We’ve seen one industry after another undergo massive disruption from start-ups in the last few years, but in the UK, the transport sector has remained resolutely stagnant. That could finally be about to change, however; this week saw the inaugural #HackTrain Conference in London, the culmination of a year-long cycle which began with the HackTrain hackathon and then with the RailTech accelerator.
“Innovation comes down to two things; the idea, and the willingness to take on risk,” says Aaron Gowell, CEO of SilverRail. Gowell was previously the founder of National Leisure Group, the company which powers sites like Expedia and Priceline, and he knows a little something about risk; he lost $100 million in the aftermath of 9/11.
There is a staggeringly low tolerance for risk in the UK transport industry, says Gowell, which is why it has taken a number of US investors to back SilverRail. But he believes that now more than ever, disruption is needed in this space. “It’s important for society, for both congestion and CO2 reasons, to embrace risk,” he says.
“Rail is such a heavy infrastructure that you’re limited in ways that other sectors aren’t,” says Kim Paykel, Programme Director at EYX, the innovation arm of Ernst & Young UK. “The solutions are there, sometimes we put politics and policy in the way.” Slowly but surely, though, it is undergoing digital transformation; BAE Systems recently flew helicopters over the entire national rail network, creating a 3D model of the entire infrastructure as part of its goal to define the digital architecture.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the innovation being demonstrated at HackTrain is how none of it feels particularly ground-breaking in isolation; start-ups are simply taking existing technology that is already solving problems in other areas, and simply bringing it into the transport industry.
One of the most common problems in rail is passenger loading; certain carriages on a train will be packed to capacity, while others sit empty. Vivacity is a start-up which makes real-time smart cameras for urban analytics; they can identify people and objects, and use that data to inform consumers on where parking spaces are available, or how long they can expect to stand in line at a ticket office.
That information can also be deployed among station staff to improve efficiency. These smart cameras are now being trialled on-board trains, to provide accurate, real-time head counts on carriages and alert passengers waiting on platforms as to where seats are available.
Another frequently cited issue is station congestion; there are more people travelling than ever before, but they are using an infastrucutre designed for considerably fewer. Apps like Pointr use map data to provide simple orientation via augmented reality, directing users to restrooms, platforms and exits. A recent pilot scheme at King’s Cross in London saw users follow a series of simple directions to the famous ‘Platform 9 ¾’ installation.
“Every fail is an opportunity,” says entrepreneur Paul Papadimitriou, who points out the many ways in which aviation companies have taken pain points and turned them into experience-enriching assets. For instance, more and more airlines are now moving towards mobile boarding passes which can be stored in the Live Wallet of a smartphone, rather than insisting that passengers print out their details.
The most important thing for any transport company to remember, he says, is that travel is different for everyone; it can be a holiday, or an obligation, it can be for work or for family. And companies which fail to focus on that contextual customer experience are much more likely to suffer from innovation inequity. “Identity is the real disruption,” he adds. “We’re living in a customer-centric world at scale.”