Government and railway industry seek to improve customer experience through use of data

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez August 8, 2018
The Rail Delivery Group and the Department for Transport have issued a joint action plan on how opening up data and working with the technology industry could provide users with an improved end-to-end experience.

Increased demand for railways, coupled with years of under-investment, has resulted in huge over-crowding on some of the busiest services in the UK and a real lack of faith in the industry by consumers.

However, this week the government and the Rail Delivery Group, which brings together the owners of Britain’s train operating companies, have set out to show how better use of data and digital technologies can improve the current situation and the experience for customers going forward.

This isn’t the first time that the government has spoken about using technology to improve the poor situation on the tracks. However, this is the first comprehensive data plan - that’s been produced collaboratively with the industry and government - that I’ve seen that has some meat on its bones.

The government has said that it is already investing £34.7 billion directly to deliver a more reliable railway and to meet the demand for more capacity on the network - but it admits that more can be done through the use of data.

The report released this week notes that “making practical use of the digital and data revolution could be a powerful tool to help address many of the challenges faced by the rail network”.

In a joint foreword to the report, Minister of State for Transport, Jo Johnson, and chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, Paul Plummer, said:

Demand for rail has doubled since the mid-1990s and is projected to increase by another 15% by 2024. This presents both challenges and opportunities for the railway. Increasing passenger numbers mean we have some of the most intensively used lines in Europe, putting significant pressure on the infrastructure and leading to overcrowding on the busiest trains. But this growth also gives us the opportunity to modernise the railway fabric, invest in new trains and improve the operation of the network.

The Government’s Strategic Vision for Rail, is to offer world-class services supported by outstanding customer care and value for money. To achieve this, we need to innovate.

Using data more intelligently, and increasing collaboration between the rail industry and other sectors, will be key to delivering these improvements. It will create opportunities to exchange ideas, to devise new solutions to improve the running of the railways, to predict and fix problems before they arise, and to develop new tools and products for passengers such as better journey planning apps. It will also enable the rail industry to learn new skills and expertise.

The challenge

The report notes that the railways in Britain face complex challenges that stem from:

  1. The separation of responsibilities in track and train operations. There is one organisation operating the track and several private companies running the franchises and rolling stock, which is leased from other companies. Each organisation can have different priorities and ways of working.
  2. There is an ageing infrastructure with many legacy systems and yet is supporting state of the art new trains on large parts of the network.

It adds that implementing fast changing technology and meeting modern data requirements are difficult, as a result of this. However, the government and industry believe that if it takes strides to overcome these, then it could lead to long-term solutions and substantial efficiencies.

The report adds that the rail sector has already made significant strides with regards to data sharing. For example, as part of the wider transparency commitment, in 2012 Network Rail released Open Data which it has continued to grow, and now includes access to a number of operational data feeds, including train positioning and train scheduling data across the network.

In addition, the establishment of the National Rail Information database (Darwin) has led to industry and third parties creating a number of information produces and services. But more can be done. The report notes:

Since 2012, the rail industry has opened up large amounts of its core datasets, such as train movement data through the use of Darwin Push Portal, Web Service and Network Rail Open Data feeds. These channels have been used to develop numerous applications that provide richer levels of information to customers on delays, cancellations, alterations, train running, fares, and timetables, leading to more informed and savvy passengers.

But, as demand from customers for more informed end to end journey experiences continues to grow, so does the demand for even greater levels of intelligent information sharing.


The Rail Delivery Group has said, in order to show its commitment to opening up more data and improving the customer experience of people using the railway, over the next 12 months it will make available:

  1. GPS train data which will provide accurate information on the location of train services, enabling passengers to track train movement;
  2. Real-time train centric data, which will provide information on train compositions, seat availability and the status of on-board services and facilities;
  3. Granular Disruption Data, which will provide better information on delays, cancellations and services alterations and;
  4. Better Information Station Facilities.

The report notes:

The opening-up of these datasets could enable the industry and innovators to create more personalised and tailored services for customers, such as intuitive information apps and chatbots that give passengers the information that they need in real-time.

It could also lead to the creation of innovative customer information systems on trains and at stations, and open-up the market to those who want to collaborate with the industry to develop products for train maintenance and service operations, potentially leading to cost savings.

And the objectives of the Joint Rail Data Action Plan are to improve the quality and openness of rail data, and as a result, the government and industry hope, will:

  1. Create an environment that encourages industry to work together to develop innovative solutions which challenge and tackle long-standing issues e.g. Stock and Crew coordination, customer information during disruption, efficiently managing maintenance and upgrades on the railway and reducing costs.
  2. Give passengers access to more consistent, coordinated and useful information about their journey, enabling them to make informed choices about their journeys.
  3. Give tech start-ups, Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and developers a platform to collaborate and partner with the industry in order to develop innovative and game-changing web and mobile travel applications for passengers.
  4. Improve data matching and aggregation, enabling end-users such as government, data scientists and the Open-Data community to produce better reports and carry out analysis more accurately and efficiently.
  5. Create an environment which can be used to actively and efficiently manage rail assets reducing failures and minimising delay impact on the passenger.
  6. Put the railway at the forefront of enabling and facilitating Mobility as a Service and Intelligent Mobility.