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

"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

"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."