Ahead of HackTrain 5.0, River Tamoor Baig, the Founder of Hack Partners, discusses innovation in the rail industry and what a hackathon can achieve
Early in my career, I spent a lot of time on trains.
Around a third of my days would be spent travelling between Manchester, Leeds and York.
I found myself constantly wondering why the trains were late and cancelled; why there was no WiFi on-board, and why the information on platforms could be out of date.
As a technology entrepreneur, I wasn’t instinctively drawn to rail; in fact, most of my university friends were working in ‘sexier’ areas, like health and fintech. But rail travel was impacting my life every day.
Eventually I realised I’d spent enough time asking questions – it was time to answer them. And that’s what I’d like to invite all technology innovators to do at the HackTrain.
Delays on the line
It’s best to be upfront: the way UK rail works can make innovation a real challenge.
This starts with how franchises are awarded. The Department for Transport sets strict Committed Obligations – targets governing areas like the punctuality of trains or facilities on-board.
There are hefty financial penalties if rail companies fall short, so meeting these operational targets has to come first.
On top of that, rail franchises are relatively short term. Meanwhile the pace of digital development is so fast that technology could be outdated before it’s fully rolled out.
As a result, the whole rail industry is distinctly risk averse and even sceptical about what can be achieved through innovation.
The franchising model is the best we have at the moment, the government is reviewing it currently and hopefully major improvements are made in the future.
Regardless, these are certainly tricky circumstances, and that’s why a process like HackTrain is a powerful way of disrupting preconceptions and showcasing what innovation can do.
Welcome to the HackTrain
HackTrain is designed to bring together innovators with mentors from the transport and technology industries for 48 hours of accelerated innovation.
Our hackathons actually take place on trains, to bring our collaborators into the environment they’re hoping to change.
The focus of HackTrain is taking on some of the biggest challenges in rail, according to those at the heart of the industry.
Every year tasks are set by the likes of Network Rail, Train Operating Companies, and the Department for Transport based on data directly from the industry. It might be using new tech to improve passenger experience, the efficiency of operations, or the rail infrastructure itself.
In 2016 for example, the Rail Minister Claire Perry set the challenge of helping passengers find seats quicker and easier, as data indicated this was their biggest concern after train punctuality.
That hackathon team delivered a solution that was eventually implemented into the Trainline app. Today it’s used by nine million people a year or 25,000 a day and is an outstanding example of what HackTrain can achieve.
To judge the innovations that come out of the hacks we bring together experts from organisations such as Fujitsu, that are actively involved in addressing some of the challenges facing the transport industry. It’s often their ability to scale or ‘industrialise’ that takes a great concept to the next level in collaboration with our network of innovators.
A new mindset
A crucial challenge for the rail industry is not only coming up with solutions but scaling and implementing them.
That’s why another outcome of HackTrain is so important: the change in mindset.
Our hackathons bring together not only specialists in different technologies, but those within the rail industry who aren’t often in the same room, even if they work for the same organisation.
The event underlines what innovation – and critically cross-organisational collaboration – can achieve, even in an accelerated timeframe.
This positive mentality and the will to effect change will be key to the evolution of UK rail.
Full steam ahead
HackTrain is a brilliant, but also a very intense, experience. So what’s the best approach for the teams in our upcoming event?
My advice would be, first off, don’t always look to reinvent the wheel. Lots of industries have faced similar problems to rail, so it could be more efficient – and effective – to adapt their offering.
And remember, if you snooze, you lose, hah.
And my advice for anyone who hasn’t signed up? See the outcomes by clicking the link below.
HackTrain 5.0 will take place on 9 – 11 November in London. To see the outcomes, you can attend the “HackTrain Conference” by clicking here to register.