sales.
  4. Add value: make it clear to the customer that the train operator has the capability to access nationwide ticket sales, not just their own journeys. Also in enhancing the customer experience through ancillary options such as parking, as well as highlighting onboard offers such as food, drink and upgrade options, to create a seamless first mile to last mile solution.


Which TOC is best in class, or where in the world are train operating companies impressing the industry as a whole?

We believe the future of modern rail is in a collaborative relationship between the carrier and other service operators, it would be hard to point out a single carrier. Saying that, I do think there is lot to learn from rail in Sweden, where they have come a long way both in digitisation and putting the passenger at the heart.


Swedes are used to accessing all kinds of information and services through their smartphone and the carriers have embraced this wholeheartedly. Enabling search, purchase and ticketing, along with disruption alerts and feedback forms.


Sweden also demonstrates good collaboration between carriers. For example, ‘Resplus’ is a ticket and travel collaboration that connects Sweden's public ground transport with more than 4,000 locations. This is no doubt due to a unique collaboration between virtually all Swedish carriers, working together to make the trip as smooth and seamless as possible for the passenger whether they are travelling by train, bus or taxi.


Resplus also offers a “reach my destination-guarantee” with all partners collaborating to help passengers reach their destination despite disruptions and regardless of where the disruption occurred. This is a great example of holding the passenger as key.


What does the future of rail travel look like, and how imminent is that vision?

I’m hopeful that the future of train travel is a more connected, seamless experience both in terms of the journeys that you can make and how you book.


The way in which you travel is going to get simpler, especially with the advent of new ticketing technology, for example account-based travel. We’ve seen trials of our own account-based ticketing (ABT), certainly within Chiltern, using geolocation and the SilverRail ABT platform, to take away that complexity of travelling by train, making things a lot simpler.


The future will certainly also see easier access to services, with less restrictive physical entry to trains and stations and access to support and information through the use of technology such as AI. This will increase customer satisfaction and the ease with which customers can interact with their transport provider.