Why do we not provide better passenger information during service disruption?

A complicated question with a simple solution…

We’ve all been there… you’re stood on the platform, waiting for the 10:32 to take you to see your friends in the city. All of a sudden, the board empties, and you’re left wondering why you’re delayed and what your alternative options are to ensure you reach your destination. This lack of information is frustrating, and with more than one in every five complaints made in 2018–2019 relating to punctuality or reliability of trains, I think it’s safe to say the rest of the UK agrees.

Service disruption encompasses delays caused by varying issues; things like fatalities, infrastructure problems, signalling and staffing issues - which result in trains either being cancelled, or not arriving at their scheduled destination on time. As a rail operator, minimising your average delay time, and increasing the number of on time trains across your network is crucial to maintaining a positive reputation and customer retention. So how can businesses achieve this without breaking the bank or negatively affecting their brand identity?

The short answer is with data. IDC predicts that by 2025 there will be around 175 zettabytes of data in existence. Buzz words like “Big Data” and “Automation” are dominating the corporate world, making it staggering to hear that Forrester Research previously predicted most companies only analyse around 12% of the data they have. With all this data at our fingertips, why are rail businesses not gaining better insights to provide information and a more proactive response to passengers during times of disruption?

The simple answer is because they don’t know how. The longer answer centres around the challenge, perhaps even an unwillingness, to drive digital transformation, stepping away from the norm and adopting new ways of working: utilising tools and technologies that automate manual processes, empower operational teams and ensure frontline staff are equipped with the information they need to ease passenger frustrations.

The operator who decided to take a leap of faith and lead the way in innovation around disruption was Virgin Trains (VT). VT had operated in the UK for the last 22 years; they employed around 3,500 people and operated long-distance passenger services on the West Coast Main Line (now under the stewardship of Avanti West Coast). The service connects six of the UK’s largest cities: London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, and Edinburgh and pre-pandemic delivered 37 million passenger journeys over 22 million miles a year. Over a period of three years Virgin Trains transformed their business using the latest technologies to move faster, make better decisions and innovate, creating industry first solutions in the process. VT's CIO attributed his team’s success to a relentless focus on improving colleague and customer experiences.

So, what drove the disruption initiative? After a long and challenging day of major service disruption in May 2018; with a majority of VT staff working on the frontline to help passengers in stations and on platforms until the early hours of the morning, VT decided there had to be a more effective way of managing these situations. They knew innovative technologies could help to solve the problem and decided enough was enough – the days of manual processes and stress inducing procedures needed to end. From this moment, the idea for the Rail Disruption (Back on Track) solution was born. The tool is the first of its kind in the industry, to help manage, communicate and report incidents; create and update response plans; and communicate response tasks to key staff and customers.

The overall aim was to support colleagues across the business, reduce the impact of disruption and build trust with customers. The team got to work and joined forces with ServiceNow and UP3 to bring the vision to life. After months of design, development and integration of disparate data sources to enable the end to end control, response and communications processes - the application was launched!

General industry conversations with key UK rail operators provide evidence that passenger disruption is a key issue that needs to be tackled collectively to maintain the momentum around other technological advances and increase the popularity of rail passenger transport. VT, now Avanti, exceeded ORR targets for performance and passenger satisfaction and there are numerous examples of efficiencies that have been gained with ‘Back on Track’.

In September 2019, they faced issues between Crewe and Stratford when a dropper struck a train - a situation that would usually need engineers on site before the train could proceed. Thanks to the automation achieved through their Back on Track application, they were able to coordinate the incident between multiple parties and take appropriate action within a matter of minutes, minimising any disruption to services and customers. This is just one of many benefits that were been gained through pre-defined response plans that can be quickly actioned, implemented and communicated to resolve incidents efficiently. They saw calls to control reduce by as much as 70%, with staff reporting a significant reduction in stress, noting that their ability to think more clearly is a priceless advantage of using this tool.

VT promoted customer-centric initiatives, such as Delay Repay, more than any other TOC. Their obsession with customer service and innovation drove them to find ways to tackle industry problems such as disruption, showing what is possible… what is normal. This embrace of change, and willingness to innovate and put their customers’ needs above that of the business allowed them to drive industry change for the better. A culture that continues to this day with Avanti West Coast.

As we look to the future – 92.7% of business are now investing in Big Data and AI initiatives to help them streamline their business processes and increase the ease of analytics in a data centric world; but is jumping on the bandwagon and investing for the sake of “staying on trend” really the right approach to take?

Businesses need to understand their pain points, and work to address these in relation to their own KPIs, systems and objectives - rather than investing heavily in out of the box analytics tools.

So do your research, understand your business processes and work with engaging and reputable partners to understand what areas you can automate to increase agility and put power into the hands of your people and customers.


If you’d like more information with examples of rail automation solutions, including service disruption and how the rail industry is tackling this hot trend, visit our rail apps built on ServiceNow section.

This article originally appeared in Rail Professional in February 2020 and has undergone minor revisions including some statistics.

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