Rail Innovation and Disrupting Mobility: Interview with Richard Rowson

With talk of HS2 developments, innovation in rail travel is at the forefront of everybody’s minds. Nobody knows this better than Richard Rowson, transport technology consultant and co-founder of YoRIC – The York Rail Innovation Community.

With 25 years’ experience in transport technology, including a product development director role at Trainline.com, Richard says he co-founded YoRIC to share knowledge and encourage people to engage with the rail industry.

“We hold quarterly evening meet-ups that are open to all – not just those in the rail sector,” he says. “Each time we pick a theme like data or digital trains and hold a few talks. Then we network with other professionals from all over – anything from academia to the tech sector, museums and local authorities.”

YoRIC also hosts a biennial event to showcase developments in the rail industry, featuring speakers from train companies, Network Rail and those involved in the supply chain. The last event took place at the National Railway Museum in February 2019, and Richard says one of its key aims was to change public perception. “Rail travel has a bad public image – people tend to think of clapped out old pacers. Our events are held to highlight the innovation taking place. We want everyone to get involved, from electronic engineers to data scientists.”

The tech challenges facing the rail sector 

Beyond refuting misconceptions, Richard identifies three big developments and challenges for the rail industry over the next five years. The first is structural change – and keeping up with the pace of technical change as ownership changes hands.

“The franchise model no longer works,” says Richard. “We’re seeing a big shift towards public service obligations and in places the government is taking short-term control. The Williams’ Rail Review will set out a new list of priorities for the industry, addressing structural issues that have frustrated progress in recent years

“Structural change is a big catalyst for other change – projects that perhaps didn’t make sense last year may be viable today. Priorities are different, collaboration easier and hopefully fewer contractual hurdles to change.” 

Richard notes a number of challenges within the old structure. “We’ve driven a culture of contractual compliance. It’s hard to foresee innovation opportunities three or four years ahead – you promise one thing, and then when the time comes, the world has moved on, but you’re still tied into the contract.” This makes rail very risk-averse, particularly as an industry that has no allowance for failure.

Mobility as a service

With this shift towards customer-centric travel, there is a lot of interest in smarter ways to access and pay for transport services – the so-called ‘mobility as a service’ trend. Richard notes that this all comes down to the type of customer. Commuters want convenience, such as using pay-as-you-go systems evolving from tapping bank-cards, to location-aware systems leveraging phones and smartwatches. 

“As we’re moving away from the inconvenience of the cash and paper ticket system, smarter ticketing will allow for better products. We might work from home two days a week, so season tickets are no longer cost-effective, and people just want an easy way to just pay for the travel that they use. 

“However, we also need to look at the type of journey. Long-distance travellers don’t just want to touch in at London and find out how much they’ve spent when they touch out at Edinburgh. They want more information around their travel, so the onus is on how we present this information, from websites to mobile apps.”

Connectivity and edge computing

The digital innovation we see today can have myriad effects on pricing, timetabling, error management and crowd control. However, Richard warns that the rail industry has some way to go before we approach true connectivity.

“Most people from the tech sector would be amazed at just how ‘offline’ some parts of the sector are. Many trains were built before dial-up internet was mainstream, let along 5G. The good news is, this is changing – even classic 1980s trains are being retrofitted with analytics tools, like a big computer on wheels. This uploads data in real-time, helping a myriad of areas from how many people use the services, to spotting emerging defects.

“We’re not managing disruption based on guesswork anymore – we can remotely look at CCTV, assess how many people are on board, and make informed decisions. This transcends customer benefits – staff can also use apps to report issues.”

Enhancing the digital ticketing experience

Using data to identify customer needs, retailers can now optimise the digital ticketing experience. For example, long-distance business travellers rely on well-designed apps for a distraction-free journey. “Ultimately, it comes down to the product you’re offering. If you are offering long-distance journeys at a reduced price, customers need to have all that information available to them. They don’t need to be distracted by needless contactless tickets and barcodes.

“Conversely, urban travellers going short distances are not as reliant on information, but speed. They don’t want to queue for tickets – they want to be able to track their journeys, and be in and out.”

Naturally, new developments in train connectivity will also affect pricing. Using CCTV, booking data and timetable live reporting, retailers can adjust their prices based on customer demand. However, Richard notes, this only works for long-distance travel. “In urban environments, simplicity wins. Travel is so frequent that all we need are peak and off-peak prices. For those in more travelling farther, we can use capacity data to adjust pricing.”

But what about other forms of transport?

While timetable delays and on-board errors represent rail’s biggest fear – failure – Richard says that the industry should be more experimental. “Not everything needs innovation, but ticketing certainly does. We need to experiment with different models.”

One such business model is ‘mobility as a service’ packages. “There’s a lot of interest around concepts that charge one set fee for multiple modes of transport – buses, trains, private hire and bikes. But again, we need to understand the customer demographic.

“The London Travelcard scheme was born in the 1980s, whereby you could go to a shop and buy one card for your bus and rail travel. Now, we can do the same with a contactless bank card, so convenience isn’t the issue. Instead – it’s pricing. Statistically, those who travel by bus only are likely to have lower incomes than those who travel on multiple modes of transport, so there’s ethical issues with offering discounts to those with greater ability to pay” 

However, in the UK we face structural issues once again, warns Richard. “suppliers are putting together mobility schemes, but the problem is – who buys them? Outside of London, there’s no customer for this. In Manchester, for example, the mayor couldn’t deliver this type of offering as he only has control over the trams.”

A sustainability shift

Of course, if we can solve the ownership issue, then we could move towards more sustainable travel. “A bundle scheme could drive down car ownership, particularly if we make it convenient with demand-responsive services. For example, if you have many people requesting the same journey at the same time, you could optimise it for the shortest route and the biggest number of passengers. Traditional timetables can be inefficient in areas of low demand, which can contribute to higher emissions.”

Technological advancements are also making the rail industry more sustainable, says Richard, including electrified railways. “We’re moving a lot more now from diesel to electric. Systems such as  regenerative braking and driving aids deliver energy savings. Advances in battery capabilities will reduce costs of electrification by allowing sections of lines to operate on batteries.” For an eco-conscious customer, the burden is on retailers to promote the environmental benefits of these new systems, as well as any potential transport bundle schemes.

The takeaway: customer demand drives innovation

Whatever the kind of rail traveller, notes Richard, their demand for convenience is what pushes rail technology forward. “It doesn’t matter about generation – younger people and older people rely on free travel, such as touch-in bus passes. Tech doesn’t deter anybody from using these new ticketing systems, but it does make things easier for the ‘middle’ demographic.”

Ultimately, whether our concerns are pricing, sustainability or simply getting from A to B delay-free, innovation will satisfy customer demand. We’re living in a pivotal moment for rail travel, from more reliable timetabling to better customer convenience. 

If we can overcome contractual obstacles, then there’s no telling where rail could go next.

For more information about YoRIC’s next events, visit Yoric.

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