Rail Industry Focus


All aboard the digital train

Source: RTM Dec/Jan 17

Kevin Ives, digital transformation director at Arriva UK Trains, talks to RTM’s Luana Salles about the company’s ongoing Digital Train programme, designed to enable continuous connectivity supported by a wealth of analytics and bespoke passenger content.

Arriva UK Trains has been no stranger to connected technology. The company was one of the first, back in 2009 on Chiltern, to launch free wi-fi. Fast-forward seven years and the operator was also the first to launch a continuously-connected wi-fi system on the same franchise, allowing passengers to seamlessly move between train and station without going offline.

Speaking to RTM, Kevin Ives, Arriva’s digital transformation director, argued the company was already at the forefront of connectivity – but when it successfully acquired the franchise for Northern in April last year, which required a lot more commitment around digital trains going forward, it concluded that it needed to “draw all those threads together” to develop a cohesive strategy that could be rolled out across the company. That marked the genesis of its Digital Train programme, which focuses on four primary areas of work: connectivity, seamless customer journey, content and analytics. 

Contiguous connectivity and seamless travelling 

Asked which one of these areas he considered to be the most ambitious in the medium to short term, Ives pointed to the connectivity element. 

“I think data analytics and content are all pretty achievable – they’re within our own grasp and the opportunity is there, we only have to work out how to exploit them,” he explained. “If you look at connectivity, that involves so many different parties coming together. There’s a very complicated commercial model that we need to break through to work out how we can extend that principle. 

“But ultimately, unless we get good contiguous connectivity through not just our mainline routes but also beyond, then we’re always going to be hamstrung by a perception of performance that really isn’t up to the standards that people have grown to expect. I’m very conscious that whilst the world moves very quickly, there’s still a requirement to get a very firm bedrock in terms of underlining service. And that connectivity, for me, is partly around addressing these black spots, and partly around making sure the equipment works – and works regularly.”

This inherently means Arriva needs to work ever closer with its supply chain to improve service reliability, which is often a tricky ordeal in the rail industry because “getting access to those boxes, working out what’s going wrong, doing remote diagnostics, and fixing it while it’s in service are all things that traditionally, rail companies have difficulty mastering”. 

With regards to what is being done to boost connectivity, Ives argued there has been a lot of proactive dialogue across the industry about how the world is transitioning through 3G, 4G and 5G, but that this doesn’t necessarily mean connections on trains will improve accordingly. 

“Previously we would take whatever services we could find, but we’ve now signed a framework deal with EE to improve connectivity on certain routes,” he noted. “If you take the mainline route that Chiltern runs, we’re actually building up specific connectivity through 11 tunnels and cuttings so that we use that relationship and scale to hit specific customer black spots and get additional connectivity that give that contiguous customer service people require.” 

That connectivity element ties into the second area of focus around seamless customer journeys, where passengers are able to take their connection with them as they travel through station to train to station. “The next iteration of that is then potentially moving that through when you get off [a train] and get on a bus; that we can extend that journey with you,” added Ives. 

“That plays into the customer journey vision that we have, but if you’ve developed that service you can potentially start to alter its nature as the customer goes through its different points. You can do push notifications that are more relevant when you’re in a station, then push notifications that are more relevant when you’re travelling. It’s quite an exciting development.” 

Bespoke content and anonymised data 

Both connectivity and seamless journey planning rely on the third pillar of the Digital Train programme: ensuring passengers have access to fast and relevant content. “Currently, we are trialling media content on the Grand Central service,” said Ives, explaining that this could include a blend of video, media, magazines and games. “We’re doing quite a lot of work with the RSSB on customer preferences in that area. 

“Rather than just [offering] a standard menu of content blandly to our customers, we understand more around what different journey types require different information. If you’re a commuter into Marylebone you won’t typically have the time or appetite for movies, so short clips and news footage works. We can tailor the content to make sure it’s a bit more customised and a bit more personalised to the demands of the individual. It’s certainly something we’re looking at as a key part of the strategy going forward.” 

And if digital is the train, then analytics are the sleepers: sitting underneath all of these connectivity developments, analytics ensures that Arriva can extract anonymised flow data to help understand the activity of passengers so that the company can keep improving its services. For example, the MyJrny app, fruit of a collaboration with the RSSB, allows Arriva to push data out to customers to help them make informed choices of where they want to sit based on elements like temperature and space capacity.

“That’s all been driven by the fact that we have a single connected train that allows us to analyse that data and make informed decisions about how we run our services,” explained Ives. “The possibilities around analytics are huge, and cornerstone behind all this is that if we have really great relationships with our supply chain through framework agreements that stretch across our entire group, we’re more likely to get them to think slightly more laterally around solving business problems.” 

Bit by bit 

With regards to the timescales of the Digital Train scheme, Ives argued that he sees it as more of a rolling programme – there are more than 20 individual projects sitting within it at present. While there are also some very specific deliverables and projects in the programme, whose benefits should begin to unfold this year, the company will nevertheless continue to add things as it develops its digital strategy. 

At present, however, Arriva can already celebrate the fact that Chiltern’s customers have been giving positive feedback on the continuous wi-fi infrastructure – and Northern customers are expected to be the next to benefit. When the franchise’s new CAF-built trains come online, they will be fitted with the architecture that has been approved via the Digital Train programme, whilst older rolling stock will be retrofitted. 

“It’s not an overnight fix. We’re doing work on Grand Central at the moment, but that tends to link into their refurb and maintenance schedule – but when they do, we have a ready-made solution to benefit them there,” added Ives. “CrossCountry has just had its direct award approved – again, we have an exciting wi-fi proposition kicking in in 2018 there, when we’re switching to free wi-fi for all, and that requires major refurbishment of the rolling stock. 

“Bit by bit, I think, is when customers will start to benefit. We’re certainly looking to get a more consistent content programme rolling out across our TOCs much sooner than that, and would expect a lot of that to kick in early 2017.” 

Asked about his vision for the future, Ives agreed that a major milestone will be to advance the multimodal opportunities in passenger connectivity and see Arriva’s entire portfolio digitally integrated, from station to train to bus. “For me, this bit at the start around getting a standard architecture, making sure it’s secure and consistent, making sure we have partners to work with – that’s the base layer,” he said. 

“It does bring customer benefits, but it’s certainly slow in coming, whereas I think the exciting stage for me is, once you have that consistency, you then have a fantastic opportunity to start really addressing the customer proposition around how they transport from A to B. 

“Clearly a train is only one part of that, but great relationships with partners and having a digital route enables that opportunity.”

Mobile Data, IT & Software Solutions


W: www.arriva.co.uk/countries/uk/arriva-uk-trains

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