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RailStaff insights: Smarter Information, Smarter Journeys

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Jo Shelley of Network Rail (NR) and Adam Blower from the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) took some time out to talk to RailStaff about the industry’s customer information programme, Smarter Information, Smarter Journeys (SISJ). Jo and Adam’s network criss-crosses the industry and together they steer the SISJ programme team to deliver the railway’s customer information strategy. This is a strategy grounded in customer insight that not only focuses on the ‘here and now’ but will also take the industry through to 2030 and beyond.

Jo, Adam, thanks for joining us. To start, could you tell us more about SISJ? When was it launched and which organisations are involved?

The SISJ programme launched in 2020 and has become the industry catalyst for delivering better and simpler customer information, especially during disruption on Great Britain’s Railways. This SISJ team is a blended cross-industry programme team consisting of NR and RDG colleagues. This ‘blended’ team is a fantastic example of cross-industry collaboration and what can be achieved for the good of the customer and the industry alike.

The SISJ team also collaborates extensively with Train Operating Companies (TOCs), the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), Transport Focus, and other industry stakeholders in the delivery of the programme.

What factors drove the creation of the programme? What are its objectives and how are they being achieved?

The SISJ programme was born out of the ORR-commissioned Winder Phillips report, which challenged the industry to work collaboratively on improving customer information. The programme’s objective is to ensure customers have all the up-to-date information they need at every part of their journey to guarantee they have the best possible rail journey experience. To ensure this objective is achieved, currently the team has 21 projects underway to deliver in the next few years.

How is the success of the programme measured? What has been the feedback of customers to date?

The programme’s impact is measured using a customer information survey tool called InfoTracker, which looks at how each project is driving customer satisfaction and monitors if value is being delivered.

Since SISJ’s launch, there has been a 10% increase in customer satisfaction with customer information during disruption.

As well as InfoTracker, the programme uses research from across the industry and commissions ad-hoc research, often in partnership with Transport Focus, to provide insight on certain initiatives.

Credit: iStockphoto.com

What real changes will customers see when the SISJ programme is complete. How will it improve their journey from start to finish?

The SISJ programme will not be complete but will evolve as customer behaviour changes and technology moves forward. Through the programme we want to ensure all our customers can make informed choices, plan their journeys more effectively, and have a seamless customer information journey experience. Examples of our major projects that help customers achieve this are:

Personalised journey notifications. By working extensively across the industry, the SISJ team has developed and implemented a tool which allows TOCs and retailers to notify customers who purchased digital tickets when their booked train has changed or been cancelled. This solves a key customer pain point whereby previously if a customer did not proactively check, and their train was cancelled or re-timed, they could arrive at a station and only at that point find out that their train was not running as expected. Almost all TOCs and third-party retailers are now using the tool and over three million customer notifications have been sent to date.

On-train Passenger Announcements (OTPA). We are providing a long-awaited step change in technical capability to enable train operator control rooms to broadcast directly to passengers on trains by using GSM-R, the railway’s mobile communication system. The OTPA project will provide TOC control teams with an easy-to-use web interface to enable announcements to be made to multiple trains in a geographic area and to deliver prerecorded announcements.

Real time lift data: Customers, in particular disabled customers, can face huge challenges when a station lift is not working. But through the National Rail Accessibility Map, customers can now see if station lifts they might need to use are in or out of service, before they start their journey. Previously, live lift data accuracy was unreliable, and the customer had no knowledge of the lift status until they arrived at the station. Now, 86% of lifts across the network are providing live lift data on the National Rail Accessibility Map, which has resulted in customers being able to plan their journeys in advance more effectively.

With so many organisations involved, how do you coordinate to achieve everyone’s aims. How successful is this collaboration to date?

When starting a new initiative, it is essential to get industry to buy-in to what we are trying to achieve. This will typically start with an exploration and engagement stage where we speak to as many industry stakeholders as possible to guide our thinking. A working group consisting of industry experts will then be formed to guide the project team. Through our reporting (to 250 stakeholders across 50 organisations) and robust governance and control structure, the team is held to account to ensure we are delivering against objectives and the industry is brought on the journey with us. We believe the programme is working in a way that embodies the objective of Great British Railways (GBR) to create a more joined-up railway with consistent customer experiences.

With the first stage of SISJ delivered, what are the key aims of the next stage (SISJ V2) and what progress do you hope to make in the coming years?

The team always strives to exceed customer expectations, therefore in April 2023 we launched SISJ version 2, a new strategic vision which lays down the industry path for customer information until 2030.

This new vision was developed through undertaking extensive customer research and gaining valuable insight, which included a specific piece of customer research delivered in partnership with Transport Focus. We spoke firsthand to customers, and undertook engagement with industry stakeholders, subject matter experts, and other industry programmes to understand their priorities for improvement. The outcome of this work was the creation of 21 new initiatives for the programme to tackle over the next few years.

Credit: iStockphoto.com

Commuter patterns have changed in the last few years because of Covid-19, and leisure travel has increased. How has SISJ adapted to these changes as it has been rolled out?

Commuters have reduced the frequency with which they use the train to get to work/education, and leisure travel has grown vs. pre-pandemic. As the make-up of passengers using the railway changes, the customer information proposition needs to adapt to a new audience, including less regular and familiar users of the railway. An enhanced customer experience is a key way to attract customers back to rail. We know from research that customer information plays a key part in driving the overall customer experience. Customer experience needs to evolve and develop with the latest trends and available technology, and keep up with what companies outside of rail are doing. It is therefore important that as and when SISJ revisits its strategy, deliverables take into consideration the customer information requirements of today’s new passenger.

We also want to ensure we are creating a simpler, better railway for everyone in Britain, which is inclusive and accessible for all. This can include the use of British Sign Language, providing better visual information on-board trains particularly to help passengers who are deaf or who are experiencing hearing loss, and providing improved lift status data.

Finally, where does the Darwin system fit into SISJ programmes objectives? Will it be retained and what upgrades or improvements will be required to ensure it is fit for purpose?

Darwin is a critical industry system and plays a key role in providing real-time information to customers on the status of their trains, as it is the industry’s real time train running information service. It is vital it continues to be fit for purpose and future proof. Therefore, through the Darwin Evolution project, that was endorsed by operators and began mid-February, SISJ has committed to safeguarding and improving Darwin by modernising it from its current architectural platform to a new modernised solution. SISJ has also delivered several Darwin related projects, such as the ability to make customers aware up to 90 days in advance if trains will not be running in emergency situations where there is a gap in the normal timetable uploading process to show the correct timetable (in the past it was 48 hours in advance).

Jo Shelley is head of programme management within system operator at Network Rail. Jo has a broad range of rail experience, which includes previously working at a train operating owning group and a train operating company. Her experience has enabled her to have a holistic understanding of the industry, and the crucial need for collaboration.

Adam Blower, head of customer information at the Rail Delivery Group co-leads SISJ, with Jo. Adam has extensive industry experience specialising in customer experience, strategy, and insight. His most recent roles were at Eurostar and HS1.

If you have any further questions about SISJ, please email [email protected].