Using cloud to help public transport operators put passengers first

In this guest post, Craig Stewart, vice president of product management at cloud integration provider SnapLogic, spells out why the more traditional transport operators need to take a leaf out of their cloud-native competitors’ books to stay relevant and in-touch with changing customer demands. 

The phrase, “you wait ages for a bus, and then three come along at once,” might sound cliché, but speaks volumes about the inherent difficulties that come from running a mass transportation network.

A late train here, a spot of traffic there, and the delicate balance between all the moving parts collapse. As a result, we miss our connecting train, wait 20 minutes for a bus, and then our flight gets cancelled.

In days gone by, these kind of issues were just something most travellers had to put up with, as they had no other option to get around. And so, with little external pressure, there was no need for innovation, and the back-end data management systems underpinning the transport network stagnated.

Things have changed, however. Disruptors like Uber have changed the transportation game and prompted customers to revise up their expectations.

As such, they want real-time travel status updates, alternative route suggestions if things do go awry, and the ability to talk to staff who have a full view of the situation, rather than people who are as clueless about the situation as the travellers.

As it stands, the information infrastructure of UK mass transport networks is not fit for the task, and in dire need of renovation.

Imitate to innovate

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and for traditional transport operators, competing in the new mobility landscape means taking note of what the disruptors are up to.

They need to offer the flexibility that customers now expect, and move away from the rigid approaches to timetables and scheduling of the past.

The transport jargon for this transition is mobility-as-a-service (MaaS). It’s certainly not a reality for traditional transport operators currently, but it’s a hot industry topic that is set to be a key area of focus for the public transport industry over the next few years.

Achieving a new MaaS model will require an acceleration in both technology and mindset, particularly when it comes to better understanding of the needs and expectations of the customer.

Some transport operators have already made encouraging first steps in this direction. Transport for London (TfL), for example, has its Unified API, which allows third-party developers to access its data to create value-added apps and services.

TfL’s website even goes as far as to state: “We encourage software developers to use this data to present customer travel information in innovative ways”.

This attitude, however, is currently the exception rather than the rule, and transport operators need to do more like this to make the traveller’s experience as convenient as possible.

This is something retailers have been striving for with their customer-focused omnichannel initiatives for many years. A similar approach, combining robust CRM systems with big data platforms such as Azure and analytics tools, may help transport providers match service provision to customer needs.

Allowing transport operators to more efficiently manage and operate their assets may also help deliver cost-savings for an industry with historically low margins.

Data sharing for customer caring

As alluded to above, local public transport is a shared endeavour, involving multiple local authorities and various bus and rail operators all working together across a region.

In their quest for a more flexible service structure, the use of and sharing of customer data will be paramount.

It’s all well and good if one operator has a vividly accurate portrait of customers and their needs, shifting their operations accordingly, but this data has to be available across the length of a person’s journey, even if it crosses other operators’ services.

The sharing of data securely across departments and with partners is a key stepping stone in shifting transport’s perception of passengers from mere users to customers.

Although responsibility for a passenger may end when they leave the operator’s service, ensuring consistent quality across the full journey is imperative for the shifting business models of the traditional transport sector.

Cloud as a stepping stone to customer-centric care

Essentially, what public transport operators require is a comprehensive digital transformation initiative that changes how they manage operations and approach their customers.

With so many new systems to deploy and data to integrate, there’s no real alternative option except using cloud to achieve the flexibility and scalability needed to make these changes within a set time frame.

What’s more, only the cloud will ensure future technology advances, particularly around machine learning and the Internet of Things, can be quickly deployed to keep tomorrow’s innovations on track, and the disruptors at bay.

Like many industries before it, transport is guilty of growing complacent in its seemingly privileged position. Now it needs to start treating its passengers more like people and less like cargo, and shape its business for them, rather than the other way around.

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