Can the UK rail industry truly innovate?

It's over 200 years since the first passenger rail service ran from Oystermouth, Wales and there have been some changes to how we commute - frequency, new tracks, comfort, and more recent additions like Wi-Fi and online booking - but there is still plenty of modernisation to be done.

The stated aim of the Hacktrain conference is to introduce rail industry figures to the "world's best professionals" from "other geographies and markets", and to shake the market into innovation.

Much of the railway industry remains the way it was many years ago, and many believe that now is the time to transform and modernise the traditional railway. But how to drive innovation in a field of transport with fixed railway lines that can be hundreds of years old?

Rail industry transformation

Trainlinesays it's the world's biggest digital rail platform, with its mobile app offering tickets from rail companies across Europe like National Rail - and roughly 125,000 people travelling every day using tickets from the app, according to the company.

The firm says its focus is on delivering innovation to provide customers with more advanced services and ultimately hassle-free travel.

Currently the company is working on BusyBot, a service that crowdsources data to show users which carriages are likely to have empty seats.

Trainline is also using data to look into price prediction as well as experimenting with voice-activated apps.

"We're using all the data we've collected and funneling it in to say the price is likely to go up in these kinds of trains on these kinds of days, and we've just launched the Google voice app which is really cool," said Trainline CTO Mark Holt, speaking with Techworld at the event.

"It's being able to buy your ticket with whatever mechanism makes more sense, with such great customer experience and being able to travel easily and receive great customer experience whilst travelling, that's the sort of customer experience we want to create," Holt said.

"It's on the Google Assistant and you can have an actual conversation with the Google Assistant about where you're travelling and when."

Holt added that to drive innovation, the company has to think like a passenger.

"Innovation is very much at the heart of what we do and we care deeply about it, we want to push back the boundaries of what we want to do in rail and make life better for our customers," he said. "We're starting to use a lot more data, so with BusyBot we've got the price prediction data in there and there's lots of stuff we can do as we have a lot of real-time historical data, so we know about historical running time and delays."

Consumer travel

The rise of emerging technologies has caused a shift in the mindset of consumers, which means that people now expect the almost instant efficiencies that are afforded to them by on-demand apps.

For starters, with thousands of commuters that travel to and from major cities for work daily, it becomes more and more unlikely that anyone wants to spend their time queuing for paper train tickets if other options are available.

"Nobody in a few years time is going to want to queue at a booking office or at a ticket vending machine, and yet we still pretend that this railway of ours is a great idea," said Peter Wilkinson, MD of passenger services at the Department for Transport.

"The consumer ticket is dead. It's a habit we're going to have to shake," Wilkinson added. "We're going to have to think very differently, not just in technology but in service. The rail industry and the railway is not an engineering industry and I'm fed up of hearing people talk about it in terms that are producer led.

"We are a consumer industry and the only reason we exist is to serve people, and people are changing and they're changing fast."

Wilkinson added that in the not too distant future identity recognition through nanotechnology and biometrics will make the mobile phone look old-fashioned.

"[But] we're still selling paper tickets with a magnetic strip on the back that as soon as you put them in your pocket near a mobile phone they become useless," he said.

This story, "Can the UK rail industry truly innovate?" was originally published by

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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