Toward a new customer experience, European rail, 2030

First presented in a speech for Amadeus Rail, June 2016
Associated Categories Transport and the Supply Chain Tags: ,

The opportunity to do better

In the past 20 years, neither energy suppliers nor telecommunications firms have truly completed their journey toward providing a good customer experience, whether off-line or online. Both have allowed customer demand to exceed supply. Both have failed to put the customer at the heart of their work. Financial packages can look like they’re of dubious virtue; centres often operate as rage management centres. Neither energy companies nor telecommunications ones have fully rid themselves and customers of the scourge of paper documents.

Rail can do better than that. We might not want to be everything Uber is, but its organisation of travel around the customer – complete with billing after, not before each trip – is something we need to move toward.

It’s often said that the whole rail journey begins online. But in fact it begins in the imagination. Even if I don’t combine my rail trip with air, coach or car-sharing options, I want to know:

  1. Which Europe cities I can go to now and next year, given the pace of network extensions
  2. Exactly how I pick up second and third trains to my destination, and what passport/security routines I will encounter
  3. What station features, rush hours and platforms I need to know about
  4. What level of access, baggage storage, comfort, food and WiFi I can expect on the train.

Already, on the Web, Chinese universities steer you round their vast campuses with a kind of 360-degree 3D display. Similarly, hotels display their typical rooms.

Well before 2030, and well before Virtual Reality becomes a Reality, rail will offer rich, real-time maps, YouTube videos and data visualisations to explain and convey the range, detail and quality of experiences on offer.

Doing better at screen and station

Some say that IT is in transition from mobile-led to AI-led systems. This is probably overdone, for whether machines can ever exhibit genuine human intelligence is a moot point.

Nevertheless, we can be sure that customers will notice once your online booking becomes as slick as the websites of Amazon, McKinsey, the Harvard Business Review and John Lewis. Already, with little trumpeting, Eurostar has made important steps in improving the convenience of the rail travel booking process. By 2030, we can hope, every rail firm will offer high-productivity booking. Perhaps, too, important booking routines will become standardised across operators, allowing a more intuitive and automatic customer experience: after all, mankind did something like that with the QWERTY keyboard and the 0-9 telephone.

Once I’m on the move, there will be more opportunities to do better.

By 2030, today’s niche wearables will be mass, personalised, 3D-printed ‘earables’ that are specially competent on stations and trains. Through those earables, Big Data analytics will allow rail companies to know their customer as never before. Amadeus has rightly pointed to this opportunity.

But before I get carried away with the promise of personalised customer service and frictionless travel through IT, let’s get the basics right.

For the first-time and infrequent inter-city customer, stations need better

  1. Information boards and kiosks
  2. Platform, passenger and security announcements
  3. Ticket counters/machines
  4. Air quality
  5. Signage, loos, places to sit down, litter disposal.

Of course, rail transport firms don’t usually run rail stations. But by looking out for these things and pressing station operators to up their game, rail operators can secure for themselves important sources of competitive advantage.

Doing better on the train

Everyone knows that all the things I have talked about, from maps and data visualisations to ticket purchase and litter disposal, have further and healthy room for improvement on the train. And there’s more to dream about and take action on:

  1. Knowing who the VIP or tricky customers are
  2. Doors and food trolleys and doors that never slam you (especially doors between carriages)
  3. On-board electronic ticket reservation systems that always work
  4. Seat numbers that are always legible – especially given the prevalence of older customers in future
  5. Dreamliner acoustics and plentiful quiet carriages
  6. Clever windows, perhaps with Microsoft Hololens annotation; personalised lighting.

By 2030, the fit, security-conscious older passenger will also be greeted, by superlative seat comfort and fantastic food quality. What used to be a carriage will feel more like a catwalk. As speeds, distances and staff education improve, there’ll be a chance to get back the full romance of international rail travel.


In experiments with magnetic levitation trains, Central Japan Railway has already reached speeds of 600kph. Clearly European rail has a lot of innovating to do. Yet a shake-up is coming.

In Europe’s New Rail Landscape, liberalisation may well allow in new entrants keen on functioning as virtual operators. Already customer-centric specialists in online rail information such as Trainline and SilverRail have helped focus the whole industry’s attention on the customer experience. In a grown-up manner, they know about the passenger, lay out different routes and offer attractive savings in advance.

You don’t need me to tell you that customer experience will be the key competitive battleground for the next 14 years. And you don’t need me, or Amadeus – though we agree – to tell you that it’s on that battleground you’d do best to concentrate your management and technological firepower. Remember, too that the title ‘customer-centric’ needs to be earned, not just proclaimed.

So leave the nuts and bolts of IT to the specialists. For a long time to come, you’re going to have your hands delightfully full with the new agenda in customer experience.

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