How will Customer Information on Rail Evolve?
It is always fun to future-gaze: to wonder how current technology trends like big data, wearable devices, the Internet of Things and ubiquitous connectivity will impact the delivery of customer information on the railways in the future.
But actually I think it is better to be driven by passenger need rather than technology. Fortunately in the UK we have a very clear picture of what passengers want because of the excellent work conducted by Transport Focus who found that the top 3 areas where passengers most wanted to see improvement were:
- Value for money
- Being able to get a seat on a train
- Trains running sufficiently frequently at the times they wish to travel
At first these may seem to have little to do with customer information, but actually I would suggest that customer information has a crucial role to play in all of them.
For example, train operators may provide excellent value ticket prices but this by itself is not enough. Passengers need access to information that allows them to select the most appropriate fare and to work out which train is valid for their journey. Without this information passengers can end up paying more than they need to and their perception of value for money will be poor.
When it comes to being able to get a seat on a train, Worldline conducted some research in collaboration with UCL and c2c. What we discovered was that it is common for particular coaches of a train to be full and standing even though there are actually enough seats on the whole train for everyone. We also observed that passengers rarely want to move through the train to find a seat (preferring to stay on the coach that they board). So to ensure that the maximum possible number of passengers get a seat, customer information at the station needs to guide passengers to the coaches that are least crowded.
Similarly, providing a more frequent train service delivers no value to passengers if they don’t realise that they exist! This may sound unlikely, but in my post on Next Generation Passenger Information I included this finding from research into passenger behaviour conducted by c2c:
“They [passengers] would never have complained about the passenger information because they were not aware that they could have caught a faster train. But this flaw in information delivery would potentially lead to them believing that trains services were too infrequent or too slow.”
One possible platform for providing better and more detailed information to passengers is the mobile app. However, this research suggests that information related apps have “limited appeal”. And this is similar to one of the conclusions I reached in my post on The Rise of The (Social Rail Network): rather than installing new apps, passengers want to receive relevant information via the apps they already use like Twitter and Facebook.
In practice, information screens at stations still play a pivotal role in the delivery of customer information. This report into passenger information screens at railway stations found that:
“CIS screens are regarded as the most trustworthy and most used source of information by both commuters and leisure passengers”
I have no doubt that advances in technology will make it possible to show more information on screens in ways that are more engaging and easier to understand. But for information screens to retain their “trustworthy” status the information has to be accurate, timely and useful.
It is for this reason that I think that the foundation of a good customer information system is the quality of the raw data (accuracy), the speed with which it can be gathered (timeliness) and the quality of the algorithms used to interpret it so that passengers will find it helpful (usefulness).
To give one specific example: as a passenger I want to be able to get a seat. To do this I need to be guided to the least crowded coaches on the train. Screens at the station need to enable this by presenting information in a way that is clear and engaging (possibly complemented by alerts via social media). The information itself needs to be derived from a real-time feed from the train and processed using algorithms that take into account not just the current train loading but also historic patterns and trends (to maximise its usefulness).
So the themes I see for how customer information will evolve on rail are as follows:
- Customer information linked increasingly to operational systems and other real-time sources of data
- Displays at stations becoming more engaging and easier to understand
- Social media channels exploited as a way of providing updates relevant to a passenger’s journey
But most importantly of all, customer information will evolve not based on a desire to utilise new technology, but a desire to improve the overall end-to-end travel experience for the passenger. And ultimately, that is all that matters.