Innovation in rail: creating a better passenger experience

James Woudhuysen

Visiting professor at London South Bank University

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When I attended the Passenger Rail Europe conference in Amsterdam earlier this month, I had the pleasure to meet some of the key decision makers in the rail industry at an intimate dinner event organised by Amadeus Rail. While we discussed the future of travel, the key question that kept coming up was how to create a better passenger experience. Indeed, rail travel providers are not the first to have struggled with the answer to this question.

In the past 20 years, neither energy suppliers nor telecommunications firms have truly completed their journeys towards providing a great customer experience. This is partially because consumer needs and expectations are changing at a much faster pace than organisations can keep up with. But recent innovations in technology are allowing rail companies to evolve quicker and close the gap between travellers’ expectations and reality. This creates huge opportunities for the industry to transform its services and at the heart of this transformation is the passenger experience.

Tapping into the power of imagination

It’s often said that the whole rail journey begins online. But in fact, it begins in the imagination. Providing travellers with information about the new cities they can visit and the best routes to reaching those destinations is a good way to trigger their imagination.

Another way to excite the imagination of the traveller is to use the power of visualisation. In the near future, well before virtual reality becomes a reality, rail will offer rich, real-time maps, YouTube videos and data visualisations to explain and convey the range, detail and quality of experiences on offer. This will transform the travel booking experience, driving more personalisation in rail travel. 

When it comes to the online booking, rail companies have the opportunity to transform the whole experience by following in the footsteps of their counterparts from the retail, entertainment and air travel industries and adopting a slicker approach to designing online booking portals. In the near future, we can hope, every rail firm will offer high-productivity booking. Perhaps, too, important booking routines will become standardised across operators, allowing a more intuitive and automatic customer experience: after all, mankind did something like that with the QWERTY keyboard and the 0-9 telephone...

Creating a more rewarding journey

While many believe that the next generation of IT systems will be AI-led instead of mobile-led, there is a lot more that the rail industry can do with existing technologies to improve the passenger experience and drive personalisation in travel. Big Data analytics, for instance, will offer unprecedented insight into travellers’ behaviour, allowing rail companies to deliver a more intuitive customer experience. From offering ancillary services to providing recommendations about additional destinations to visit as part of an upgrade to the passenger’s rail journey, there will be plenty of opportunities to improve the customer experience.

Beacon technologies such as wearables and 3D printing will offer even more touch points with the traveller. In the near future today’s niche wearables will be widely adopted, personalised, 3D-printed ‘earables’ that can provide detailed information on stations and trains as the traveller moves from one place to another. Through those earables, Big Data analytics will allow rail companies to get real-time insight into customer behaviour and anticipate their needs with relevant recommendations and offers. As a result, the rail travel experience will become more personalised, with technologies such as fingerprint recognition, iris scanning and mobile authentication allowing passengers to move easily from one stage of their journey to another.

A more connected future

All these changes will be fuelled by the growing competition in the rail sector, which is driven by the liberalisation of the European rail market and allowing in new entrants such as the virtual online travel booking operator Trainline. 

This will drive more integration between rail companies and non-rail travel providers. Initiatives such as the partnership between Etihad Airlines and French National Rail (SCNF) will allow customers to travel across air and rail with one ticket, hastening the move towards door-to-door travel. Similarly, the integration of  airport express trains such as Heathrow Express into the GDS will allow travel agents to book rail journeys on top of their air tickets. Lastminute.com is already doing something similar by enabling customers to book train tickets and hotel accommodation in a single transaction.

This demonstrates the huge opportunities for rail companies to innovate with technology and deliver more personalised travel services, which make rail an easy choice for customers looking at long-distance travel.

As speed, technology and staff education improve, rail companies will have a real chance to get back the full romance of rail travel and create a better passenger experience.

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