Before the UK went into its first lockdown in March last year, the largest rail franchise in the country, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), was serving over a million people a day, many of which were commuting to one of more than 50 hospitals in the network’s reach.
Nearly a year later, the number of people has plummeted and remains far from normal levels, but the hospitals and trusts located near GTR’s stations still need services to run in the most efficient and punctual way possible. Indeed, thousands of essential workers continue to take the company’s trains while most of the country stays in lockdown.
As GTR chief financial officer Ian McLaren explains, orchestrating these services – even despite the fall in passenger numbers – has been anything but easy over the past year, as new factors such as train cleanliness, protecting vulnerable staff and imposing social distancing measures on board came into play.
As always – though these days more so than ever – technology has come to aid, this time in the form of a set of apps and platforms that have helped GTR manage anything from ticketing, areas of intervention, customer tracking and Covid-19 declarations.
GTR chief financial officer Ian McLaren. Credit: GTR
How GTR’s technology department deal with Covid-19
The coronavirus crisis caught GTR at a crucial moment. “The pandemic has unlocked some ten years’ worth of digital transformation in the year,” says McLaren. “For us, that’s certainly true.”
Having faced passenger criticism over its timetable reshuffling in May 2018, the company had just come from a restructuring of how it carried out its work. “[Throughout the pandemic] we operated incredibly well, partly thanks to the digital transformation journey that we started two years ago,” he continues. “This allowed us to mobilise 7,500 people and enable them to work from home.”
This, he says, was supported by a three-pillar strategy that has characterised its approach since the start of 2020. “The first pillar is about making sure that everything that we do is done brilliantly well, while the second focuses on strong partnerships with the likes of Network Rail and the Department for Transport (DfT),” he explains.
“The third element is linking the two and start shifting perceptions. This strategy really helped us at the start of the pandemic because we already had a very strong and evolving relationship with the DfT but that ability to allow people to work from home, as quickly as lockdown happened.”
The technology enabling this is a series of Microsoft-powered apps, data platforms and tools through which GTR kept track of its operations and made real-time decisions. Most of these tools kicked off before or around the time of the first lockdown, offering valuable insights on how the pandemic was affecting services.
“We could see during the first week of lockdown how passenger numbers compared to the previous year, dropping from 90% on the Monday to 80% the next day and by the Friday we were carrying 10% of our normal passenger loads,” says McLaren.
Keeping track of operations with Power BI
Having been used to moving around a million people a day, the franchise found itself carrying a mere 100,000 daily passengers over the first two weeks of lockdown, with numbers gradually picking up to 35%-40% of pre-pandemic volumes between the summer and the second lockdown.
As time went by, these drastically low ridership figures forced GTR to seek government aid, a move that was heavily supported by the company’s new data platforms and technologies. “Having these data insights meant that we were able to have intelligent conversations with the DfT but also find out about the 42 hospitals located on our network and the 80,000 critical workers who we needed to transport on a daily basis,” explains McLaren.
One such example was the DataHub, a business intelligence platform that he defines as the “single source of truth” for internal reporting, a valuable tool for both company-wide and localised performance analytics. Powered by the Microsoft Azure and Power BI technology, the platform gathers information from over 50 data sources through which GTR obtains daily reports, which are then used for forecasting, predictions and real-time action.
Insights include anything from places at risk of overcrowding to ticket vending machines, departures, arrivals and cancellations. “We also have intelligence based on the trains’ data feeds,” he adds. “For example, we’ve calculated that 25% of the normal volume of a train is a limit for social distancing so if you’ve got a train capacity of 30%, it’s beginning to get a bit crowded and [someone] can intervene.”
From a ticketing perspective, heatmaps and gate-line indicators help station teams adjust their working patterns, increase cleaning schedules and prepare for a spike in volumes. “We also have a tool that allows [us] to see how ticket sales vary versus various locations they’re indicating again whether we’ve got a problem in a particular station,” he continues.
“This technology is also enabling us to see how people are changing their travelling patterns and make sure we’ve got colleagues on the front line, supporting those passengers that are travelling.”
The Power Apps
Alongside retrospective monitoring and decision-making, GTR has introduced a suite of low code apps – known as Power Apps – that it’s since been using for real-time communication and action with its employees.
As McLaren explains, these are the main data feeders of the Power BI platforms, based on which the franchise can make real-time interventions. “What we’ve then done throughout the pandemic was first and foremost keeping our colleagues safe and well-informed,” he continues. “A lot of this is about giving them access to information and support them in decisions that they’re making every day, as well as how they’re dealing with frontline customers, which is why we developed the Power Apps.”
These were pushed to GTR’s 7,500 GTR workers, who were able to use them for a range of needs including accessing information on Covid-19 and isolation practices, reporting sickness and booking a desk in the company’s offices.
“What that enabled us to do was accessing our daily statistics on the back end while also monitoring what was happening with our 7,500 colleagues,” Mclaren adds. “More importantly, that data is broken down into locations so we can see whether we are having an arising problem in one particular maintenance depot or station.”
The initiative proved equally crucial when it came to predicting potential issues in the future, such as staff availability, scheduling accessibility training and getting front-line colleagues to record how well social distancing rules were being observed at stations and on trains.
“We introduced a risk assessment tool online using the Power Apps [and] all our managers were able to risk assess all their colleagues on the front line and made sure they were not vulnerable,” explains McLaren. “There is also a Zero Harm app where you can report different instances and send information to the safety team.”
Reassuring customers and meeting new demands
In parallel with these initiatives, the past year has seen GTR implement a series of measures to keep customers updated and reassure them of the health and hygiene steps it was taking. These included nationwide campaigns to inform passengers on how to travel safely, as well as thank essential personnel for their work during the pandemic.
As McLaren explains, the bulk of work will be supporting a shift from ticket vending machines to mobile and digital purchases, as well as collaborating with sector stakeholders on developing new seasonal packages.
Indeed, since the start of Covid-19, barcode e-ticket sales have increased in the UK from representing 25% of rail ticket revenues pre-Covid-19 to 33%. “The industry is still trying to work out, based on trends and what customers actually need, what is the best commercial ticketing solution,” he says. “The migration to digital tickets is massive, we’ll see more and more barcode ticketing and customers are now beginning to understand more and more the digital propositions and what they see from us is the simplification of it.”
To achieve this purpose, strict collaboration has been taking place between GTR, the government and other British franchises to make sure that the subsidies they received will pay off in the long run. “We have to make sure that whatever we run is sustainable going forward,” he concludes, “So we’re working with them to make sure that what we bring out is both what our customers want as well as liveable.”