Even with the best of intentions, both planned and unplanned rail service disruptions are a fact of life around the world, exacerbated amongst other factors by ageing networks, increasingly extreme weather, crime, and freak accidents. While disruptions are something rail operators often cannot influence, the outcome for the customer is something they can do a lot about, especially with the right information and tools at their disposal. The difference between a well-managed disruption and a poorly managed one can be huge in terms of customer satisfaction and ultimately the operator’s ability to hold onto its contracts.
In the UK specifically, a recent study into rail journey disruption management commissioned by the Department of Transport, showed that the handling of disruptions by Operators was perceived as poor or very poor by 38% of passengers, compared to only 22% thinking they were handled well. Longer disruptions contributed to poor ratings, as did cancellations. Moreover, the information given to customers by Operators during disruptions was perceived as predominantly negative by recipients. While train operators need to work on minimising disruptions themselves, they can’t ignore the need to make the best of a bad situation when it happens.
On the global rail stage, although different networks have different challenges, the same basic premise exists; rail operators can make a big difference in how they manage any disruption when it comes along. The challenge has been that all disruptions are complex to manage and require an effective flow of detailed real-time information. And it’s not simply a case of ensuring passenger-facing workers have the information to pass on. Operators must coordinate a response involving trains, services, on-board and platform staff, multiple third parties, which here in the UK means Network Rail and British Transport Police among others. This is additional to ensuring passengers are provided with the latest, correct information about when their next train will be available and whether they may use their ticket to travel with a different Operator, wherever they seek it.
This disruption management needs to be orchestrated while still ensuring that normal service operations are restored as quickly as possible to avoid facing performance penalties and damage to customer satisfaction. Until now this process has been coordinated largely by a complex series of cascading phone calls, text based messages and manual processes that frequently overlap and often contradict.
It has, until recently, been deemed too difficult and slow by many operators to develop disruption management applications that can ensure these processes kick in immediately and effectively when things go awry. But the evolution of low code application development platforms over recent years has changed that. Low code tools such as ServiceNow App Engine are giving Operators the opportunity to pool all their existing data sources, and systems to build workflow applications quickly, to handle disruption management alongside many other operational process challenges from passenger complaints to compensation and fraud.
Low-code/no-code is a current trend in business IT whereby applications can be developed with limited need for coding by developers, replaced by simpler, business processes and data integrations. As a phrase, low-code/no code can be a little misleading. At the simpler end of the spectrum are workflow creators that literally work on simple drag and drop principles, from which anyone could achieve quick and simple efficiency wins with no tech knowledge. At the other end of the low code spectrum are tools that still do much to simplify the process of converting a set of business requirements through development into a useable application. These more ‘enterprise-scale’ tools allow Operators and their implementation partners to work more smartly to build and adapt apps for many different use cases, many of which are linked across the operational business.
Once one enterprise app is built on the platform, it becomes easier to use as a foundation for future apps and process automation. These are just some of the reasons why low code is seeing such massive growth. According to the research company Gartner, the low code/no market will be worth $13.8 billion in 2021 – up 23% from the previous year. By 2025, Gartner predicts that 70% per cent of new applications developed by companies will be low-code/no-code, up from less than 25% in 202
UP3 was involved in one of the first low code rail disruption applications to be developed in the UK, rolled out to Virgin Trains (now Avanti West Coast) in 2019. Within two weeks, Virgin Trains reported a £70k saving by preventing fraud in customer compensation payments.
Of course, TOCs can opt to take a more traditional approach to developing applications for areas such as fraud management, but they should consider some of the challenges this can pose. The first of these is time; not only total timespan it takes to build the app but the number of developer hours also required. Even though low-code is not a cure-all, it does expedite the process, alongside careful business scoping and focused consultancy to get to the nub of the issue in the first place.
Another challenge is available resources. Developers are in high demand; they move roles and often the knowledge of how a bespoke app has been built can ‘leave the business’ with them. The benefit of using a low-code platform is that it keeps the app ‘blueprint’ firmly within the business, locked into the application platform. This also ticks the IT governance box – using a platform that has already been measured up from a governance point of view. And this leads to another advantage – adaptability. Once you have built one app and have the data model and integrations to support it, finding adjacent solutions becomes much easier as many of the necessary data points are already in place.
Low code certainly offers Transport Operators globally the opportunity to innovate and be more disruptive to combat crucial issues such as disruption management that have a direct impact on quality of service. However, it is important to ensure that, at an enterprise level, low code is not considered a cure for all ills. It is a way of expediting, repurposing, and adapting application delivery, alongside expert business process knowledge and requirements scoping.
This article originally appeared in Rail Professional in December 2021.
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