Q&A: Virgin Trains CIO ‘highly confident’ in tech innovation

In the complicated UK rail industry, companies are now going all out to simplify the journey and improve the experience. Virgin Trains is one

Long before John Sullivan joined Virgin trains he remembers feeling anxious about using rail. “There was a complete lack of information,” he says.

Even now, things don’t exactly run smoothly. To understand the scale of the problem, he says: “If you Google ‘rail disruption’ in the UK, you will be returned with around 20 million items.

While there is still some way to go, “now when disruption happens, we will have far more control,” he says.

Virgin Trains has recently announced what it describes as two major tech innovations that are set to ‘change the industry’. A new app for staff called ‘Back on Track’, and ‘Track ‘n Travel’, which will give customers real-time updates on disruptions.

EyeforTravel put some questions to John Sullivan, Chief Information Officer, (CIO) of Virgin Trains, to find out more about getting innovation on track.

EFT: ‘Two major tech innovations that are set to change the industry’ - that is quite a big claim. What makes these so important?

JS: Yes, this is a big claim, but we are highly confident that this is fully justified – Why? Disruption is one of our major business issues and causes so much anxiety to both customers and colleagues, which is mainly driven by a complete lack of information about what is happening. By getting the latest information to all our colleagues we ensure that they know what the latest plan is, and customers receive personalised and quality messages.

Disruption is, after all, an everyday thing, be that small or large scale. We want to give our customers the right information, at the right time to get them home in the quickest and safest way possible. As a result of these innovations, the customer will now know what their onward journey will be with an accurate ETA.

They can also feel less anxious about not knowing if their will be ticket will be accepted – they will be, and everyone will be aware of this. We can even use this quality information to change the destination of trains. For example, if there are 1,000 customers at London Euston and 700 of them want to go to Manchester, the next train can be diverted to Manchester, to get our customers home earlier than we did before and with all the correct information.  

The system has been in place for around eight weeks and is delivering more than anticipated. We are even getting feedback from stations where we work with other Train Operating Companies (TOCs) that their frontline teams want to use our app.

EFT: There are always challenges with tech innovation. Can you outline some of the issues that you faced while developing this technology?

JS: We are breaking new ground so there was no blueprint, however true to our motto ‘Screw Average, Create Amazing’, the project team supported each other through this challenge. The other challenge was for our frontline team to accommodate such a significant change. We therefore engaged with the business in every possible way. We ran a competition to name our disruption project with the incentive of winning an iPad, and 2,000 out of 3,500 colleagues applied. The winning entry was ‘Back On Track’. We even asked the frontline team to design the logo to use on the email footer which everyone on the project team uses!

EFT: How much of it was done in-house and who are your technology partners for this project?

JS: We have been busy over the last three years not only with customer innovation, but also replacing old rail legacy system. We are now ‘cloud first’ and have a world-class technical infrastructure in place. That’s critical if you want to be agile. We have a just a few core partners but the ServiceNow platform, which we used for this project, is at the heart of it. We also used a company called UP3, a ServiceNow implementer, which has worked closely with our tech team and the wider business, to help deliver the change.

EFT: The aim is to ensure that the right information reaches employees and customers when they need it. Can you give a few examples of what sort of information you are talking about? 

JS: We are the ‘connected enterprise’ as we now use ServiceNow in most departments, from IT service calls to automating tasks in our brand team. We are also using it for customer relations, and since our automated processes have been in place, we have hit the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) targets every month. Beforehand it was around once a year. What we are finding is that is that our complaints resolution team can now spend more time with customers who have more complex issues.

EFT: What are you next steps for technology development? 

JS: Here are a few of upcoming projects.

Live In-Journey Communications - This solution will enable automated, real-time, in-journey communications to customers. We will be able to send relevant messages about what platform our next train is on, and so on.

Internet of Things (IOT) sensors - We are trialling a number of sensors with a particular focus on:

  • Train Carriage air-conditioning (too hot or cold)
  • Refrigeration – Limit wastage in the summer
  • Toilets – Odour caused by leaks
  • Emergency Braking – Detect sudden stop

We are also continuing to push digital tickets, and expect to be 50% digital in the very near future. As our customer feedback for digital tickets is so high, we will continue to push until we get to 100%.  

EFT: How do you see the UK digital rail market evolving? 

If we are talking about digital change, there are two important issues to address:

  • Reduce anxiety with customer messaging: Relevant, quality and real-time information must improve in rail and it is digital that can deliver this. There are more mobile phones in the UK than people, so let’s use them the most personal bit of technology to get the right information to customers e.g. this is your platform, what is happening in times of disruption, here is the weather at your destination, etc. With creative thinking there is so much we can do in this area.
  • Improve levels of trust: Our split ticketing and ABT Technology are great examples where we want to increase trust in a rail ticket as well as reducing complexity. Everyone seems to trust the fare on Transport for London but for TOCs this is lacking. By providing the best price possible, simplifying the ticket purchase easy and giving full visibility which will address the situation. That is what we are doing at Virgin Trains, so our customers will not only save money, they will also help to accelerate the progress of fares reform. Change is needed to give customer a better, more relaxed and ‘trusted’ experience. Here at Virgin Trains regardless of our franchise situation, we are at the heart of this.

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