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February 21, 2017

The rail industry has to get back on track and embrace modern passengers’ technology expectations

With the 20th anniversary of the privatisation of the railways this year, it is time that some train operating companies catch up with the modern passenger.

By James Nunns

We have all seen the regular reports that point to record low levels of passenger satisfaction across the rail network in the UK. There is obviously much to be done, some of which is outside of the train operating companies’ (TOC) control, but much of which is very much within their grasp.

Indeed, across most businesses and sectors, ‘customer experience’ is the key aspect of a company’s strategic approach. The rail industry is certainly not immune to this. This year is the 20th anniversary since the privatisation of the rail network, much has

Matt O’Donovan is founder and CEO at WiFi SPARK.

changed, but perhaps no more than the passengers themselves.

They are a very different proposition, with different expectations, a host of new devices

which they expect to be able to use during a journey, and the experience of interacting with technology with ease at home and in the office – very different to two decades ago.

A glance at the airline industry, which TOCs must increasingly see as a direct competitor in the UK, shows just how far behind the railway is when it comes to catering for the modern passenger. Mobile internet (across mobiles and tablets) now surpasses desktop internet access globally (51.2 per cent compared to 48.7 per cent) according to Internet monitoring firm StatCounter.

As such passengers have very high expectations when it comes to constant, reliable and secure access to the internet. More than that in most cases passengers want a continuous connection. Being able to provide a service that allows the passenger to be seamlessly connected throughout a journey gives TOCs a huge advantage over competitors and goes some way to help address passenger satisfaction levels.

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For example, by embracing the latest WiFi technology and working it in coordination with the on-train WiFi provider, TOCs can quickly provide a fully connected service, from the time passengers enter the station, throughout their journey on the train and when they reach their destination station. The on-train WiFi steps in when the train leaves the station and as it approaches a new station the station WiFi automatically takes over again. This truly connected journey could prove a huge advantage for TOCs looking to improve customer satisfaction levels and really prove their worth.

But other than the immediate increase in passenger satisfaction levels, TOCs can use the information gathered from passengers when they sign up and authenticate to gain access to the WiFi. This gives a huge amount of data that companies can utilise to further enhance a passenger’s experience, such as welcoming them back to station when they return, putting the right information in front of them at various stages of their journey and ensuring that they are up-to-date with any offers. This personalised approach has been the key factor for success particularly for retail over the past five years or so and should absolutely be a route that TOCs now fully embrace.

The huge amount of scrutiny that TOCs are currently experiencing means that they are under real pressure to change the passenger experience. Embracing technology that not only makes a huge, immediate, difference to a passenger’s journey, but can also provide great insight for the TOC to further enhance their passenger’s experience, can only help to get passengers onside and ensure that they are offered the best possible service.

The rail industry has been slow in getting up to speed with the latest technology – but there are signs that some are embracing it – and it will be those that do that will be much further down the track than their competitors, giving them huge advantages.


Chiltern Railways Case Study

Chilterns Railways is one of the leading TOCs in the UK with routes from London out to the Midlands and Oxford. It is already a progressive company which prides itself on being an early technology adopter, indeed it was one of the first TOCs to offer free WiFi on their trains in 2011. However, it recognised that passenger expectations had risen and that there was an opportunity to provide continuous connectivity across the Chiltern Railways estate.

Working with WiFi SPARK Chiltern undertook a complete overhaul of 28 station and three depot’s WiFi provision, with state of the art WiFi technology installed throughout.

Passengers simply sign in and authenticate once to give them unlimited access across all of their journeys for 365 days, and are greeted with a personalised ‘welcome back’ message at the start of each journey. As the train approaches the station the train connectivity (run from 3G or 4G) is temporarily offloaded onto the station WiFi, ensuring passengers have the best connection (without losing signal or having to reconnect), whilst reducing 3G and 4G costs for the TOC.

It gives passengers a continuously connected journey and provides Chiltern with robust customer data that gives them real insight into their passengers, allowing them to effectively tailor engagement.

By meeting and exceeding expectations, TOCs can immediately have a huge impact on the way they are perceived by their most important asset – the passenger.

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