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How can rail companies rebuild the customer relationship?

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Shutter_M)

From ticket price rises to strikes and regular delays, the UK’s rail companies are rarely out of the newspaper headlines. Despite this negative press passenger numbers continue to rise, but so do passenger expectations, demanding more from rail providers to justify the ever-increasing ticket prices. What are there aspects of the service, especially the in-journey experience that should be considered for improvement?

Dave Sampson, Commercial Director of Trolex|Aporta, a global supplier of On-Board Digital systems to transportation markets, explains that rail companies have a real opportunity to use the latest digital solutions to improve the passenger experience, rebuild customer relationships and create new revenue streams. 

Delightful journeys

The way in which people pass their time has changed fundamentally, with most using mobile devices on the journey to work, to watch movies, TV shows and read online news. Many stream music and some videos directly to their device.  However, given the quality of network performance on a moving train, frequent interruptions to network connection are common. While tech-savvy millennials may have downloaded content beforehand, the vast majority of  passengers may struggle to get any reasonable service.

And this is the problem: Wireless services are now expected everywhere, the challenges associated with delivering many concurrent users with high quality Internet access on moving vehicles, be it train, tram or coach are well documented.

Ever more expense

The installation of an on-board digital network with internet access is a cost to the transport provider, and one that will continue to grow as more passengers change from standard to high definition video. Enhancing the quality of the network, for example with more trackside mobile transmitters, even if commercially viable, would only encourage passengers to consume even more data. So how can companies meet passenger expectations for a good travel experience without incurring large amounts of extra cost?

Home from home

It is time to rethink digital service delivery: Passengers want the same digital experience as they get at home or in the office.  Moreover they will often benchmark it against these experiences. Despite technology evolution, the current delivery of on-board Wi-Fi for passengers cannot provide the expected level of consistent, high quality bandwidth; too many people connecting via too few mobile masts, and cuttings, tunnels and embankments making the signal at best inconsistent and in many cases non-existent. A different model is required, one that leverages an intranet to deliver digital on-board services.

A more powerful version of technology used at home, a Wi-Fi intranet or “offline” network enables passengers to access digital content and services. From recent movies to box sets and television programmes, as well as the latest travel information, the content is streamed directly to a passenger’s laptop, tablet or phone, from a on-board server without any connectivity failure or buffering.

Of course different travel providers will have different customer bases, with a variety of content requirements. Commuters will be more interested in catching up on programmes missed the evening before, news programmes or travel updates and less likely to want to stream movies than those on a long journey. On-board digital services can provide transport operators with a wide range of content; different genres from kids’ animation, news,  documentaries to horror and Sci-Fi, in audio, text and video formats, with or without subtitles or closed captions for the hard of hearing and nearly 200 languages from Gaelic to Pashtu.  To maximise passenger engagement, content can be tailored to match the specific needs  of any passenger audience.

Home plus 

This closed network also opens up a number of opportunities to further enhance the passenger experience by enabling travel operators to solve problems in ways that make it easy and straight forward for passengers; seat reservations or finding un-booked and empty seats, in-seat ordering of food and beverages, preventing luggage from being stolen or finding that umbrella left accidentally on the train.  Making passenger journeys hassle free and solving these sometimes little irritations can make a huge change in perception of the overall service. Providing passengers with these types of services can also save the operator money and increase revenue from sales; sending ticket information and seat number confirmation directly to their mobile phone not only improves the customer experience but also removes the need for the train company to place paper seat reservation cards at the beginning of every journey. In-seat ordering services will allow passengers to order food or drink more easily from the buffet car, leading to increased sales; the operator can give the passengers the option of collection or having the purchases delivered to their seat.

Services can be extended to improve passenger safety and security: In addition to an opportunity to link with CCTV or provide immediate travel updates or security alerts, it can be used to address one of the key passenger concerns when travelling; luggage theft. Passengers can be offered a luggage alert system which tracks physical RFID luggage tags and provides immediate text notification if an item is moved during the journey.

Show me the money!

Aside from delivering a far better passenger experience, well thought out digital on-board services are cost effective and can provide opportunities for new revenue streams. By diverting passengers activity from the Internet to the on-board entertainment, cost reduction can be significant by avoiding much of the data charges associated with mobile internet access.

Even more compelling are the tangible opportunities to create new products, from monetising premium content, such as the latest blockbuster movies or live sporting events and enabling pre-booking of hotels, rental cars, tourist trips and restaurants at the destination.

Revenue from targeted advertising using banner ads, or pre-roll video all contribute to new revenue: Having access to passengers whilst on a journey is incredibly appealing to advertisers, as it is one of the few times where an audience has a high dwell time and increased opportunity for engagement. This opens the way to drive additional income through advertising and sponsorship packages. Moreover digital on-board services provide travel operators with the chance to capture valuable customer data, which can then be used to drive further engagement and improve other aspects of their experience.


In a challenging marketplace, where rail companies are constantly fighting to enhance their  public perception, the quality of the journey is one area that can be hugely improved right now. Embracing a new model for digital on-board services provides transport operators not only with an ability to meet and exceed rising customer expectations, but also drive down costs and tap into an incremental revenue stream.

Dave Sampson is the Commercial Director of Trolex|Aporta
Image source: Shutterstock/Shutter_M

Dave Sampson is the Commercial Director of Trolex|Aporta.