5 ways technology can make train travel less of a nightmare

  • In the UK we’ve had a railway system since 1825.

  • We’ve had electricity on trains for ages now and I remember noticing wi-fi on trains round about 2010 (or possibly earlier).

Though I wouldn’t quite call the existence of trains a miracle, I do appreciate the fact that they run, and that a lot of effort goes into making the train system ‘work’. I’m not taking that for granted. In August I broke a personal record of number of train journeys in one month and was able to spend a lot of time thinking about the standard of train travel.

One such journey was a trip from London to Manchester on a Virgin train. For anyone not in the know, under 25s get a severe discount on this route with a Young Person’s railcard (which I’d lost). I spent ages queuing at Euston to get a new one, handwritten, stamped and then stuck together with a sticker. I commented to the customer services assistant serving me that it was such an archaic process. I then went to retrieve my tickets and managed to leave one in the machine, almost missing my train. Then I tweeted:

I do think that there are a number of places where we are ‘missing’ a trick, and figure that there’s an opportunity for a few travel tech startups to make a difference and help the big train operators out. So I’ve channelled some of my frustration that day (and with trains in general) into this post.

I’ll potentially put these ideas into future Stemettes hacks but would equally be happy to beta test anyone already working on these in the UK (or elsewhere).

Idea 1: E-tickets

We have them for boarding passes on planes. I did a multi-flight trip to the US late last year and didn’t need a single shred of paper. Just a well designed iPad app and one wi-fi connection at the beginning of the trip. I checked into each flight and had the QR code to hand whenever boarding passes were requested. I used the BA app when I flew to Glasgow and the process was effortless. A simple train journey shouldn’t require 6 little pieces of paper.

Idea 2:  Railcards

If you order your railcard online, then I’m sure your details are stored in the database. Thing is, if you need one at short notice, then you can’t quite wait for the online one to be processed and arrive. So, you fill out a form, get some passport photos done and then pop into a station with some form of ID. Someone checks out the paperwork, pulls out a blank card with a unique ID, pops your passport photo onto it, signs it and writes your date of birth onto it. They put a clear sticker on it and don’t do anything with the unique ID. They then print a second card (which you must keep with the photo card) which has an expiry date on it, and a stamp from the station you’ve bought the railcard from. The ink on this second card rarely lasts until expiry. If you lose them before expiry, then keeping the signed receipt means you can get a reprint of the cards. At expiry you fill the same form again and they do the whole process again.

So, the unique ID should be entered back into the central railcard database, and should be used when ordering, or stored in a customer’s iPad app…(see idea 1). Then I won’t also need to carry around 8 pieces of paper in total.

Idea 3: Decent Wifi

Given the patchy 3G signal available on mobiles, I can understand why super fast internet access isn’t available 100% of the time. Having said that it’s disappointing that wifi is actually only available with a minority of providers. Of the trains I was on which purported to have Wifi I was only able to connect to the on-train routers 50% of the time – a necessary step for being able to actually purchase internet access.

Idea 4: Live departure info

My 9:15am London to Manchester train was cancelled the following morning, but the ‘live departure’ mobile site didn’t reflect this information. I had to get to the platforms to find out (and the web browser was still claiming the train was ‘on time’). It’s exactly the kind of information that a customer needs in a live departures app. An app which displays the train schedules is nice – what I really needed was something which gave the true picture of what was happening, and actually gives a platform number too.

Idea 5: ‘Carriage seats left’ indicator

Walking up and down a train to find seats was a common occurrence each time I got on a train. Passengers would get on halfway down the train, walk to the front end and then have to walk all the way back, towards the back end to find a seat. Cars have ‘seatbelt indicators’ which go off when a passenger in a moving car is seated but doesn’t have their seatbelt on. Parking lots have indicators to let you know how many parking spaces are free. Can we get a cross between these two technologies for trains? How many table seats are available on carriage A? How many accessible spots are free on the train? Perhaps the driver/train attendant could know and then disseminate useful seat information to standing passengers? Maybe we could display this information near the screens already on the outside of train carriages.

*Bonus* Idea 6: wireless train orders

This is more of a selfish/lazy idea. I’ve been on trains before where a train attendant has brought a trolley down the train and gone back up again. Given the routers available on some trains, there’s got to be a way to allow passengers to connect to the train wifi to make orders, or check prices of shop items without having to get up and leave their bags. That, or let customers text the shop to order food. They could then agree to pick up items or ask to have them delivered…

A video of Idea 1, from 2008.

Peace aimafidon.

4 responses to “5 ways technology can make train travel less of a nightmare

  1. I totally agree! When I read this I am very glad about our “Deutsche Bahn AG”. I barely have a printed ticket, but use the iPhone app. When I have to pick someone up at the station, I check the app or online for the arrival time first (well, Deutsche Bahn is not famous for being on time anymore ;)) Telekom has hotspots in the stations and trains, at least in some coaches where the signal is even increased. The other coaches are “silent coaches” and the signal is blocked. And I love your idea no. 5. It would be so helpful for all the passengers. The one already seated and the ones looking for a seat.

  2. Pingback: 5 ways technology can make train travel less of a nightmare | Guy Lipman: Engaging Work·

  3. If all of your suggestions are implemented, it would make traveling so much easier. I would love the ability to get e-tickets or railcards online. Your picture of 5 tickets for a 2 hr journey is hilarious, if not absurd. I live in the US and some of the train systems here are also archaic.

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