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June 25, 2010

Technology is key to improving efficiency

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Atos Origin’s acquisition earlier this year of Shere, Britain, expanded its presence in the rail IT services market. Kevin Smith spoke to Tony Lacy (pictured), general manager for transport at Atos Origin, about the company’s latest developments and where he sees the market heading in the next few years.

THE WORST financial crises in living memory might still be dominating the headlines, but businesses throughout the railway industry are readying themselves for the recovery. Their hope is that by introducing cost-effective operations while developing new technologies they will be ahead of the curve in the future and strongly placed to take advantage when the good times return.

IT services company Atos Origin is no exception. With passenger numbers projected to increase on the British network over the next few years despite expected government funding restrictions, the company is working to develop the efficient passenger information, management and ticketing systems likely to be required.
Atos Origin reaffirmed its long-term strategy earlier this year following the purchase of Shere, a provider of self-service web and desktop systems, including station vending machines. Lacy says that while acquiring Shere during a recession may appear risky, Atos Origin now has a foothold in all railway information technology sectors priming itself for further growth.

Already Atos Origin is providing train management systems to compile timetables, monitor the location of trains and manage associated resources for Network Rail (NR) as well as supply rostering and payroll systems for staff, and passenger information systems at over 1000 stations. Its Advantix Mobile ticketing system issued over 50 million tickets in 2009 as well as providing conductors with up-to-date timetable and fare information on board trains. The company has also developed online ticketing services for East Coast Trains and Heathrow Express, securing a similar deal with Chiltern Railways in May.

One area that Atos Origin might aid network efficiency is through its new automated IT solution system, Integrale. Combining operational information from across the network, the system provides a performance overview to allow informed decision-making and aiding contingency plans.

If adopted nationwide, Integrale is projected to cut train delays by 2%, potentially saving the British rail industry at least £50 million per year. Already trialled by Arriva's Cross Country services, NR is said to be interested in the system which could ease the strain on the network particularly during disruptive weather events.

"It's not just about delays, and where trains are across the network, but also about where people are, from catering staff to train crew," Lacy says. "It helps train operators make clear distinctions between where certain components are on a network without having to rely on multiple systems. This can help them identify a potential problem before anything happens."

Lacy is certainly a subscriber to the view that investments in technology will be essential for the network to handle expected passenger increases. For example, he says that the recent volcanic ash cloud crisis, while generating significant extra revenue, might have been managed better if certain technologies were in place.

"In order to handle the influx of additional passengers and to deal with problems such as not being able to find the additional trains needed to meet demand, as well as trying to keep costs down, technology must be utilised," Lacy says. "Things such as issuing a pass to air passengers on their mobile phone whose flights have been cancelled so they can use any train on the network could be one way of doing this."

Effectively gathering customer feedback on the standard of service provided is another potentially vital way in which technology might be employed. Specifically, Lacy says that because of the trend towards purchasing tickets online and through mobile phones, operators can identify their regular customers and their travel habits, allowing them for the first time to have direct and regular contact with their customers. "At the end of the journey, five minutes before you are due to leave the train, you could receive a text message to answer questions about what you thought, with the offer of something like entry into a prize draw to win a free first-class return ticket," Lacy says.

"If it has been a good week, train operators should send the surveys to see what people think, and do the same if it's been a bad week. It's about increasing feedback, but also about increasing yield. The experience with railways is that there are two peaks, but then throughout the day there are a lot of empty trains. By identifying loyal customers and offering them incentives to use the train during other times operators could increase passenger use."

Lacy hopes operators will soon utilise this technology, and also foresees a further shift from paper towards electronic and mobile tickets.

In announcing the deal for Shere, Atos Origin said it expected more than 50% of tickets will be purchased either through self-service machines or over the internet in the next eight years. Whether a mutual mobile ticketing service is rolled out across different train operators, and potentially other modes of transport remains to be seen, but with technology developing as fast as it is, and with companies like Atos Origin continuing to push the boundaries, Lacy says this is not outside the realms of possibility.

"For the foreseeable future different modes are going to coexist but who knows what is going to happen with it in the future and what new technologies might bring."

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