Paul Coleman, account and customer experience executive at ITAL, considers modernisation of the railway in a new state-owned era. What are the opportunities and risks for the Department of Transport and the newly formed GBR, and why is data and emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) so important?
Getting off the privatisation journey is one of the critical reforms in UK rail history. While privatisation may not have delivered expected efficiencies in the rail operations, it certainly did take the burden of increasing passenger numbers in past decades. But how can state-owned GBR succeed where others did not? How will it achieve simplification, improved infrastructure and service reliability, together with cost savings?
The idea of a nationalised railway opens opportunities. Investment in digital innovations and new technologies will no longer rely on different TOCs with time-limited franchises, and all financial risk will lie with the government. By aligning infrastructure and operations, there is a potential for a step-change within operations to address the greater challenge GBR will face – increasing revenue. However, using an approach based on enterprise solutions, the rail network may endanger expert innovations coming from the smaller pockets of ‘railway buffs’. Often closer to the operational challenges, the innovations from smaller industry corners have a deep understanding and unique approach to the operational inefficiencies and inconsistent customer experiences.
AN EAGLE’S EYE VIEW
One area that offers tremendous opportunities to increase the efficiency and reliability of the rail network is data. There are enormous volumes of data that currently reside within industry systems but do not communicate with each other.
Solutions employing machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms are available to bring these disparate silos of information together and help train operating companies (TOCs) make better and quicker control decisions. They can manage stock, crew, and disruption in real-time, integrate with existing train planning or crew systems and provide instant insights throughout the rail network.
Data about loading, stock and crew diagrams, station crowding, delays and even transport networks beyond the railway can all be used to give operators a complete picture of what is happening on the rail network and help improve consistency, timeliness and quality of services. For example, if several trains could potentially be cancelled, loading data about the number of people using the service and station crowding will help make a smarter decision. Equally, knowing that the same service was cancelled the day before may change the decision about which train to cancel to avoid impacting the same group of passengers. Ultimately, by bringing data together, operators can gain deeper insights into the impact of their decisions, enhance customer experience, and monitor, measure, and improve services.
A system that suggests the best solutions and continues to learn from data over time will also predict problems and help stop repeating issues. Quick, clear and automatic analysis of the data presented to the operator also facilitates making operations more agnostic to shift patterns and operator experience. It would further reduce the need for manual intervention, manage duplicate data entry points, and replace time-consuming, paper-based processes.
A single, integrated data management solution simplifies communication during service disruptions. Staff, whether station, traincrew or controllers, other TOCs and Network Rail staff can all be alerted. Workflows based on established operational processes will make more efficient use of resources, improve productivity, and reduce reactionary delays. The enhanced efficiency, reduced delay minutes and improved customer experiences are all ingredients for achieving revenue targets.
EFFICIENCY AFFECTS PEOPLE AND THE PLANET
The need to improve the efficiency of rail operations goes beyond a better customer experience and higher ticket revenues. To meet environmental targets for emissions, encouraging the use of the rail network has an immediate impact and benefit. Plans to increase rail freight and reduce road congestion rely on rail services running smoothly and efficiently.
Without a clear picture of the complete rail network and understanding of the impact of different events and unpredicted incidents, this will be very difficult to achieve. The data is already there to make this happen; it just requires a solution that will ‘join the dots’ to show the whole picture.
KEEPING THE DOORS OPEN
The rail network needs innovations that come from a deep understanding of rail operations and provide a modern, digital, collaborative approach. Keeping doors open for the ‘specialists’, the rail network can not only unlock greater agility to deliver seamless experiences but could lead the way in promoting and celebrating local innovations. Such innovations are incentivised to make a difference to the rail network, ensure they are easy to implement and with an in-build purpose to deliver.
Will GBR be looking for innovation and new ways of working? Only time will tell but, with an even playing field, these little industry pockets will be a key differentiator to create a new, better experience from rail travel.