John Backway: Why start-ups promise journey to friction-free travel
John Backway, Head of Retail at Southeastern Railway, on the global search for startup partners able to deliver transformative ticketing and marketing innovations.
Tap in, tap out. Capturing a journey on a smartphone, bank card or contactless smartcard no longer requires a second thought for millions of public transport users in London.
Venture on a train beyond the capital’s confines and it sometimes feels like a different world. One where the paper ticket and various railcard combinations can leave customers with a multitude of permutations to consider before making a journey.
This is why at South Eastern Railway, part of Go-Ahead Group, we decided to sponsor the Billion Journey Project, the UK’s largest privately funded multi-modal transport innovation programme.
Now in its third incarnation, the search has started to find innovative startup partners with the potential to transform the way we operate and deliver services on rail and bus across our network.
As a train operator in the South East we move hundreds of thousands of people to work and places they want to go to visit friends, relatives, sites and attractions.
Ticketing is particularly difficult and in the age of the smartphone, parts of public transport have been left behind.
We know we’re not perfect and see the friction in the system more than most. When you’re so close to something you tend to see the imperfections even more.
And it’s clear how strong the desire is across the business to take the friction out of that journey to enhance our customers’ experiences.
The evolution to a contactless world has left us wanting and needing to raise our game around what customers expect of us.
At Southeastern we do have The Key, a contactless smartcard with the ability to store multiple season, single, return, and London Travelcard tickets. Launched in December 2016 , tickets bought online can be loaded onto The Key, as can those bought at ticket offices in stations.
This definitely constitutes progress and is evidence of our passion for innovation. But it doesn’t go as far as we want to.
More complex rail journeys are likely to pose a challenge. In a world where more people are working flexibly and part-time, what we offer doesn’t cater for travelling on different days at different times to manage household costs.
INHERENT CHALLENGES AND UNPARALLELED OPPORTUNITIES
Believe it or not, the scale and complexity of the system required to facilitate more complex sales, sets a mammoth challenge for suppliers seeking to work with rail operators.
When you buy a ticket from Canterbury to Aberdeen, the level of interoperability and cost required to change things is almost eye-watering due to the network’s regulatory structure and compliance.
When you sell a ticket in rail it goes into a central clearing house for revenue allocation – putting a huge load on suppliers.
At scale, you can’t just plug a neat bit of technology into something with so many stakeholders. But boil it down to a local level and there’s enormous potential to make profound changes.
That’s why we believe in starting at a ‘manageable’ level. It’s incredible when you consider it, that there are £10.3 bn worth of ticket sales across the rail network in the UK each year.
And it’s that opportunity, we feel will excite the very best startups in the world with potential solutions to our challenges – ones that put the smartphone at the core of our ticketing.
That’s why as Head of Retail I’m so excited about the prospect of working with innovation partners across the South East. We’ll look to run a pilot as part of the proof of concept programme with a view to exploring how this could be rolled out network-wide.
As well as the development of The Key and other smart ticketing integrations, my role encompasses providing high quality, customer-friendly digital channels for journey planning, ticket sales, travel information and on-train WiFi.
The second challenge we’re keen to meet head-on is around the provision of real-time travel offers.
Southeastern runs with spare capacity on many of its services . Tailored promotions that integrate with commercial products and travel subscriptions such as pay-as-you-go and bundling different public transport services, would help us support the tourist economy in our region by providing customers with more exciting days out.
Integrated experiences, with travel, accommodation and visitor attraction entry all included in the tap of an app, would also provide benefits for the South East as a whole.
All we need is the imagination and ingenuity of startup founders to join us on the journey to ticketing utopia.