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Innovative: smartphone ticketing and reliable WiFi are important © iStock

Imagine being able to know which carriage of a train to get on, in order to make sure you get a seat and can rest your weary legs after a long day at work. This is just one of the innovations that train companies are looking at as the industry turns to technology to improve passenger journeys.

The UK’s rail industry has historically been slow to innovate compared with its peers around the world and other transport sectors, particularly when it comes to using new technologies to improve the customer experience of travel.

Part of the problem is due to the way the rail system is operated in the UK, with short-term franchises to run routes being awarded by the government, which some believe has discouraged investment in technology.

“The fragmented nature of Britain’s rail industry makes innovation difficult to promote and spread. For example, getting real innovation in ticketing has been hard, so passengers are stuck with outmoded tickets and fares structures,” says Stephen Joseph of Campaign for Better Transport.

However, recognising that technology has the potential to improve train journeys, the government has shifted innovation up its priority list to become an essential part of what companies must include in bids to win rail franchises. Smart ticketing and reliable WiFi on board trains are two examples of technology being rolled out over the next few years.

Cameron Jones, chief commercial officer at SilverRail, believes train companies are finally understanding the need for change. “A number of carriers are working hard on initiatives to try and drive that innovation into franchise renewals as they get rolled out, and are really putting the customer at the centre of their thinking,” he says.

This year the industry hosted two so-called hackathons, where software developers around the world were challenged to help tackle overcrowding, delays and patchy WiFi on the network. At the first ‘Hack the Rails’ event in March, the winner was Reroo, an app that helps customers find the cheapest alternative train routes.

Apps have already played a big part in improving how commuters plan their journey. Both Network Rail and Transport for London, the UK capital’s transport authority, have opened their data banks in the hope developers will conjure up ever more useful technology to take the uncertainty out of travel.

Citymapper has been one of the big app successes, allowing Londoners to plan their journey in the quickest possible route across several different modes of transport. However, Mr Jones says there is still room for improvement with journey planning apps, such as being able to plan a route and buy tickets at the same time.

Apps are also becoming a focus for train operators looking to make sure that their staff have the most up to date information to give to customers. London Overground Rail Operations (LOROL), which runs part of the city’s local train network, has rolled out smart watches and an app to its staff to give them targeted information, including data on train delays.

“We saw that people were using their own phones looking at apps to get information that we weren’t providing. We realised we needed to give information as quickly as possible to them,” says David Wornham, customer services director at LOROL.

Some train companies are exploring how to use GPS co-ordinates and local positioning technology to work out which carriages are full to help improve passengers’ journeys.

Mr Jones says rail carriers could use GPS to know the location of travellers, plus closed circuit TV monitoring and carriage weight sensors to suggest which is the best carriage to get a seat. He notes that the Swiss Federal Railways are using GPS technology to identify a customer’s train usage, while Hitachi in Japan uses technologies that include station CCTV and train carriage weight. Others are looking at improving ticketing systems. A multi-pass is now on trial on the Cambridge-London route in the form of account-based ticketing. Journeys are captured by the customer’s multi-pass app and e-wallet which synchronises with the cloud, where the best-priced ticket is identified and charged. Trains are equipped with iBeacon sensors to see when a multi-pass holder boards and departs a train.

Moves such as these will one day help create more efficient intermodal transport systems. A project backed by the European Commission, called “All Ways Travelling”, aims to create a ticketing system that would allow passengers to book one ticket for air, rail and urban transport across Europe. This could put an end to the days of relying on layers of paper tickets to get you, for example, from your home in London to Barcelona for a weekend away.

“It is surprisingly difficult to create such a system because there are so many different operators and systems in place, says Lynne Goulding of Arup, the engineering consultancy. “But it is definitely one of the main advantages of technology to be able to create a truly intermodal system that allows people to have tickets valid for buses, trains and bikes.”

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