Interviews

01.01.12

Staying informed

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Dec/Jan 2012

National Rail Enquiries’ chief executive Chris Scoggins and head of online services Jason Webb talk to RTM about delivering information faster and in more accessible formats to keep up with passenger expectations.

Providing information via a mobile version of National Rail Enquiries is much more than simply condensing the original website.

The recently launched site aims to provide up-to-date information, journey comparisons and details of disruption, wherever the passenger needs to access it.

Mobile society

With the growing importance of technology, and the prevalence of smartphones in the UK, it is essential to keep up with the times, according to Jason Webb, head of online services, and Chris Scoggins, chief executive, of National Rail Enquiries.

Webb explained how customer feedback and consumer trends had necessitated a revamp to their original site.

He said: “It follows the growing trend that we’ve seen for smartphones in the UK; there’s more and more need for customers to access information on the move and use their mobile devices to do that. It’s keeping tabs on what our customers want and delivering accordingly.”

The previous mobile site, the first in the rail industry, “needed to be updated in line with modern usage requirements,” Scoggins added.

Webb continued: “With the mobile site it’s about getting the user experience, the interface, absolutely right. It has to be very simple and very fast to use and given the increases in usage that we’ve seen, we’ve got both of those right. We’ve seen a significant leap in customer usage, a lot of very positive comments from customers, either through traditional customer relations channels or through twitter and the social networks.

“Rather than take what we have on the website and condense that onto a small screen, we’ve looked at how a customer can best access information on a small device when they haven’t got much time and not necessarily a brilliant signal.”

Both Scoggins and Webb acknowledged that technology and mobile software is going to continue to grow in importance, and can only be the future for delivering effective passenger information.

Scoggins commented: “As in all walks of life, IT is becoming fundamental to society and it’s just expected to be there and to work.”

“It’s about using IT as an enabler of change and tailoring your channels accordingly for your customers,” Webb added.

Real-time benefits

Webb said: “The new mobile site offers customers journey planning with real-time information; it can tell you if your train’s late, or if you’re going to miss a connection. You can then re-plan your journey using what’s actually going on, on the railway.

“You can look at the departure boards for any station in the country; find out what facilities are at a station; look at disruptions and engineering work to see if that’s going to affect your journey, either on the day or in the future.”

According to recent Passenger Focus research, during periods of disruption one of the key pieces of information valued by passengers is the probable duration of a delay. National Rail Enquiries can now provide this.

Webb explained: “We have a real-time system called Darwin that takes feeds from a number of industry systems and then uses heuristic algorithms to calculate any delay that may be incurred for trains running on the network.”

Additionally, when operators put a contingency timetable in place for the next day, for bad weather, or a strike, that will soon be available the evening before, rather than only being available first thing in the morning.

“We need to give people the information as soon as we have it. That’s very much people’s expectation: as soon as the industry knows, that information will be available to them. That’s really the thrust of our work,” Webb said.

Information

There are a number of other steps being taken in conjunction with this development to ensure passengers have access to the most reliable, up-to-date information.

Scoggins said: “We started offering customers the ability to receive alerts if their chosen train services were delayed or cancelled, through their Twitter accounts or through email. There’s been a big uplift in the number of people asking for those alerts.

“We’ve included on-the-day timetable changes in our journey planners, which our systems capture from looking at the train company control rooms. Those are now fed into Darwin and when additional services are added or trains cancelled, those are in the journey planners automatically.”

Another development in the pipeline for National Rail Enquiries is a smartphone app specifically designed for staff, to ensure they keep up with well-informed customers and their smartphones.

Scoggins continued: “Up until now, most train company staff haven’t had access to that information, especially if they don’t have a computer in front of them.

“There’s nothing worse, for a member of staff standing there on the platform, for a customer to come up to you with a smartphone with all the up-to-the-minute information on if you haven’t got the same information available to you.”

Eyes across the network

Darwin technology has also been used to feed on-station systems; the screens that customers see in the ticket hall, the concourse or on the platforms. This is something that National Rail Enquiries plans to extend to the rest of the network by March 2014.

Scoggins explained: “Earlier this year we converted all the Virgin Trains stations on the West Coast Main Line to take our real-time information onto their platform screens. Funding has just been approved to roll that same approach out nationally over the next few years. So people will have access on the platform and in the concourse to the most up-to-date, reliable, real-time information.”

This aims to eliminate situations where an information screen doesn’t register a delay until the train is already well past the reported time of arrival, and avoid customers wasting time waiting for a train that isn’t coming.

“Those systems can’t see the train far enough away from the station to realise that it’s late,” Scoggins said.

“This gets rid of all those problems and effectively links up all of the best sources of information so the screens at each station can effectively see every train on the network.”

Be prepared

In times of disruption, passenger information is even more crucial to assist people making decisions appropriate to their journeys. Scoggins suggested that one of the key issues is encouraging greater awareness of help that is currently available, such as alerts and information feeds.

He continued: “If there is serious disruption, there are a number of ways people can keep themselves up-to-date with the latest and best quality information that’s available at the time.

“We’re recommending that customers take steps now to ensure they are attached to those means of communication, so when they do need them they’ve already got them saved in their phone or on their laptops or whatever it might be.

“Registering with our website so that it tailors the information to your journey straight away without you having to hunt around for it, or subscribing to one of our Twitter or Facebook feeds for each train company that we run, will enable passengers to stay abreast of the latest information.

“We are hoping to draw people’s attention to the fact that they can prepare themselves should the need arise. The main thing is making sure people know what is available to help them now.”

Continual development

The ORR recently criticised the rail industry for its handling of passenger information, and called for improvements. According to National Rail Enquiries, part of the Association of Train Operating Companies, these are already being developed.

Scoggins commented: “There is a lot of work in progress and in the future to improve customer information; the industry has invested millions of pounds in the last few years. We know we need to do more, and that’s why the industry is working together to improve how we communicate with passengers, now and over the next few years.

“It will be continual. There is also a lot of work going on behind the scenes that will enable better information provision in the near future.”

Building on the theme of working together, Webb added: “We also recognise that customers may go to other information sources so we provide a number of feeds and web services to train companies and a significant number of developers and third party companies so they can offer the same information to customers: a very consistent set of information about what is going on, wherever they choose to get that information from.” 

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