Innovation plays a central role in meeting the demands of today’s transport users. If we’re to keep pace with the rapid rate of technological progress and changing consumer habits we need to act quickly, and creatively.
That’s why Virgin Trains has established a £25 million innovation fund on its east coast route, which will help explore new ways to solve long-standing issues facing passengers. Our ambition is to adapt the innovative thinking seen in tech and other sectors and apply that to the rail industry.
Over the last year the Innovation Team, led by Nicola McGuinness-Brown, has showcased some impressive results. One which grabbed headlines was Seatfrog, named after an Australian start-up that designed the service with Virgin. This allows customers in Standard to enter auctions to upgrade to First Class, helping to solve the problem common to many long-distance rail operators of having busy Standard carriages while First Class seats go unused.
Another trailblazer is TrainMapper, which was designed and piloted by the Virgin Trains team but then released for use across the UK rail network. Powered by Google Maps and National Rail Enquiries, this app allows train customers with a one-stop shop to check real-time train running information during disruption. This avoids the need to check different train operators’ websites and social media feeds, instead giving customers alternative route information and a more accurate prediction of how long their journey will be delayed.
The team has also released an app to help customers navigate London’s King’s Cross station and have launched Platform X, designed to encourage start-ups and other entrepreneurs to collaborate with Virgin Trains on the next big idea.
As an industry, our track record on innovation hasn’t always been strong: just over half a century ago, we were still producing steam trains while counterparts on the continent had electrified their own rail networks. Our recent performance, thankfully, gives us more optimistic grounds for designing a railway fit for tomorrow’s generation.