April 11, 2013

A new age of communication

Written by  Niren Choudhury
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Technology is providing railway operators with more opportunities to connect and interact with passengers than ever before. As well as enhancing passenger experience these developments are set to provide significant benefits to operators, as Niren Choudhury, global director for strategic industries at Alcatel-Lucent, explains.

ADVANCES in discrete passenger information systems (PIS) and the increasingly influential role of social media are changing the way train operators and passengers communicate. With passengers now able to access journey information through multi-media displays, mobile phones, and live agents, operators are eagerly seeking the best way to bring relevant information together and present it at various points of interest at different stages of the journey to different groups of passengers.

A wide range of technologies are now available to support this process and ease the strain on information services offered at stations.

Indeed increasing communications at stations is considered less effective because passengers often receive the message too late for it to have a definitive impact on their journey plans. In addition, integrating these bandwidth-hungry applications with operational functions such as incident updates as well as resource and asset management systems, and safety and security functions like signalling and train control systems, alarm and security alerts - essentially all of the relevant Machine-to-Machine (M2M) and Machine to Commerce (M2C) applications - can place great strain on the network and cause significant problems for operators.

It is possible to overcome these shortcomings by making passenger information a multimodal and complete journey experience through interactive technology which helps an operator to understand different passengers' needs well before they arrive at the station.

For instance when planning a journey, a passenger often looks for relevant deals and promotions through internet searches and may connect with their friends and family members via social media to ask for suggestions. They may also download applications relating to the destination and operators they might use during their trip, as well as entertainment options, all before finally committing to a booking and payment.

Operators can use this information to provide seamless assistance to the prospective passenger through a platform that integrates a contact centre, social media sites and payment solutions. It can also incorporate loyalty point schemes, couponing and marketing information relevant to a particular passenger which is designed to create customer loyalty.

When it comes to the journey itself, passengers expect to receive relevant information from the operator such as departure and connection updates in addition to information about the specific platform required at the station and the location of the seat on the train. All of this information could be provided before the passenger arrives at the station which will help them navigate a busy and potentially unfamiliar environment.

A novel idea is to provide baggage assistant information, a special service for disabled passengers as they arrive at the station based on the pre-trip arrangement. Offering coupons for products sold by businesses situated at the station which the operator recognises that the customer might be interested in could also boost revenues and increase sales. However, operators must be wary about striking a balance in the quantity and quality of the information provided to each passenger. Interacting too regularly could be a source of customer dissatisfaction and could deter passengers from using information services.

AlcatelAnother significant challenge is to provide real-time information from these collective systems that is more valuable and easier for passengers to interact with than the information they could access from an internet search on their mobile device. Alcatel-Lucent suggests incorporating a personalised information kiosk that offers the capability for one-to-one and on-demand conversation with a live travel expert as one way of overcoming this issue.

This solution is also ideal for managing check-in and validating tickets that use a 2D barcode, RFID or QR Code, as well as handling credit card or near-field communication-based payments. Coupons, profile-based promotions, and navigational guidance could also be distributed from the booth to a passenger's smartphone. A further development that may be particularly attractive to tourists is passenger information systems that use a three-dimensional display and an avatar-like feature which provides constantly updated information and can act as a personal guide throughout the journey.

When the journey is underway the flow of information does not have to stop. A service which is increasingly popular, particularly on long-distance journeys, is Video on Demand (VoD). However, this is set to be superseded by personalised VoD services which are deliverable to personal laptops and tablets, at-seat screens or new "magic screens" which will be capable of projecting images onto windows.

In addition, with the introduction of LighthtRadio Wi-Fi Metro Cell, passengers will be able to watch the same programme on the train as they were at home even from the same point before they left.

To maximise this potential, Alcatel-Lucent says it is necessary to incorporate fourth generation (4G) wireless broadband on the Long Term Evolution (LTE) platform.

LTE provides the higher dedicated bandwidth required to deliver a broad range of infotainment services. And while it is likely to be used initially for passenger information, this bandwidth capability as well as high reliability means that it is possible to host and prioritise safety-critical applications such as signalling on the same platform.

The major advantage of LTE over WiFi, which can provide a higher bandwidth (the next generation 802.11ac platform will be able to offer 1.3Gbs,) is its capability to provide seamless handover between towers and antennas, which is critical when a train is operating at high speed. In addition with LTE operators can prioritise the bandwidth used by various services which is not possible on WiFi because it is structured to be an all or nothing platform.

Post-trip passenger information has traditionally not been given much thought, but with the growing influence of social media, it is now more important than ever.

Operators should endeavour to make the first contact at the end of the trip through an e-mail or SMS before the passenger has the opportunity to provide their own feedback via social media. A customer relationship management tool achieves this by offering an opportunity for immediate feedback in exchange for an incentive to engage with the operator.

Technology

There are two aspects to the technology required to effectively provide these services: infrastructure and application. The challenge here is to integrate both wire line and wireless technologies, while providing the bandwidth required to deliver enriched information in conjunction with critical communications that meet the service quality standards enforced by railway regulators.

As a result passenger information becomes a complex technological issue that requires in-depth planning, smart investment and engagement from both providers and operators.

When developing infrastructure technologies, developers must take into account end-to-end requirements which include security, safety, as well as bandwidth usage all while meeting the overall quality of service expected by passengers and operators. There are many commercial imperatives for operators to move from legacy infrastructure to the complete internet-protocol/multi protocol labelled switching (IP/MPLS) backbone, which is required to support a higher bandwidth multi service network.

We believe this IP/MPLS-based network is crucial to support 4G+ wireless technologies and cloud-based services with migration to a multi-service wireless backbone an essential part of the PIS solution for enhancing passenger experience.

In addition, passenger information applications must have multiple back-end capabilities. These include:

• indoor and outdoor navigation so the application works seamlessly when a passenger enters or exits a station

• location-based services (LBS) which include indoor and outdoor maps showing points of interest

• the ability to function with any device and operating system, and

• the ability for any wireless product or device to function with any wireless media platform (such as 802.11ac or LTE+) with backward compatibility.

As technology advances and demand to access more and more services from tech-savvy passengers increases, suppliers and operators will both become responsible for bringing additional features into PIS.

These can enhance critical scenarios such as station and lineside security, while aiding functions such as suspicious element tracking, behaviour analysis, and face recognition. Integration with PIS is required through advanced analytics and existing or upgraded CCTV systems. Extending these features will bring significant value to the operators and passengers while providing a dynamic and versatile passenger information system.

Many of these passenger information solutions and applications work with different devices and operating systems. Unfortunately these variations are becoming a problem in themselves due to the significant deployment and maintenance cost associated with running numerous applications on discrete networks which are not optimised. As a result operators may find themselves in an uncontrollable situation despite trying to provide the best solution for their passengers.

For this reason, we recommend creating scalable infrastructure which provides sufficient bandwidth for current and future needs. It will also help to create a comprehensive and integrated passenger information system that is capable of keeping up with the technology evolution to provide continuous value to both operators and passengers.

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