Less pain on the train: how digital technology can improve the customer experience for UK rail passengers

Author BIOPublished 6 Min Read

Let’s start by stating the obvious. UK rail travel has some fundamental challenges in terms of customer experience. It’s expensive: commuters spend as much as five times of their salary on season tickets compared to the rest of Europe, with a range of reasons cited from privatisation, to inadequate rail subsidies, to price increases being pegged against the ‘wrong’ measure of inflation. Overly complex ticketing is another issue, with a staggering 55 million different fare types currently available and strange anomalies like return journeys that only cost £1 more than singles and ‘split ticketing’ used by savvy customers to cut the cost of travel. And of course UK trains are monumentally overcrowded, with some lines projected to be 208% over capacity by 2022 and not especially punctual compared to a number of other countries.

However, while it can’t deal with these issues at source, or change the UK’s fragmented railway system, digital technology can certainly go some way to iron out the everyday pain points of rail passengers. Here are some of the ways that passengers could benefit.

The best price for your journey

In terms of ticket fares, with such a level of complexity, it’s not surprising that only one in three passengers is ‘very confident’ that they’ve bought the best value ticket for their last journey. Ticketing regulations were set in the mid-1990s when people still bought paper tickets from a ticket office; they have not kept pace with the way we live and the technology we use. Ticketing apps can’t do anything about fundamental pricing, but by improving their search journeys they can at least provide reassurance to passengers that they’re getting transparency and are able to choose the best (or cheapest) ticket for their journey. Looking at anecdotal evidence it seems that some rail company apps are better at finding cheap fares than others, and there’s no more sure-fire way of upsetting your customers than have them come to the slow realisation that they’re buying more expensive tickets than necessary. So, fingers crossed that all rail and ticketing companies can raise their game and better serve their audience.

An end to labyrinthian complexity 

 The Rail Delivery Group is pushing for ‘root and branch reform of the rail fares system’, an overhaul of the regulations so passengers have a much simpler range of fares to choose from. Once this happens, train companies and ticketing portals will have no excuse for complicated and opaque ticket journeys. Hopefully some of the more poorly-reviewed train company apps will, as above, up their game and take learnings from the likes of thetrainline.com, who get away with charging a booking fee by being pioneers of simple, slick e-ticketing, intuitive customer journeys, and an understanding that the mobile experience should work for someone who is probably on the move and needs information or a ticket quickly, not simply replicate the website that they may use at their desk.

 Showing where there’s seats, adding capacity

In terms of capacity, an app can’t give you more trains, but what it can do is tell you where there are free seats, or, if trains are frequent, predict which ones are likely to be less busy. thetrainline.com has developed BusyBot, a simple feature that crowdsources information, asking train passengers whether there are seats free in their carriage and what part of the train they’re sitting in. This information can then direct others to less crowded carriages. Thetrainline are hoping that by using this information, BusyBot will soon be able to predict how busy trains are likely to be – valuable information if, for instance, you’re trying to get yourself a seat on a train from London to Manchester in the seventh circle of hell that is Euston station on a Friday night.

 Other technical innovations will also help with the capacity issue. It won’t be visible to passengers but transforming the UK’s railways with electronic signalling should mean that in future more trains can run on the lines and also that delays caused by signal problems are reduced and there’s an increase in performance and punctuality. Mark Carne, now former CEO of Network Rail, said before stepping down that a 30% increase in capacity can be achieved on some of the busiest commuter routes, like Woking to Waterloo, although transformation is likely to be slow. Another way to increase capacity through innovation is to use double decker trains – common in Holland and Germany, but never seen in this country, which has lower tunnels and different gauges. Designed by Munich-based architecture and design firm Andreas Vogler Studio, the award-winning AeroLiner3000 is compatible with UK railway infrastructure. The creators say though the initial cost would be higher than a regular time, over its lifetime the cost of maintenance and infrastructure should be considerably lower. For the users of the UK’s overcrowded commuter trains, the sight of double-deckers no doubt can’t come soon enough.

Better communication to reduce stress

There’s a number of other day-to-day issues that digital technology could improve, particularly by enabling better communication. Here are just a few:

  • Non-existent carriages: when passengers walk down the platform to find their designated carriage and seat reservation, only to find it doesn’t exist. This tends to happen because the model of train has been switched since the time of booking, often because a train has gone out of service and been replaced by a shorter one. A simple app notification or text message saying ‘Please note your reservation is now in Carriage X’ would prevent the sight of dozens of people running around in panicky circles on the platform with no idea where they should be going.
  • Electronic seat reservation problems: if there’s a fault and the electronic displays that have replaced paper reservations on older services aren’t working, informing passengers via their mobile that no reservations are in place and to sit anywhere there’s a space would be helpful – and in some cases prevent arguments.
  • Better Wi-Fi, and rail apps with offline functionality: not all rail apps support saving an e-ticket to a smartphone wallet. You can bet that the ticket inspector appears just when the poor passenger is on that section of the line with no mobile signal and Wi-Fi so poor that they can’t even load the app. Customers won’t necessarily expect music and video streaming from a free service, but having to switch Wi-Fi off to stand a chance of e.g. connecting to Messenger is annoying.
  • Cancelled trains: if a train’s cancelled and passengers need to know the quickest way of getting to their destination, it can be hard to make the right decision on the fly – especially when there are frequent ‘fast’ trains and ‘slow’ trains that may take twice as long. Again it’s about communication. A notification saying: ‘Sorry your train’s been cancelled; for the quickest journey please get the 13:45’ (for example) would do the trick.
  • Better service for customers with bikes: it’s something Southeastern is doing right, with room for bikes at every single door. On other services there’s often only room for a handful of bikes even on a 10 or 12 carriage train. And there may be no indication where on the train that space will be – not helpful if you’re wheeling a bike up and down the platform. There’s no reason why a bike reservation couldn’t be accompanied by useful information like where the space is, even if that information is only available shortly before the journey.

According to the latest (2019) National Rail Passenger Survey published by Transport Focus, passenger satisfaction is at its lowest level in 10 years. Chief Executive Anthony Smith commented “Passengers now pour over £10 billion a year into the railway alongside significant government investment, so the rail industry cannot be short of funding. When will this translate into a more reliable services that are better value for money? The Government’s Rail Review must bring changes to the industry that benefit passengers. It’s also time for a fairer, clearer fares formula”.

But with such a fragmented industry, a lack of efficient integration between trains and infrastructure, and the fact that the wheels of government move slowly at the best of times, no one is holding their breath. Until there’s widespread change, the best means we have of smoothing the way for passengers is through digital innovation and better use of technology. This train, at least, is ready to depart.

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