Since first being selected by UK train operating company London Midland (now West Midlands Trains) in 2017, passenger assistance company TransReport and its accessible travel app have gone from strength to strength.

In 2021 it won a contract with the Rail Delivery Group to roll out its Passenger Assistance app across the rail network in Great Britain (rather than the UK, as Northern Irish trains are run under a different structure). But despite UK origins, the company was born with an international focus.

Chinese founder Jay Shen had the idea to make an accessible travel app after a chance conversation with a disabled stranger and realised the need for a connected transport solution to assist passengers with additional needs. Shen soon recruited his university friend Waleed Ahmed to help build the firm, and the engineer remains the chief operating officer as TransReport grows internationally.

A $12m funding round, supported by private equity, was followed by the company’s first overseas contract for its accessible travel app in Japan, and further expansions into aviation are the focus for 2024.

Railway Technology caught up with Ahmed while he was in the UAE, the next target market for the growing company.

Waleed Ahmed, Transreport COO. Credit: TransReport

Patrick Atack: How did you get started in the rail industry and with the company?

Waleed Ahmed: My career started in transport, primarily with a rail operator in the UK. My first role was at a maintenance depot for trains. So I was literally under a train, once it came out of service, just doing the standard sort of maintenance procedures on that train, making sure it would be fit for service.

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That’s where I started and I slowly built my career up from there, ending up working for the owning group of that rail operator, going more into strategy, commercial engineering, project management, and innovation. So that’s how I sort of proceeded through the transport sector.

What brought me to this… Jay and I were actually at university together. And he had the eureka moment thanks to the conversation he had with this disabled gentleman. He was very insistent that I join him on this journey. So I did. And the rest is history, as one would say.

PA: Can you give us a brief history of TransReport?

WA: When we initially launched it was just with one rail operator, known as London Midland, at the time, now known as West Midlands Trains. We were very positively surprised that the entire industry as a whole saw the value-add of our proposition and the real difference it can make – because we have to bear in mind that they were using some very “legacy” systems and technologies at the time, which, with all due respect in the current world, would not fly.

Look at the technologies we’re all exposed to in our daily lives, such as Uber and Deliveroo. There’s so much convenience behind those technologies, that relying on legacy technology to enable the facilitation of assistance for disabled and older passengers had to be moved forward.

And credit goes to the rail companies in the UK and the Department for Transport as well. They very quickly recognised the value-add of our accessible travel app and made a very positive decision, specifically through the Rail Delivery Group, which represents rail operators.

Our technology is used by every railway operator in Great Britain.

They said: “Let’s do this for the entire industry because it’s going to have an impact on the entire industry within rail.” Yes, there are a lot of point-to-point journeys, for example, London up to Birmingham; but there are also multi-leg journeys that go via Birmingham, maybe up to Edinburgh, or Glasgow, or into Wales, and so forth.

They saw that and we recognised that early on and designed the technology accordingly. Credit where credit’s due, they decided to do the national rollout rather than just a focused rollout with one railway operator.

So our technology is used by every railway operator in Great Britain. And we’re very specific about ‘Great Britain’ because we don’t cover Northern Ireland just yet.

PA: You’ve found fast success in the UK, why was Japan the next region?

WA: I would say one of the major restrictions around the world is the infrastructure. Now, if you look at the UK, it’s the oldest railway in the world. If you look at Japan, it’s one of the best railways in the world.

But both countries need technology like this to almost provide a supplementary layer to all the great stuff that’s been doing that’s being done out there. You know, around the world the infrastructure is being improved. But with infrastructure… it takes time.

Financially, improving the infrastructure absolutely is the right thing to do. However, I think our technology allows a bridging of the gap until we get to this situation where the infrastructure is fully accessible. Unfortunately, in certain locations, it may not even be possible, just given the topography of that location.

So it’s always important to have a technology that can support [infrastructure], and so far it’s been working well, so much so that even the Japanese rail sector is keen on this technology.

PA: It must be quite a change from working with the UK train operating companies.

WA: Yeah. I mean, working in Japan is a different ballgame altogether. But I think, similar to the UK, the Japanese culture is very much about learning. I think that’s why they chose to partner with us.

They recognised our expertise. They’re very open to listening. They’re very considered in their approach, as well. They like to take time and that’s just the ethos of quality is primary to everything.

You know, customer service in Japan is globally leading. But I think we know this is also going to be a challenge because sometimes they’re very set in their ways. Sometimes you have to work with them to introduce new ways of working. And they’ve been very open to that.

The company signed a deal in 2023 to extend its Passenger Assistance app to the Hankyu regional rail network in central Japan. Credit: TransReport

PA: You’ve said TransReport will be expanding again, and you’re joining us from Dubai… can we put the two together to work out your next plans?

WA: I can’t name specifics at the moment. But just to give you a flavour, and it’s pretty obvious with our recent expansion into aviation… that’s one of the key drivers to me being out here in the UAE. You know, the Middle East is a hub for airlines – and very good airlines to be quite honest.

It’s not just the UAE. You’ve got Qatar around the corner, and places like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. All these places have been very keen on ensuring the highest experience for all of their passengers and people coming in and out of the region. I think a big part that they’ve shared with us is accessible travel, and ensuring they provide the highest standards for disabled and older passengers.

PA: In ten years is the plan for TransReport to have multimodal solutions in each market?

WA: So this will be the third geography that we’re expanding into. Yes, we can operate in isolation within the UK rail or aviation, we can do something similar in Japanese rail and aviation.

The whole idea would be to make sure that in the geographies we operate in, we bring that accessible travel experience, and then ultimately interlink those geographies. So, my adage of “home to hot desk” or “sofa to sunbed”… our vision is it can be a sofa in Bristol, UK, and that sunbed could be on a beach in Dubai and we’d be able to interlink all key operators and modes within that journey experience.

We’re a small company so we better start learning, but we recognise that we’re growing rapidly. And our growth has to be done in a mature way as well. So we are setting up specialist teams for different geographies around the world. But at its core, our current focus is rail and aviation.