How can data improve train travel?

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For millions of people trains are an annoying fact of life: Sure, they get you from A to B, but it never really is quite that simple, with delays, engineering and overcrowded carriages. Surely something can be done? Even when times are tight economically, isn’t there a way that train companies can behave a little smarter?

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On Monday evening I attended a “hack day” organised by the Rail Delivery Group, an industry body for train operating companies (TOCs) to come together and figure out how to make rail travel a little bit more bearable. The premise of a hack-day is simple: Get a bunch of nerds together in a room, put them into teams, given them access to some cool data to mess around with and use the lure of prizes to encourage teams to get creative and build clever apps and come up with new ideas.

And the results were pretty interesting – here’s some of the best:

An app that tracks your train and helps you reschedule

One team demo’d an app they called “Offtrack”, and the premise was pretty simple: You let it know what train you’re travelling on (or it could figure out it out from GPS) and the app will track how the journey is going. If you encounter delays then the app will know this, and will automatically figure out what the implications are for your schedule, based on your calendar – even automatically drafting an email for you to send to people you’re meeting letting them know your train is having problems. It would also offer alternative routes to the same destination.

The thinking behind it is clever too: Passengers who experience delays may feel powerless and frustrated, by integrating with their calendars and making it somewhat automated, it empowers them to sort things out, even if the train itself is going nowhere.

Another function of the app could be giving train companies more data on passengers: For example, if the TOCs know your train has been delayed, you could be automatically sent a voucher offering money off of your next journey, say.

Giving trains “friendly names”

This was an interesting idea by a group calling themselves “Team Red Zebra” at the event. Essentially, it would try and make train travel more comprehensible to the less regular traveller by giving each individual train a friendlier name. So rather than it be “the 10:30 to Liverpool Street”, it would be something like “Red Zebra”.

This could be particularly useful especially if you’re trying to catch a stopping service, and aren’t aware of the ultimate destination – so no need to figure out if to get to Newbury from Oxford you need to get the Paddington train or not, you’ll just have to get on “Blue Monkey” or whatever the friendly name is.

The other benefit of this method would be if you were planning to meet a friend on the train, en route to a destination, by telling them you’re on board “Red Zebra”, this is a name specific to the train you’re on – so you’ll definitely get on the right one together.

Visualising Twitter complaints about trains

Finally there was an interesting app aimed at the TOCs themselves – a means for visualising tweets about trains and analysing the sentiment. The way this worked was by overlaying tweets mentioning trains and related words on a Google Map, and then performing an analysis on them looking for positive or negative sounding words (“good”, “bad”, etc) and figuring out whether the person is having a good or bad journey – and representing it with a green, amber or red icon.

On top of this there was also the delay data plotted from National Rail’s systems, so it is possible to see whether the negative tweets are responding to problems or whether it is something else entirely. If such a system were in place, it could perhaps better help train companies get on top of problems – spotting them before they become really problematic – and also improve customer services by figuring out where better communication is needed.

So could these ideas ever become a reality? The good news was that judging the hackday were three rail industry bosses – including David Brown, who is CEO of the Go-Ahead group which operates a number of rail franchises (including the dreaded Thameslink line), so here’s hoping the TOCs are listening.

James O’Malley