Delivering a seamless wireless experience for customers
Source: RTM Aug/Sep 16
An innovative collaboration to deliver a seamless wireless experience for customers has led to an industry first for Chiltern Railways. Hans Stiles, the operator’s head of IT, explains how.
Five years ago, Chiltern Railways became the first TOC to introduce mobile ticketing for its customers, and then free on-board wi-fi on its London to Birmingham trains.
Now, the operator has taken a further step forward on its digital innovation journey by introducing a seamless wireless experience for its customers from the train to the station.
Hans Stiles, head of IT at Chiltern Railways, told us that the project, which included WiFi SPARK and Icomera using EE’s superfast 4G network, had been an incredible journey and was already being used widely by passengers.
“We started work in January. That’s when we got the green light to push ahead on that project. We ran it as an agile project,” he said.
“The idea behind this was that we were looking at, basically, delivering every station as a ‘sprint’ with the sign-off of the design, site surveys, installation, commissioning and go live. The idea was that we would just try and work as fast as we could.”
Melting pot of station sites
The project partners had a blueprint of 28 stations to work on, each delivering a unique set of challenges for the team.
“We had three brand new stations with Bicester Village, Oxford Parkway and Islip. We had three listed buildings: Marylebone, Leamington Spa and Birmingham Moor Street. And then we had a whole host of other stations that were manned or unmanned, but we had a real melting pot of sites in which to deliver the wi-fi,” said Stiles.
“Effectively, we had the installations done within about four-and-a-half to five months; we had the development work done between WiFi SPARK and Icomera; and we were testing the service in June. We wanted to make sure it was absolutely perfect and test it thoroughly.”
In terms of challenges, the IT expert said it was the technical aspect of delivering the wi-fi into the stations that proved most tricky.
“You have the safety considerations, especially as they’re public areas,” noted Stiles, “then you’ve got a lot of legacy equipment.
“In the case of Leamington Spa, which is a listed building, it is in a conservation area. We had to make sure the designs were approved by Network Rail, the local councils and the ‘Friends Of’ groups, to make sure the installation didn’t disrupt customers or normal station operation.”
Continuous wi-fi connection
Stiles added that the system, which Chiltern had been running in its stations for about six weeks prior to the go live date in July, enables passengers to experience an ‘optimal wi-fi connection’, regardless of whether they are on the station platform or on the train.
According to the operator, which is owned by Arriva UK Trains, once a passenger steps on to the station they only need to authenticate once to log on to the free w-fi, then a SPARK controller manages the rest. This enables customers to roam between WiFi SPARK’s station system and Icomera’s on-train wi-fi, using EE 4G connectivity. Stiles noted that the data communications between the two systems is encrypted using SSL.
“This is pretty groundbreaking in what we are delivering, which is that seamless experience across different parts of the system,” said Stiles.
“Also, the fact that we had this Arriva-driven vision about transforming the experience around the customer has kept people on the same page.”
Asked how important Icomera’s previous work with First Hull had been, which saw the open access operator offer the UK’s first single sign-up 4G-enabled wi-fi solution to passengers, Stiles added it helped de-risk a lot of the development work.
“They [Icomera] had a good idea of what they were doing,” he explained. “They very quickly set up a technical working group with WiFi SPARK. There was also that relationship with EE in the background.
“It was very much an Arriva partnership with those three vendors, but on a development front there was an open dialogue. They stepped up. I haven’t experienced it often in my career, and it is rare that you come across suppliers with that really collaborative mentality.”
Trackside infrastructure upgrade
Chiltern is also working with EE to upgrade the trackside infrastructure to deliver a continuous wi-fi connection along its route.
That work is progressing and starting to take shape, said Stiles, who added that the operator is still looking at the exact positioning for the various beacons and where the trackside infrastructure is going to be located, especially as it is a safety critical environment. “At an Arriva level we are working very closely with Network Rail to get it right first time,” he noted.
Discussing the wi-fi offer provided to customers, Stiles explained that the operator has trebled its on-train allowance to 75MB per journey – not per day.
“Increasing the wi-fi allowance gives people much more freedom to make better use of their time on board,” said Chiltern’s head of IT. Although no top-up is offered if people exceed their limit, RTM was told that the operator doesn’t just cut people off.
“If you use your quota, then we restrict your usage because it is a shared service,” said Stiles. “At the moment, there is, to some extent, a finite capacity because it is a shared service. We’re reasonable, we don’t cut people off, but we throttle that connection down. You can carry on working and accessing your email. But if you are looking at high bandwidth media content then fair is fair. We try to treat people equitably.”
Kevin Ives, digital transformation director of Arriva UK Trains, added that the project really is next generation wi-fi.
“Passengers want to be continuously connected to fast and reliable wi-fi as they move through every step of their journey,” he said. “This collaboration with WiFi SPARK, Icomera and EE provides Chiltern Railways customers with a seamless service from the moment they arrive at the station and is part of our ongoing commitment to provide the very best digital train experience for our passengers.”
Stiles explained that the work forms part of Arriva’s digital strategy, and is a testbed for expanding the vision further. “But from Chiltern’s perspective it is a five-year investment to deliver short and long-term benefits,” he said, adding that the operator is proud to be the first to make this offering available to passengers.
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