From platforms to pixels: seven ways to enhance the passenger experience

Passenger rail is making a healthy recovery from the pandemic, according to the Office of Rail and Road, with passenger journeys up by 40% in 2023 compared to the previous year. These findings are encouraging, particularly in the context of the rising cost of living, ongoing industrial action and the enduring appeal of the car.

However, there is strong evidence that the sector is going through some far-reaching changes, and passenger demand is evolving too. Here’s how operators can use technology in the age of the new passenger.

  1. Understand the new commuter

The way people work has shifted and the working week is showing few signs of returning to pre-pandemic patterns. Remote and hybrid working is so widespread now, and the people who embrace the flexibility don’t want to give it up and commute like it’s 2019.

But if people are only travelling to work three days out of five, that has an impact on operators’ revenue. In a world where Thursday is the new Friday, rail companies need to make sure trains are the transport of choice for when people do commute to the workplace.

  • Understand the new leisure passenger

Leisure rail travel is changing too. The short-term outlook is positive, with November 2023 figures from the Great British Railways Transition Team showing an upturn in leisure travel by a fifth (19%) quarter-on-quarter.

This is a trend we urgently need to sustain, and the best way to do that is to give leisure passengers more reasons to spend their hard-earned cash on train travel in the coming years.

To keep this new rail passenger loyal to the train system in a changing world of work and leisure travel, rail operators have to deliver a service which meets passengers’ needs, and digital technology can help.

  • Match capacity with demand

Optimising the passenger service can be challenging when travel patterns are in such a state of flux. However, rail operators can use digital information to gain a clear understanding of the relationship between capacity on the network, and passenger demand.

With this insight, planning teams can make more informed decisions on service delivery.   

For instance, data from ticketing and reservation systems enables operators to understand when and where passengers are travelling. This knowledge can then be linked to information such as the number of seats and carriages, staff rostering and driver and fatigue levels to deliver the best possible service according to the resources available.

  • Minimise the impact of disruption

Digital technology can help when things don’t run smoothly too, by getting targeted information into the hands of the people who matter.

Having safety critical information to hand such as weather warnings or temporary speed restrictions enables planning teams to minimise disruption for passengers. This can make all the difference to the passenger experience.

Pulling this data together gives operators the insight to plan a customer focused service which works for the way people travel.

  • Give passengers live information

Passengers are not only demanding a better train service, they also expect a better quality of information about that service. With no paper timetables to clog up the bookshelves, digital technology is integral to a passenger’s experience. Planning a train journey involves using booking apps, online payment systems and social media channels.

Some operators are providing information through intelligent route maps with live disruption information which passengers can access on their phones so they can see instantly if their train is delayed, and how long that delay is likely to be.

John Till, Head of Information Delivery at Southeastern Railway uses digital information to improve his passengers’ experience. “Our customer information system tells passengers if a train is going to be ten minutes late, and it also lets them know if it is between station X and Y because that information can be easier for people to visualise.”

  • Take the unexpected out of the journey

Operators could also send instant updates to passengers’ phones to let them know if their train is having to miss out a stop, allowing people to make alternative plans for their journey. They can even find out when trains are busiest and how likely it is they will get a seat.

John Till explains how this works at Southeastern Railway. “We give passengers details about things that are likely to affect their journey that day such as a lift not working on the route or a lavatory being out of order at a station, so they can alter their travel plans if they need to.”

  • Give passengers a voice

To make lasting improvements to passenger satisfaction, digital communication should be a two-way street. When operators invite customers to give their feedback via an app they can find answers to issues which could prove to be quick wins. Such as the top cause of customer complaints being the temperature of the train or torn seats.

For longer-term strategies, operators can look to multiple data sources to identify the factors which boost passenger engagement – is it a new feature on the operator’s passenger app, for instance, or the introduction of a dynamic route map?

Passenger rail travel may be changing, but the technology rail operators have at their disposal is evolving too. The quantity and quality of data is richer than ever, putting operators in a better position to understand and respond to passenger needs, while digital tools help operators meet ever increasing passenger expectations.

By combining a wealth of industry experience with an innovative approach to technology, passenger operators can prepare for the future, whatever it brings.

To find out more about how to drive positive change in the passenger rail sector, download our eBook: How digital transformation can shape the future of rail.