Charlotte Pearce, Head of UK Rail at Zipabout looks at the Whole Industry Strategic Plan (WISP) which is due to be published this year

I have been privileged to work for over 25 years across the transport sector, and I am a strong advocate for rail. Yet, I am also bemused by our continued silo working and slow pace to embrace change and bring forward innovation.

I’ve sat in hundreds of conferences where different excuses are given to explain barriers in creating seamless end-to-end journeys. The most cited include: complex regulations; the fact we are and have always been a safety critical environment; the expensive cost of change and the need for government funding to achieve it.

I often wonder what improvements we could make if we truly consider the human behind the passenger. If we thought about the UK traveller as Beryl from Tamworth, rather than an anxious traveller (this is an actual segment group) who wants to travel from her home to see her daughter in Aberdeen, we would understand that to nudge her out of her car and onto public transport, we need to build her confidence in all the different modes of transport that make up her door-to-door journey. We could also re-assure her, if things go wrong, that someone is there to help.

In every other aspect of our lives, we seek ease of use. From ordering a film or a pizza, to booking a holiday, we crave a simple online transaction that can be done in a matter of minutes or even seconds. There is plenty rail can – and should – learn from these sectors to solve some of the innovation challenges we face.

Numerous government strategies and policies have been brought forward to overcome innovation barriers over the years, but rail has struggled to maintain the same modernisation momentum as other sectors.

The most recent government strategy, and one which has the potential to turn the dial up on rail innovation, is the Whole Industry Strategic Plan (WISP). Due to be published in Spring this year, the government has developed five strategic objectives for WISP over the next 30 years: meeting customer needs; delivering financial sustainability; contributing to long-term economic growth; levelling up and connectivity; and delivering environmental sustainability.

Even before its release, the WISP has had its share of industry critics, however the intention with the strategy is clear: to fully realise the potential our railway has to offer. The plan is designed to define our vision for what excellence looks like for a UK traveller (hoping this means Beryl) – whether that’s improving services or simplifying the way we book and pay for tickets for routes that
require multiple modes of transport. The timing of WISP couldn’t be more pertinent either, as the industry grapples with changing passenger habits following a global pandemic.

Embracing a new world
There isn’t an industry untouched by Covid and rail is no exception. Two years on, car usage remains high while rail travel is struggling to get close to 60 per cent of its pre-pandemic levels, according to the Department for Transport’s latest All Change? Travel Tracker figures. To nudge passengers onto public transport, we must become more fluid and customer centric.

Personalisation is the key. Rail can no longer work in isolation – we need a multi-modal strategy for transport that is seamless and sustainable. Tailoring the customer experience, seamlessly integrating micro-mobility with the wider networks and incentivising passengers to encourage sustainable choices will go a considerable way in not only returning to pre-pandemic passenger levels, but to improving the customer journey altogether.

On top of the WISP, a multi-modal approach has already begun to be embraced by the Department for Transport, following its announcement of a £7 billion package in April 2022 to level up transport outside of London. Local bus services will be improved and extended, more people will be encouraged to make walking and cycling a first choice for shorter journeys and transport networks need to be seamless and joined up. Rail, however, must be the leader in this approach and the lynch pin to create personalised options for passengers.

The role of technology
In March, I joined Zipabout as Head of UK Rail. I was inspired to work with the team due to their desire to transform the journey experience, empowering passengers on any transport mode to travel with confidence thanks to the pioneering use of personalised information services.

Zipabout technology creates a unique direct relationship between transport provider, passenger, and retailer, enabling the delivery of real-time information tailored to individual passenger needs, as well as incentives and rewards to encourage sustainable behavioural change. All generated and delivered with no location tracking through messaging channels they trust. The business is working towards shaping a transport sector where every decision is based on accurate and timely insight and has a genuinely positive impact on the passenger.

Across the transport network, there is crucial customer data already available that could be of benefit to all. We can identify crowded routes and suggest quieter alternatives to anxious passengers, provide real-time journey information delivered straight to travellers’ mobiles, and improve first and last mile support, among many other things. To encourage the recovery of passenger numbers, there needs to be incentives, we need to look at other sectors – such as retail – for inspiration and collaboration.

Finally, Covid has presented rail with a clean slate to review our ways of working and identifying areas for improvement. Rail is now at a critical point where it must adapt and change to succeed, and while strategies such as WISP could go some way towards supporting modernisation, we must remember that 80 per cent of digital transformation success will come from people who work within it, embracing change and playing their part in creating a future for our industry, so let’s think seamless.

Charlotte Pearce is Head of UK Rail at Zipabout