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March 30, 2016

HackTrain: leading a technology revolution

On the 20th November, 120 software developers, designers and entrepreneurs from across the globe boarded three trains. Travelling between London and York, their mission was to hack the rails and kick-start a technology revolution in the rail industry.

By Gary Peters


Striving to start a new era of innovation in rail technology, HackTrain is the brainchild of technology experts River Tamoor Baig and Alejandro Saucedo. Sensing the appetite for change and untapped talent, Baig and Saucedo decided to take rail innovation in an entirely new direction: hackathons.

"I decided to think about how expensive it is to operate the rail industry, and one of the biggest expenses is the software infrastructure, such as ticketing systems and booking platforms," says Baig. "I began to dig deep and I discovered that the industry wasn’t using its software anywhere near as much as it could be."

With their interest piqued, Baig and Saucedo ran their first rail hackathon in March last year, following discussions with a train operating company

The industry response was more than either could have hoped for; leading to contact with Virgin Trains East Coast, the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC), Trainline, and SilverRail, among others.

"We then realised – and what did surprise us – was the level of demand from industry," adds Baig.

Hacking the rails

This support demanded a wider, more encompassing, idea and so HackTrain was born with a 48-hour hackathon in November. It has received support from the UK Government, and in particular the Department for Transport, which has been crucial to its success.

The marathon hackathon began at St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London, featuring speeches from Andrew Jones MP, UK minister for transport, and train companies such as National Rail and Great Western Railways.

On the journey, 30 teams were each set a challenge by industry figures, such as how to crowdsource information on how busy particular trains were. The hackathon finished at the National Railway Museum in York, with the ten best shortlisted teams then presenting their ideas to an industry panel in December.

"We had to make sure that we found the best and brightest participants. We had over 1,000 applications and interviewed 300 people," says Baig. "My two personal favourites were RICCS and Ticket."

"We had to make sure that we found the best and brightest participants. We had over 1,000 applications and interviewed 300 people."

The Ticket innovation was essentially additional information for passengers regarding their ticket, as Baig explains.

"It might say off-peak or super off-peak, but they all have different meanings depending on which service you take. The Ticket team built a tool to be installed in any train company app. So you would plug it into the Great Western app or National Rail, for example.

"The user would then scan their ticket and more information about their journey would be shown on the app."

The RICCS team, meanwhile, built an algorithm to check the line for all trains operating in the vicinity and re-route traffic as necessary to minimise disruption.

"I could be biased but we need to get back to customer experience, which is the most important thing," says Baig. "The only way to improve customer experience is to invest in new ways of doing things."

This view chimes with Mark Holt, chief technical officer at Trainline – the company was the hackathon’s sole ‘Gold’ sponsor – who says that for too long it’s been "business as usual", with customers joining long queues for tickets at stations only to then spend long periods waiting on the platform for the next train to arrive.

"It’s been the customer who has lost out in this arrangement," he says. "The potential exists through technology to radically change the passenger experience for the better."

Accelerating change

At the time of writing, HackTrain has just launched what is described as the world’s first RailTech accelerator programme, which will truly set the wheels in motion.

Beginning in March, the three-month programme will act as the structure and implementation phase. In essence, a "heads down, let’s get trials started sort of thing", says Baig.

A total of ten teams – of which a maximum of three will be from the November hackathon – will showcase their technology to an industry panel for a chance to win a £25,000 investment. The winners will then embark on three-months of mentoring to turn their ideas into reality.

"The primary goal is to get trials up and running within four to six weeks [after the technology has been shown and selected, and from the date of acceptance]," explains Baig. "This is a very ambitious goal as currently it takes six to 18 months, which is mind blowing."

Ambitious it may be, but Holt says that the industry is primed for change and ready to take the next technological leap.

"In the past 20 years we’ve seen the emergence of various technological advances, such as online service updates and ticket booking that have certainly been a major step in the right direction.

"It’s only been in the last decade that we’ve seen rail innovation grow to a point where it can realistically rival that of other forms of travel through apps that put the power in the palm of the consumer."

Working in partnership

If such a goal is to be realised, more emphasis needs to be placed on linking rail companies with tech start-ups and individuals, as well as a shift towards a more innovation-friendly culture.

"The next improvements that are needed cannot be achieved via traditional methods," says Baig, who adds that the culture of the industry can often obscure the potential of change.

"There isn’t one go-to company who people say ‘yes, that’s who we should strive to be like."

"There isn’t one go-to company who people say ‘yes, that’s who we should strive to be like’. Individually they are all doing some really good things but there isn’t the Google or Apple of train operating companies that others can aspire to be like."

Holf refers to the complexities of the industry, including as it does "must-have" attributes around safety, punctuality and seat availability. Without continued investment and attention on these, customer satisfaction "plummets", he argues.

"On the other hand," he continues, "a lot of new technology falls in to the ‘delighter’ category. They make customers extremely happy, and are therefore revenue generative, but are not absolutely necessary for an adequate user experience."

This model has seen a substantial increase in new innovation from customer-centric train operating companies, says Holt, such as purchasing tickets and travelling from London Euston to Manchester using smart, mobile barcode tickets.

Inertia has crept in, however, "from companies that have made significant historical investment in legacy technologies; even when, for example, smartphones have clearly usurped their value proposition".

Nevertheless, HackTrain has stirred the imagination, with ideas ranging from using CCTV to monitor passenger numbers for each service, rewarding customers for choosing trains at less busy times, a taxi sharing service for passengers and even Google Translate for providing detailed information about tickets.

This, alongside industry and government support, has Baig convinced that the UK is moving in the right direction.

"Right now we can say we are a leader in terms of infrastructure investment – crossrail, electrification, and HS2 – but I don’t think it will be very long until we become the leaders in rail tech."

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