Resource Data

It’s time for rail companies to get smarter with data


The rail network is inundated with data. There are systems that measure everything from ticket sales and washroom cleaning to punctuality and passenger satisfaction. Use that data intelligently and you have the power to transform your Rail Operating Company (TOC).

But here’s the catch; to use the data you need to get your hands on it first, and with the way many tables of contents are organized, it’s not always as straightforward as it seems.

What is the magic password?

Much of this rich and wonderful data is still stuck in silos, and where there are silos, there are gatekeepers. The people who manage and “own” the data are not always eager to share it.

It has a lot to do with the old model of the rail franchise. The short duration of franchise contracts stifled long-term thinking, so TOCs would instead focus on specific, short-term goals. They would deploy a range of tools and processes designed to meet these very defined goals, without thinking too much about what might lie beyond.

Over time, this has created a fragmented tech landscape. Systems rarely work together or communicate with each other, and each department collects and stores data in its own way, making reporting a real headache.

Let’s say you want to do some math on station maintenance. The data you need can be strewn everywhere, from digital tools and databases (if you’re lucky), to email discussion threads, to paper files and old-fashioned logbooks.

Gathering what you need won’t be easy. What if someone with access to key data is on vacation? By the time they return, weeks may have passed – and the stats you needed might no longer be relevant.

Put it all together

Imagine how much better it would be if everything was more connected. If all the data from all your business units were brought together and stored in one central digital hub, which you could access on demand, any time of the day or night.

With this kind of overview of all your TOC data, you have a clear idea of ​​what is working, what is costing you time and money, and where you need resources and additional investments.

More than that, you can compare and understand trends across your business. You can start making connections that weren’t possible before and see how the results of one service affect the performance of another.

For example, one day you might notice a spike in income protection activity on a certain section of track. You might assume that your inspectors are having a particularly productive day catching fraudsters. However, when you check your central digital hub and look at the data for stations in the area, it tells you that several ticket machines are down at one of the main stops on the route, and it shows that footfall around the ticket office is unusually high.

You join the dots and realize that this is not a deliberate rate escape spike. They are just honest passengers unable to use the ATMs and too busy ticket booth to help them. With a few clicks or taps, you can check if faulty cash dispensers have been reported, and if they haven’t, you can assign an urgent task to a service technician and fix the problem.

Change hurts – but not as much as the alternative

Why would anyone oppose such centralization and digitization of railway data? Well, because the people who work for OCD are busy to begin with. Not many people would love the idea of ​​adding a major change project to their to-do list.

But you have to ask yourself: why are are they so busy? Would they be so stretched if their processes were more efficient? What if they didn’t have to spend so much time collecting, processing and reporting data?

Setting up a central digital system is not necessarily a tedious IT project that drags on for years. It’s something you can tackle piece by piece, department by department – starting where the impact is greatest – like showing off a train, for example.

You will soon see how the data-driven approach improves efficiency, reduces costs, and increases Quality of Service (SQ) scores. As the rumor spreads about your positive results, ears will prick up in other areas of the business.

The momentum will build. More departments will join. And before you know it, you’ll wonder how you’ve managed for so long without a centralized data hub.

Some may fear and resist a change like this, but here’s the problem: The Williams-Shapps plan for rail is coming, and the whole thing sector is changing whether people like it or not. Railway undertakings will be penalized if they do not meet their performance targets, especially with regard to standard qualifications, and one of the main obstacles to achieving these targets, as it stands, is access to SQ data.

So TOCs have a choice: embrace the technology and digitize their data to thrive in the new era of rail. Or hang on to old ways of doing things – and risk being left behind. Which way will you go?

Photo credit: Sterling Images / Shutterstock

Toby Hawkins is sales manager at software solutions provider mpro5.