Rail systems have taken a back seat to airlines when it comes to focusing on customers, but that’s changing. In the United Kingdom, for instance, Network Rail has had great success in becoming more responsive to passengers. Its Putting passengers first program decentralized services and functions, creating five regions, each with its own managing director responsible for delivering train performance across 14 routes. Digital technologies are an important part of the program. For example, Network Rail sends consistent and reliable train information directly to passengers via mobile messaging. In addition, Network Rail is now leveraging advanced analytics to enable staff to track and deploy rail assets as needed. It also uses analytics to keep trains running on time by supporting solutions that resolve adverse weather or environmental factors like leaves on the line.
Rail organizations are seeking to improve many other points of the passenger journey through innovative solutions. Delivering these digital technologies, of course, assumes that the rail system has invested in upgraded Wi-Fi and has plans to support the emerging 5G standard as wireless carriers roll it out.
Here are six ways digital technologies are improving the ride experience for passengers in the UK and around the world:
1. More efficient ticketing. Digital technologies let rail customers identify the best time of day – such as off-peak times – for the most economical fare, and make their selection online or via mobile apps. While this may not necessarily help passengers who purchase a monthly pass, it can be helpful for workers who only need to report to the office two or three times a week, for parents traveling with small children or for a caregiver transporting an aging parent to a doctor’s appointment. Students on a tight budget also appreciate having access to information that can help them plan their travel time more efficiently and economically.
2. Convenient refund service. Most commuter rail passengers tap in or out with a smartcard or smartphone. After they tap in and take their trip to work in the morning, the system can notify them via text or email during the day that there is a network disruption and that their return trip home will be delayed by 30 minutes. If it’s going to be a longer delay, the system can send passengers suggestions for alternate routes and give them a percentage-based credit to their account. If a passenger was planning a longer trip for a vacation, the system can credit the traveler with a full refund in the event the train was delayed or cancelled.
3. Synchronized coffee and food services. The airlines have tied in services where travelers can order food or coffee to be ready for pickup when they arrive at destinations or make connections to another flight. These same types of services are becoming available to commuters. In England, for example, rail passengers can now have their coffee waiting for them when they arrive at the train station in London each morning. Or they may opt to preorder a quick snack at the station for their trip home at night. These types of personalized convenient services are becoming very popular as people go about their busy daily activities.
4. Digital assistants. Given the number of people who use Alexa, Google Assistant and smartphones with digital assistants, rail companies can now leverage those tools to reach customers. Commuters can query Alexa in the morning to find out if their train is on time, or get a quick weather report to know if they should take an umbrella. If they need to deviate from their normal pattern and go to a different location, they can query Alexa on the best prices and times for a round trip on that day.
5. Mobile tickets. This may be the year that mobile ticketing becomes more mainstream around the world. For the past several years, commuters in the Boston area have been able to use their smartphones to purchase and show their tickets digitally. Another mobile ticketing project is now well under way in Japan, and this year there are plans in the UK to make it possible for rail commuters to use their ITSO (Integrated Transport Smartcard Organization) passes on mobile devices.
6. Improved logistics and crowd control. Vastly improved communications make it possible to inform passengers if and when a train changes tracks. It can be inconvenient and annoying to wait for a train at one track and learn at the last minute – if at all – that the track has changed. This is particularly true for passengers who need special assistance, such as mothers with young children and strollers, or people in wheelchairs or on crutches. Instead of depending on older, often hard-to-hear PA systems, passengers can receive texts that inform them of the track change as soon as it’s known, giving them enough time to react and make their way to the new track.
Going digital improves the passenger experience, and it also makes the staff more efficient. As we head into the third decade of the 21st century, there’s no turning back. Rail systems need to go digital to stay viable to a generation of riders who simply expect these services and communications.