Hands up – we’re train spotters! We like nothing better than to don our virtual anoraks armed with our flasks of coffees and note down what’s new in the wonderful world of trains. We’ve really put in the miles this time – from Japan to California, India to Germany and the odd visit to good ol’ England in between. Here are 8 trends that caught our eye over the last couple of months.
1. It’s how much? Despite their green credentials, train journeys are not always kind on the wallet. For many people, particularly commuters in the UK, rail travel passes are often their biggest expense after their rent or mortgage. And you seem to need a degree in ticketing to understand the best ticket choice to ensure maximum value for money. Unsurprisingly, a couple of enterprising start-ups are looking to provide if not quite a solution then at least to ease some of the pain.MultiPass is an app that aims to give commuters the peace of mind of the cheapest fare even if your plans change. The concept works quite simply – when a user goes into a train station, a beacon registers that they are there via the app and they input their destination. A barcode ticket is issued on the phone that can be shown to the ticket inspector. The actual price of the ticket used is only settled at the end of the week. So let’s imagine you decide one Monday morning to travel from London to Cambridge but you are not sure of your plans. In normal circumstances you might end up buying a single ticket and then buying another single ticket to come back later in the day – which obviously is not cost-effective. With MultiPass you are essentially always buying a single ticket but the app retrospectively applies any discount. So if you do return on the same day, rather than charging you for two singles, it ends up charging you a cheaper return ticket. Let’s imagine you then find that you need to go to Cambridge on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Well by Thursday the app will have worked out that it would have been cheaper to sell you a seven-day season ticket so it cancels all the previous tickets, charging you instead for the cheaper season ticket and informing you that if you want to go to Cambridge on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, that it is now free of charge. What’s not to love? The app was recently introduced as part of a small trial on the Greater Anglia network operated by Abellio. It will now be rolled out route by route with all routes on that network completed by the end of the year. MultiPass is planning another trial in the North of England with plans to go nationwide soon after that. As one of the founders Alexander Peschkoff explains, they are also looking further afield for future growth acknowledging the complexity of the UK rail ticketing system. “Once we have cracked the UK, the rest is plain sailing.” If they plan to move into France, they may well be faced by competition from Save a Train which was launched in February this year. This app follows a similar principle. Train travellers in France can enjoy price drops on their train tickets even after they have booked. ‘Save a Train’ follows your ticket price until you depart and seeks the best price available. But unlike MultiPass, you still have to do the hard work yourself in that ‘Save a Train’ merely alerts you to the potential price saving but the passenger then needs to go online and change their ticket. That said, this focus on reducing the price of train tickets can only be a welcome change for all commuters.
2. One size fits all – Other innovations around train tickets are not just to do with price but the ‘intermodal’ potential of one overall ticket. In various cities around the world, one card enables travellers to use multiple modes of transport e.g. UK’s Oyster Card for the Underground, buses, and Docklands Light Railway etc. Deutsche Bahn’s CEO Rüidger Grube is planning something altogether more ambitious. He recently announced a so-called “Deutschland-Ticket” or national Mobilitätskarte (National Mobility Card) which he hopes will ultimately integrate all modes of transport e.g. trains, buses, taxis and even bike hire. The idea is that at the end of every month, you get just one invoice detailing all your travel activities. Of course, this comes with many challenges – the local governments for the different parts of Germany are responsible for regional transportation so ownership is very fragmented. Grube remains determined although has as yet, been unwilling to commit to specifics around the timing of such an offer.
3. Beyond trains – Deutsche Bahn’s multimodal aspirations go beyond trains. They recently launched an electric car hire scheme. If you arrive into Berlin on long-distance trains, you will now be able to book an electric car for use. These cars will be provided by DB’s subsidiary Flinkster, which is one of Germany’s largest car-sharing services. It’s a very straightforward and cost effective option for train users. All you need to do is to show your driver’s licence and you can use the electric car for up to a week. This is yet another example of Deutsche Bahn’s intention to ensure that however you plan to travel, you can still remain a customer of theirs. Read more here.
4. Predictable delays – Aside from cost, a big concern from commuters is delays. What people want when they travel, especially if it is on the same journey every time, is predictability. And delays aren’t predictable, or are they? Well a Swedish mathematician Wilhelm Landerholm has been working with Swedish commuter train operator Stockholmståg to use big data to develop an algorithm which can be used to forecast potential delays, helping network control staff to make decisions which will minimise any potential impact and prevent ripple effects before they would have occurred. Real-time feeds from across the network have been used to collect data on the actual arrival and departure time of every Stockholmståg train over a long period. This data is fed into a model that enables the Swedish train operator to forecast disruptions from approximately 2 hours in the future. This information is also going to be integrated into an app planned for later this year to provide passengers with advance warning of likely delays. Read more here.
5. (ahem!) benefits we passed on was our culinary skills! According to a recent article, the menus of “pantry cars” have been unchanged for decades and still bear the influence of British rule offering “breakfasts of limp omelettes, fried cutlets of unidentifiable ingredients and baked beans washed down with strong sweet tea” – what can I say, it’s just like home! Well those days are about to disappear. India’s railways are about to undergo significant modernisation to include high speed trains and automatically closing doors as well as the replacement of the famed “pantry cars”. These will be replaced by e-catering options so passengers will be able to pre-order their meal on an app or website, by phone or text and either pay online or on delivery to a station of their choice.
6. Train Education – It appears that India’s rail ambitions don’t just stop here. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is attempting to upgrade their railway to become the rival of others. One other part of the plan is to turn India into a global centre for research and development in railway engineering and management by launching India’s first railway university. Quite apart from the normal courses you would expect in an institution like this, there will apparently also be yoga lessons and training on “how to make railway customers feel welcomed”. There are some sceptics and an internal report concluded that the institution would be a waste of money – it’s definitely not a done deal so watch this space!
7. Invisible Trains – Japan’s trains can never be accused of being stuck in the past and Seibu Railway’s latest trains make “futuristic” look better than it has ever looked. The railway is planning to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2018 by launching trains that at first glance appear to be invisible – blending into the landscape. The reality is a rather ingenious design created by Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima who has created a train that is reflective by being coated with semi-transparent and mirrored surfaces. Sejima has described the train as being able to “gently co-exist with (this) variety of scenery”. See for yourself here.
8. Life’s a beach – Whilst the Seibu railway line takes you through breath-taking mountains and the cityscapes of Tokyo, it doesn’t get you to the beach unlike the Expo Line in Los Angeles. Hard to believe that it has taken 55 years from the closure of the Red Car trolley service which ran from LA to Long Beach to be able to offer a train service which now runs between downtown LA to the warm beaches of Santa Monica. LA has really never been a city synonymous with public transport – car is definitely king. Perhaps this new route which doesn’t just boast the beach as a destination but offers a genuinely viable alternative to car commuters who are currently sitting on the “freeway” for a couple of hours every day might change people’s opinion of public transport. That said, its launch was very unfortunate. On the first Monday a drunk driver crashed onto the train tracks – thankfully no one was harmed – but journeys were all delayed by over an hour so maybe people might need some time before they abandon their normal commuter behaviours.
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This article was first published on LinkedIn.