Three ways data provides opportunities to shape the UK rail industry’s future

Three ways data provides opportunities to shape the UK rail industry’s future


Geoff Wappett

Geoff Wappett

Head of AI & Data Insights

Virgin Media O2 Business


5 minutes

16th November 2022

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The UK rail industry is going through a period of change, accelerated by the impact of the pandemic. Geoff Wappett, Head of Data and AI at Virgin Media O2 Business, considers the role data and technology plays in providing opportunities to move the industry forward.


The UK rail industry finds itself at a crossroads. The pandemic has reduced work-related rail travel, potentially permanently. The increase in remote working has a potential knock-on effect on leisure and retail habits, which may return to local centres. Meanwhile, passengers rightly expect better experiences with improved punctuality, less disruption and increased comfort. What does the industry need to do to ensure a healthy future?


Three new imperatives for the UK rail industry is a new overview that examines the role data and technology play in improving passenger experiences, in the face of rapid evolution across the sector. Here are three headline learnings I’ve taken from the report that show how data-driven insights can make a real difference. Hopefully it gives you a good way to think through your future options and kickstart the right conversations.

1. Transforming the passenger experience through data-driven insight

The pandemic has had a dramatic and likely permanent impact on rail travel in the UK. Before 2020, commuting to and from work made up 47% of all journeys. With the scaling up of remote and hybrid working, we’re unlikely to return to these levels.


Collectively, the train industry needs to evolve the passenger experience to attract passengers back and complete against other modes of transport. Having rich demographic data on the travel patterns and needs of UK citizens must be at the centre of planning the next era of passenger experience. Where does rail fit into wider journeys? What do passengers want and expect?


Train and station operators can get answers to these questions using insights from data derived from mobile devices. Using services like O2’s Motion and Real-Time Location Insights, operators can tap into completely anonymised data on the everyday movements of over a third of the population. They can understand where rail fits into daily life in the UK, placing them in a position of strength to evolve services.


Data also has a role to play in transforming the on-train passenger experience. This is an obvious area of concern for passengers who are tired of overcrowding, delays and uncomfortable journeys. Getting detailed insights into how crowds move in trains and stations can be a foundation for improvement. Services like Smart Spaces use video analytics and AI to monitor passenger movement and behaviour, while Spatial Insights provides data on the way people move in real-time.


Leveraging the Internet of Things (IoT), as well as services offered on a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) basis, these powerful sensor-based technologies can also provide information on other areas, such as detecting equipment failure — all underpinned by the robust connectivity of a private network.

2. Reimagining stations as more than a place to catch trains

The increase in homeworking has changed more than just working patterns. People are now spending more time in the local area around their home, influencing leisure, retail and social patterns too. This offers an opportunity for stations that are often centrally located, to play a new role in the local community.


We’ve already seen some larger stations in cities transform into shopping and eating destinations. Local stations in towns may have an opportunity to go down a similar path, exploiting new space freed up through the automation of services like issuing train tickets. For example, in 2016 Beccles station in Suffolk was repurposed as a local community hub, with facilities ranging from a café to a meeting space and yoga studio.


Again, station operators need both wider demographic data and insights into specific passenger movements to understand the opportunities to reimagine station space. Data from mobile devices can offer insights into movement across a locality, showing how hybrid working is impacting the way we work and live. Sensors inside the station, as well as video analytics and AI, can establish the detail on how passengers pass through the space.


The combination of these data-driven insights could enable station operators to experiment creatively with new space areas, providing a potentially exciting path to the revitalisation of a local station as a retail and community hub.

3. Taking a preventative approach to maintenance and repairs to drive punctuality

Punctuality matters, but at times, this has reached unacceptable levels. For example, between 2010 and 2020 the proportion of replacement bus services increased by 170%. Any action to reduce the need for track maintenance and the number of trackside equipment failures not only improves punctuality, but also positively impacts passenger experiences and perceptions.


Robust, real-time data makes a difference. Network Rail is committed to increasing the use of sensors on tracks and equipment. These provide data that enables a preventative approach to maintenance and repairs, reducing disruption and lowering costs.


A range of smart IoT and PaaS solutions can leverage data from sensors, monitoring a wide range of factors, such as vibration, temperature, pressure and liquid levels. With cloud-based processing, real-time insights can predict where preventative action might need to take place, in order to avoid issues that will cause significant disruption to services.


Other technologies facilitated by robust connectivity are also supporting engineering efforts. For example, the Remote Expert service enables remote specialists to provide support to field-based technicians via a high-speed audio-visual link. The Lone Worker service supports the essential health and safety of people working alone in high-risk environments. It does this through monitoring via wearables, cameras and SOS buttons.


If you’re a rail, train or station operator who wants to understand how data can support future improvements to the passenger experience, I’d love to show you how we can help. Contact me on LinkedIn or email