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July 20, 2015updated 06 Feb 2020 9:54am

Tracking lost luggage: a new system for rail passengers

Virgin Trains have announced the rollout of HomingPIN, a tracking technology to help railway passengers find lost luggage. As the first program of its kind, Eva Grey profiles the technology and speaks to Virgin to learn more.

By Eva Grey

A new scheme launched in April by Virgin Trains is offering train passengers the opportunity to track their possessions in transit.

The HomingPIN system, already a favourite with airlines and plane travellers, is currently being trialled by 1,000 participants under a scheme which will see Virgin Trains become the first-ever operator to introduce a baggage retrieval system for rail passengers.

While luggage tracking is fairly widespread in air travel, where mishandling of possessions is a common and very costly occurrence, it’s currently nonexistent on the railways. Train operators simply don’t gather consistent data on the numbers of possessions lost on their network, despite it being a common issue. Statistics from Transport for London (TfL) for example, reveal that between April 2014 and January 2015, a total of 95,113 items have been lost in transit by railway passengers.

Travelcard wallets topped the list of the most common items processed by TfL’s lost property office, followed by mobile phones, credit and debit cards, wallets, keys and purses. According to independent service Lost Property desk, the restoration rate for the items received over this period was just 21%. And income generated by selling the unclaimed items lost on public transport was £257,176.

“Anyone who has misplaced a phone or laptop will be incredibly anxious to have it located and returned quickly, and mobile phones are unfortunately one of the more common items left behind on trains,” says Helen Dunnington, voice of customer manager at Virgin Trains.

“We know how upsetting for customers it can be if someone takes the wrong bag off the train. There is a lot of lost property on our trains; it’s a big challenge, and we were looking for solutions that can help us ensure that people are reunited with their property. HomingPIN offers a simple way of repatriating items online.”

How it works: a simple system

HomingPIN uses a straightforward method to link users with their possessions. A passenger can attach a luggage loop, key ring or a sticker on any item they wish to protect and each label comes with a unique code printed on it.

The printed codes can then be activated online, where they get linked with users’ personal contact details, such as a telephone number or email address. Whoever finds a lost object can access HomingPIN’s website and enter the unique code, which will send an instant message to the owner, informing them their items have been found.

HomingPIN specifies that no personal information about the owner will be disclosed in the process and the company will then cover any delivery costs incurred in returning the possessions to their original user.

“It’s a simple way for people to contact you if your item is left behind or lost. It’s so easy to misplace property during a journey (we’ve all done it!), and this just provides extra peace of mind that if your item is found, you can be alerted,” says Dunnington.

“Having the HomingPIN tag on your bag means the person who finds it can quickly and easily alert its owner via the website and then the owner can arrange for the item to be returned, including arranging a courier via the site.”

“Having the HomingPIN tag on your bag means the person who finds it can quickly and easily alert its owner via the website.”

But even when using the tags, can passengers be assured the finder will be willing to get in touch and return their property?

HomingPIN offers no guarantee in this sense, but statistics are quite optimistic: figures by OpinionWay and Lost Property desk show that 84% of lost property is found by individuals and 93% of finders “would love to return them”.

Dunnington thinks strapping HomingPIN to their bag provides the finder with more of an incentive to give it back: “It’s a really easy way to alert the owner straight away and the stickers provide really clear instructions about how to do this,” she says.

Device protection: tracking electronics

HomingPIN’s gadget trackers have the advantage of protecting the user’s identity and personal information. As the company highlights in a blog post, by using the coded sticker the finder can return a mobile phone without having to access the owner’s personal data. This provides increased protection against identity theft and also a better chance to have the device returned to them, even if the battery has run out. At the moment, says the blog post, worldwide “only 25% of phones are returned to the owner”.

“We are trialling free HomingPIN starter kits which offer a tag, key ring and stickers to put on smaller electronic items,” says Dunnington.

The technology has been tried for a few months by customers who contacted Virgin’s customer relations team about lost property issues and those who book Passenger Assistance for their journey.

The operator is currently exploring new ways of distributing the luggage tags and, according to Dunnington, they might soon become available at station ticket offices. For the moment, those interested in trialling the device can request a free starter kit, but it might be a while yet until tracking tags become the norm.

“We’re exploring all sorts of possibilities at the moment. If we get positive feedback following the trial, we will look to make HomingPIN more widely available in the future but don’t have a specific date at this point,” Dunnington says.

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