From this week, anyone travelling on public transport in the UK is obliged to wear a face mask. According to a BBC News report, hundreds of thousands of masks will be handed out at UK railway stations over the next few days, as well as £100 fines for those who don’t comply. It’s all part of the effort to lift lockdown restrictions and get people - and the UK economy - moving again.
In future, digital train tickets could also be playing a much greater role in helping to keep both passengers and train-company staff safe. That’s the view of Simon Moorhead, CIO at the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), the industry group that brings together all the UK’s major passenger and freight rail companies and infrastructure owner/operator Network Rail.
Speaking as a panellist at the recent Mulesoft Connect Digital 2020 virtual event, Moorhead explained how technology from the API management company, owned since 2018 by Salesforce.com, is helping his team to unlock data held in siloed systems across its membership network to deliver joined-up digital services:
Before the pandemic, we were already on a journey towards introducing more digital ticketing - but actually, we can see that massively accelerating now. It’s not only in the interests of customers, but also staff members in railway stations. We need to get beyond customers having to queue at train stations to buy and collect paper tickets.
The more we can deliver ticketing and information and discount schemes remotely, the more we can give customers the certainty and confidence to travel, because they know they have a valid ticket that will get them through station barriers and to their destination on time. So here we see a crisis situation accelerating an ambition that we already had, by highlighting the need to minimize human-to-human contact as much as possible.
On the right track
RDG’s work with Mulesoft began last year, with a focus on digital railcards. This project, says Moorhead, brought together data from more than 20 underlying sources and went live in November 2019. Success here has brought with it a new awareness within the wider organization of how new value might be created from unlocking existing data, he says, which bodes well in terms of getting support for future integration projects.
But in the meantime, the current crisis has seen RDG use Mulesoft for some more immediate trouble-shooting. When lockdown came into effect, RDG saw a 95% reduction in passenger travel across its network and services were massively curtailed. A big priority has therefore been providing up-to-date information to those passengers with no choice but to travel - key workers commuting to their jobs in hospitals, for example. Says Moorhead:
We’ve needed to replace some of our disruption APIs. These are what enable us to give customers information on disruptions, to connect that data up with timetables and information on the facilities available to them in stations, as well as a choice of alternative services they could use. We’ve needed to ensure we could present that information to them in a way that’s easily accessible. New, more modern-format and better-managed APIs have enabled us to do this faster, in a more cost-effective way that we couldn’t have achieved before.
These benefits will continue to accrue as new opportunities for integration present themselves, he claims. With several projects under its belt now, his team has valuable experience of components and programming practices for faster integration that can be applied to new challenges:
If you think of our situation, here we are sitting in the centre of this industry. Our wider business is our members, the rail companies and organizations like Network Rail, so we have a coordination and governance role, trying to coordinate joined-up decisions among many independent commercial entities in terms of digital propositions, fare-setting, timetabling and all the technologies involved.”
That’s a complex role, no question about it, but it’s one of the core reasons for the RDG existing. And what it means is that we are seeking to offer a leadership role to the industry in terms of design and strategy for where we should take services in the future. Where we can do things like identify common technology services and bring them together, it has the potential to make massive improvements not just in efficiency but also customer experience.
And our engagement with Mulesoft is extremely important in that regard, as it provides a standard way to collaborate on new interfaces and reuse existing assets. Because once we’ve made interfaces and connections and APIs, we know we don’t want to be remaking them - and this way, we generally won’t need to.