CIO interview: Virgin Trains' IT remains on the fast-track

As Virgin Trains approaches the end of its West Coast passenger train franchise, the man in charge of the firm's IT is taking an even sharper approach in ensuring every penny is well spent.

As Virgin Trains approaches the end of its West Coast passenger train franchise, the man in charge of the firm's IT is taking an even sharper approach in ensuring every penny is well spent.

Following the completion of an IT transformation last year, the company has undertaken a complete review of its retail ticketing systems, which involved a revamp of its booking office and mobile ticketing platforms, as well as the ongoing upgrade of chip-and-Pin units to Bluetooth-based equipment for onboard payments.

Expenditure on projects such as mobile ticketing was £1.5m, while the booking office system cost the firm £1.2m, both on three-year contracts. Given that Virgin Trains' focus is to reduce IT spend - which is currently about £10m - and the franchise is up for rebidding in March 2012, these decisions had to be made carefully.

"At the start of a franchise, you normally have a longer period to get a payback on investments, so you can embark on slightly longer contracts but also improve your IT infrastructure and systems," said Francis Jellings, IT director at Virgin Trains.

"Towards the end, you have to be very sharp in terms of your decisions and put up a very good business case for IT projects to get your executive committee to approve any expenditure.

"However, there are still opportunities to improve and we continue to do that. Over the past five years, we have significantly enhanced IT, but as you get closer to the end you get a lot more selective about any investments you make, as they must have a clear return."

Other recent improvements to the firm's IT set-up include operational platforms such as a crew planning system provided by Atos Origin which enables the firm to better resource trains and work around staff shortages, particularly in times of disruption.

Management information systems provided by Halcrow have also been introduced to improve reporting around areas such as on-train shopping patterns. The platform interfaces with Virgin Trains' bespoke customer relationship management (CRM) system, which is written in .Net.

Mobile roll-out

The company is currently finalising trials for a roll-out of handheld devices. The project, which started in early 2009, will see some 500 drivers equipped with Vodafone-supplied PDAs to allow the replacement of paper-based material around rostering and train information.

Apart from the PDA roll-out, most projects preceding the franchise re-bidding will be geared towards improving existing systems around finance and e-recruitment, although Jellings is looking at possibly adopting unified communications to bring in further cost and service efficiencies.

These projects build on the firm's IT revamp, which was completed in May last year. According to Jellings, the transformation saw a move in delivery service towards a more automated approach, which effectively funded the technical refresh.

Hardware was standardised during the transformation, with HP being the main supplier of kit. Citrix supplied thin-client technology for applications such as rail operation systems.

Software consolidation

The firm's software portfolio has also been dramatically reduced, from 600 applications to about 120 through a replacement of legacy platforms with off-the-shelf products, mainly supplied by Microsoft.

Capgemini is one of the key suppliers to the rail operator and worked on the revamp. The services firm is responsible for IT infrastructure services under a multimillion-pound contract that was extended earlier this year for another three years.

Typically, contract extensions for IT suppliers would last until the end of any rail franchise. However, some contracts deemed essential from an operational standpoint can be authorised by the Department for Transport and extended under a flexible agreement.

According to Jellings, the fact that the franchise may not be renewed does not signify the IT department is less busy and he remains upbeat.

"The next couple of years will be more interesting for us as an IT department, due to the time left in our franchise. It is a case of getting the best out of our current partnerships and changing anything where we can see a cost advantage," he said.

"There will be IT elements supporting the bid and also a need to develop fresh ideas for new processes and systems that could be added to our offer, so there is still a lot of work to be done."

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