How Virgin Trains is using tech to become a customer-obsessed company

The digitalization of the railway industry will unlock capacity, boost performance, and enhance passenger journeys.
21 September 2018

How are railways using technology to modernize? Source: Shutterstock

It’s been over 200 years since the first passenger train ran in the UK. And today, with 16,000 kilometers of track, signaling and switching infrastructure is truly being pushed to the limits.

Passenger journeys over the past 20 years have more than doubled to 1.7 billion a year, with an added billion annual journeys expected by the year 2030.

Despite this rising demand, the railway has arguably been reluctant to innovate, and often dubbed as a slow-moving bureaucratic industry.

As a result, there are frequent strikes, signal failures, and overcrowding, which inconvenience passengers and make them unhappy.

While these issues have become commonplace for many Brits, it’s quite a shock for those in other parts of the world such as China and Japan. Just last year, a rail company in Tsukuba, Japan issued an apology for a train which departed only 20 seconds early.

Overcrowded stations and delayed trains are all too common in the UK. Source: Shutterstock

But recently, it seems that the UK is driving full steam ahead into innovation, with many train lines harnessing technology to address rising pressures.

One such example of a company embracing technology to streamline customer experience, improve customer journeys and ticketing, and enhance the overall management of its infrastructure is Virgin Trains.

The business has introduced a range of new digital services from mobile apps to automated customer services. Virgin Trains CIO John Sullivan explained these recent innovations to TechHQ.

Selling tickets through Amazon Alexa

Passengers of Virgin Trains can now book tickets using just their voice, with the company becoming the first travel operator to collaborate with voice-activated technology.

The service is expected to make it easier for commuters to find and book tickets even when they’re using their hands for other tasks — like cooking or typing.

“On any rail website, it takes an average of seven minutes to book a ticket. This is too slow, especially for today’s generation of impatient and busy customers,” explained Sullivan.

“With the Alexa skill, we have got it down to just two minutes. Not only this, customers can multi-task while booking tickets. So even those two minutes aren’t wasted.”

On-track to go paperless

Sullivan recognizes that paper tickets are easy to lose, and believes its a common pain point for customers. With Virgin’s app, travelers don’t have to worry about lost tickets — it’s all available to them, at their fingertips, with a few clicks on their smartphone.

“About two years ago, less than one percent of our tickets were digital, but today it’s about 30 to 35 percent. And I am very confident that by the end of the year we will reach 50 percent, with Alexa helping us greatly” explained Sullivan.

Customers can simply show their mobile phone at the gate, the gates open and the train manager scans it. For customers, this is much more convenient and saves a whole lot of time queuing.

Using AI to issue speedy refunds

Another big project Sullivan has been working on at Virgin Trains is using artificial intelligence (AI) to automate ticket refunds for delayed trains.

The company has a policy where if a customer’s train is late, they issue compensation. For example, if the train is an hour late, customers receive a full refund of their ticket.

“Rather than fill out forms and send it in and all that faff, we’re going to pay you your money by maybe that night, or if not the day after. And this is completely automatic. We see this having a big impact on customer satisfaction levels,” explained Sullivan.

Communicating disruptions promptly

Virgin Trains is working on streamlining the communication that customers receive — especially in terms of announcing disruptions.

For instance, in March “the beast from the East” caused service to the UK railway lines to be interrupted, forcing the company to cancel many of its train services for the day. According to Sullivan, the company’s IT team played a critical role in communicating these disruptions and appeasing disgruntled customers.

Sullivan explained to TechHQ how the company is using Rich Communication Services (RCS) to share information with passengers of the London Underground services.

“This means that our customers have time to think of an alternative journey if the planned line isn’t working,” explained Sullivan.

“It’s about sending the right message at the right time. I absolutely believe RCS is the way forward given the quality of this technology,” he added.

The importance of employee engagement and customer education

According to Sullivan, employee engagement and customer engagement are key to digital transformation. Sullivan and his team spend a lot of time on the trains and in the stations discovering customers problems and figuring out the best way to address them using technology.

Since the ground staff spends a lot of time with customers, Sullivan’s team seeks their opinion to understand which problems need to be fixed using technology.

“For customers, there is a lot of help and advice on our website, as well as having our staff always available to help out in any way. If our customers don’t know how to use a product or service, there is no point in having great technology to support it,” explained Sullivan.