6 Ways Big Data Can Be Used in Passenger Rail

In Customer Engagement, Customer Experience, Featured on App, Omnichannel by Angela Sands

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My flatmate recently went online and purchased a train ticket to Manchester for the weekend. On the night before she was due to travel, her purse was stolen, taking with it her bank card used to purchase her ticket. The next morning, she was faced with a seemingly ludicrous situation: because she didn't have the card used to make the purchase, there was (according to both station and call centre staff) absolutely no way of redeeming the ticket for travel. No e-ticket option, no way for station staff finding her booking online, nothing available for upload on her mobile. In order to make it up North she was forced to buy a second ticket and say goodbye to a second £70.

Now I regularly travel in a world where a low cost airline like Easyjet knows exactly where I like to go, sends me targeted travel offers, has my purchasing details stored for when I buy, reminds me via email that I haven't yet checked in, and can track me whether I want to send my boarding pass to my mobile, email, or pick it up at the airport. Tesco knows which products I regularly put in my shopping cart online, and notifies me if something is on special. Today’s world has sophisticated software allowing B2C providers to identify and track each and every customer, and personalise each and every experience. In this world, there’s no place for the appalling service provided to my flatmate in this case.

To me, the whole episode reinforced how far behind the rail sector is when it comes to embracing non-rail IT technology. There’s really no excuse to treat passengers as anything less than premium customers, using the information that operators have (or should be collecting) to enhance their experience. And the beauty is that most of the work is done for them by the software.

Here are six ways rail operators could be using data to delight their passengers:

1. Booking Tickets Online

Sometimes I'll shop around online for a few different travel options. Later, I might be waiting for the bus or at the supermarket and pull out my phone to keep looking while I wait. Yes I want my mobile site to offer the same ease of use as my browser, but what if I could go a step further and actually land on my previous search results when I open the page? It's not a pipe dream. Big data technology makes it possible to customise landing pages based on previous searches from that passenger.


2. Re-Engaging With Prospective Passengers

Maybe after I've looked around at different options I forget to carry through my booking, and perhaps start to lean towards other options such as air travel or car hire. What if the railway could identify that I was looking and send me a small reminder email, perhaps with a targeted offer, to convince me to book my journey. The fact that I was looking in the first place makes me a much better prospective customer than the rest of your database. Big data technology makes it possible to identify customers with ‘abandoned shopping carts' online and contact them automatically within a set timeline.


3. Mobile Engagement

In the UK it's safe to say that most rail customers will use mobile as a primary means to communication. Now in my opinion there are plenty of great apps out there for passengers to access rail or journey information. But this week my data on my mobile phone has expired, and I can't physically access my helpful National Rail app when I'm on the move. We've also experienced a week of stormy weather in the UK resulting in many cancelled services (that's a whole new blog post in the making, beware FCC) and without my app or accurate information at the station I have no idea when my train will actually arrive. What if FCC could identify that I'm a regular traveller on a particular link, using my registered Oyster card almost every morning at the same time, same station, and contact me directly with disruption information via text? Not only could I have been saved an hour waiting on the platform this morning, I would have arrived at work feeling like a valued, satisfied customer. Sound to good to be true? The technology is out there, but it needs adoption by the sector (perhaps over the automated passenger information announcements which this morning proved fairly useless).


4. At the Station

There are so many opportunities for personalisation during the passenger journey, and the station experience is no different. Big data offers the opportunity to take that experience beyond clear onsite signage and retail opportunities, to give each passenger an experience which is created for them. For example, a passenger running late for a connecting train might be met off their incoming train and offered personal assistance through the station to the next one. Or if the train is missed (due to delayed inbound services), automatically offered a free place on another service. The possibilities are endless and can be tailored towards the specific service (urban, mainline or international) and company values.


5. On-board

Some forward-thinking operators such as SJ AB are already trialling providing on-board staff with tablets for better information management and training. However with clever software they could potentially take this a step forward to really wowing ‘high value' passengers with free upgrades and exceptional service (although service should be exceptional no matter what). High value passengers can be defined in whatever terms your company values – frequent travellers, poor past experience, concessionary tickets or (for the cynical) people with a high social media influence (such as bloggers).  Armed with a pre-booked seating map, on-board staff can identify and attend to these passengers.


6. Destination Communication

Travel providers have remarkable insight into your passenger's end destination, remembering that a single leg of a journey doesn't necessarily mean that's where they will end up. Perhaps this is something to go on hold until we really have the concept of pan-European rail travel up to scratch, but it's worth thinking about the technology (and what to want to do with it) early. Perhaps a communication to passengers about the weather at their final port of call, or a suggestion on where to stay for assorted budgets? Or how about clear information for changing trains in a country where the passenger doesn't necessarily speak the local language? The point is, the technology has huge potential to delight passengers at every touch-point, the limitation is how far each operator is prepared to go.


So there are a few points from me. If you'd like to know more about this area of railway technology please join us at Rail Experience World in Amsterdam next month.

If you're a Big Data software company – whether or not you currently have an offering in rail – we desperately want to hear from you! Please get in touch if you have something to offer and an eye on the rail sector.