Developed by UK based tech company, Transreport, the ‘Passenger Assistance’ app was designed with the focus on inclusion and accessibility for passengers with disabilities using UK rail. The app supports voice control and enables passengers to request assistance, review their journey and update their profile using their smartphone.
The app makes disabled passengers’ accessibility requirements easy to obtain. Previously, phone calls to UK railway operators to book assistance for disabled passengers could take anywhere up to 40 minutes. Station staff would then receive printed off lists of booked assistance meaning that if alterations were required the list could not be updated, which could see staff being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Railway Technology spoke to Jay Shen, founder of Transreport to discuss how the app makes travelling easier for disabled passengers and the functions it offers.
Frankie Youd (FY): How did the idea for the app come about?
Jay Shen (JS): In 2017 Transreport was in the early stage as a start-up. We joined an accelerator programme; during that programme, we got to know the various challenges faced by the railway. We were there presenting other solutions and in that meeting, there was a gentleman, Nick, he’s a wheelchair user. After the meeting, he said: “Hey Jay, I really like what you guys are doing, your technology looks really cool, but I have a big thing to ask.” He told me all about his difficulty and his experience when using the railway network.
In the same meeting, the financial director and a customer expeditor said to me: “Jay we really want our passengers to have a good experience regardless of whether they have different extended accessibility challenges or not.” They really wanted to improve service but just didn’t have the right technology to do it. So that’s how I got to know the problem.
I went away that weekend with my partner to develop the solution; we spent the whole weekend in my garage. On Monday we produced a demo app which I showed to the train company and said look this is what we have come up with, we think that it could potentially help some of the issues.
They said they had their accessibility panel meeting coming up and said I should come and show it to the disabled passengers. We came along to that meeting and we showed the app to the passengers and the staff members. It was just incredible to hear the feedback they were giving me; they were saying how it could potentially change their lives.
FY: What functions are available for the user?
JS: We spend a huge amount of time working directly with disabled people. We work with many charities and have our own accessibility panel. People have different backgrounds, they have different accessibility challenges from visual impairment to wheelchair users. We test every step of the way, making sure the app is accessible.
The app is fully voice compatible, so you can control it through voiceover. We also provide different colour settings within the app. For example, we provide a high contrast mode for people with visual impairment, and we provide different colours for people with anxiety or dyslexia to make it easier to use the app.
On the app, the contrast, ratio, font size, have all been tested by third-party testers to make sure the app is compliant with the highest standard of accessibility.
FY: How does the inclusion of this app make the process easier for passengers?
JS: We really wanted to make the process as easy as possible. In the olden days, people needed to call the train company 24 hours in advance and are spending half an hour just to book assistance. Every time they give their name, address, contact details, and make sure the station is accessible.
With this app, once downloaded you create your own profile and that’s it, you don’t have to give the information every time. The way you book assistance is very similar to how you buy a ticket. You go on the app, select the journey you want to travel, they will ask you: “Okay you want to travel from London Euston to Birmingham New Street tomorrow night, what else do you need? What assistance do you need?” You can say, I’m a wheelchair user so I need a ramp, or I need somebody to navigate me through the station.
You can also upload a picture so it’s easier for staff to find you at the station. All this information will be sent to our system and the staff at both stations. In the morning when they start their shift, they will receive a notification on their phone, also through email just as a backup, to say which passenger is coming to the station at what time.
Not only that they will see the profile and all the assistance needed, and at 30 minutes before the passenger arrival they will receive a photo notification reminding them that the passenger is coming.
FY: What are the key benefits for the disabled passenger?
JS: For the passenger, it’s taken hassle away, they are no longer spending 30 minutes trying to make a booking, we try to cut down the booking time from 30 minutes to less than five minutes.
Along the way you will get confirmation, when you request the assistance, they will let you know that your request is sent, then when the train company confirm your information and say they can provide assistance for your journey you get a second confirmation through the app.
You can also check your history, where you have travelled, what is the status of your booking, and if it has been confirmed or rejected.
It gives the passenger a clear picture of what’s going on with their journey and having that capability to allow them to book that assistance anytime, they don’t have to wait for the call centre to open.
FY: What are the key benefits for the train operators?
JS: In the past there have been some bad stories out there where passenger didn’t get assistance on time, or were stuck on the trains, or couldn’t get on the station. The main reason for that was because staff were very much reliant on emails and a very outdated system. This new system will provide accurate information to the right people at the right time, this is critical.
Not only that, but this also allows passengers to update their journey in real time. For example, if I have booked to travel tomorrow but I want to cancel because the weather is bad, the staff get a notification. Similarly, if you decide to not travel in the morning and decide to travel later in the afternoon, staff get a real-time notification, so they have your updated journey.
In the older system, it is very difficult to achieve, that’s why you have a lot of missed information and things that staff don’t know such as cancellations or change of journey.
The app increases the confidence of the staff, provides better information and operational efficiency for stations.
With the staff app, you can assign jobs to yourself so everybody can allocate themselves to different jobs, and there’s accountability and traceability if somebody failed to deliver assistance. Every passenger’s information is stored securely on the system to not get lost, whereas in the olden days people very much relied on a piece of paper – there’s no traceability.
FY: Do you think more needs to be done to improve accessibility within the transport industries?
JS: With the government’s latest announcement and review, in that report I am very glad to see it is very pro accessibility. I think with the support from government and the policy this will only get better.
With the review talking about the future roadmap for passenger assist and how it wants improved accessibility for the railway network it’s not just for rail but for the entire transport network; bus, underground, aviation, airports, they all need to improve accessibility.
I think 14 million people in the UK currently are recognised as people with mobility issues. That is because we’re coming into an ageing society, people live longer and as you live longer, you’re more likely to acquire illness which causes mobility issues. I think that’s about 20% of population.
We need to address this because this if we don’t it’s going to become a more and more serious issue. I’m glad to see UK rail taking a step forward and leading the way in terms of accessibility of social inclusion, equality, and equity, I hope other industries will follow.