As European transport operator Abellio gears up to take on the £6bn ScotRail train franchise, group chief information officer John Seglias faces the challenge of balancing a major IT transition with the need to innovate to better serve passengers and staff.
Abellio is the international arm of government-owned Dutch railway firm Nederlandse Spoorwegen. Last month, the company beat competitors Arriva, MTR, National Express and incumbent FirstGroup to take over ScotRail at the end of March 2015. It will commence operations on 1 April.
According to the CIO, the challenges for the years ahead are "exciting but massive", mainly due to the fact that tech-based demands of franchise agreements are a consequence of historic under-investment in passenger journey and experience, as well as back-office operations.
"Agencies such as the Department for Transport, Transport Scotland, Passenger Transport Executives and their equivalents in Europe are demanding an improved passenger experience, based on traditional values such as improved trains, stations and so on, but also on technology and digital innovation," Seglias tells Computer Weekly.
"The challenge for the CIO here is not just setting up and leading a world-class traditional IT function, but also leading an innovation technology agenda, really adding value to our operations and the quality of our bids, while helping us win additional business and really differentiating us from other public transport organisations,” he says.
In its home country, The Netherlands, Abellio runs bus services in Fryslan, Groningen and Drenthe, as well as bus and tram services in Utrecht and The Hague. In Germany, it serves communities in North Rhine Westphalia, Saxony, with additional services to be launched in Lower Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia.
In the UK, the company's businesses include bus services through London and Surrey, as well as Greater Anglia train services, in addition to Mersey Rail and Northern in joint ventures with Serco.
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Even though Seglias's remit includes running the IT function and strategy for the entire group, including innovation, his main focus over the coming months is leading the IT element of the ScotRail migration, which encompasses the systems and infrastructure required to transition the data needed for the trains to operate seamlessly from April 2015.
During the bidding process for the franchise, Abellio was not allowed to undertake any due diligence, meaning the IT portfolio maintained by current provider FirstGroup will have an array of "surprise" elements.
"As part of the bidding process, the incumbent organisation prepares an information pack that will tell you how many users they have, maybe what kind of email they use, but it won't go as far as giving information about the architecture and so on," says Seglias.
"It’s a challenge, because you go into the project with a lot of unknowns. So a lot of our effort is around trying to mitigate the associated risks and asking the right questions, then testing and migrating the data to our systems in a very short space of time," he adds.
"The challenge for the next few months is to have those conversations with the incumbent company to try to ascertain what the structure is to ensure it's all migrated, tested and up and running from day one."
Abellio already has group-wide agreements for a finance system supplied by OpenAccounts, in addition to Midland HR for human resources and payroll, as well as Microsoft for Office 365. According to Seglias, the company is also launching a group project for ticketing and smart ticketing – the current supplier in that area is Fujitsu.
"We definitely plan to rejig these contracts so that we can serve ScotRail. We will also look at our other contracts and put in place the necessary framework agreements so that the whole group has a limited number of group-level suppliers," he says.
The plan is to also move away from the current federated IT model to a more centrally managed set-up.
IT provision will be primarily met through the selection and use of standard IT services supplied by third parties and cloud providers. We are interested in service, not the underlying technology
John Seglias, Abellio
"This means that key business applications, service delivery, control and governance will be centralised and consolidated, allowing the business to manage its technology investment strategically," says Seglias.
"Group IT provision will be primarily met through the selection and use of standard IT services supplied by third parties and cloud providers. We are interested in service, not the underlying technology," he adds.
"Building bespoke solutions will be by exception only, specifically where such a solution will support our digital innovation strategy. Our in-house IT teams will focus on working with the business, capturing and managing IT demand to deliver solutions and innovations that add value in addition to transforming our business."
The group IT organisation, excluding ScotRail, is currently 60-strong, and 15 staff will be joining the enlarged group from April on Tupe agreements. According to Seglias, the IT team “is a lean organisation and will remain so" as the company plans to continue to make use of third-party services and tools such as cloud computing.
“I’m really looking forward to spending a lot more time in Glasgow over the next six months. It's a very big transition and we'll all have to roll up our sleeves and deliver something that will transform Abellio and make it a much bigger and more exciting organisation. And that excites me," he says.
Beyond the incorporation of the ScotRail franchise – which only came about a few months after he joined the company – the IT strategy developed by Seglias is focused on how technology can help solve challenges brought about by passenger and staff requirements, as well as the need to keep the operation ticking as effectively as possible.
“Omni-connectivity” for passengers and staff is a constant mantra, as well as monitoring of physical assets that are always online, or have the potential to be connected.
In addition, Seglias has to keep on his toes in the running of day-to-day IT operations and maximise the use of tools such as cloud computing to meet the increasing expectations from his various stakeholders.
To that end, the IT chief has started and sponsored a series of proof-of-concepts of mobile apps and onboard information tools over the past few months around improving customer services across the franchises Abellio operates.
"The idea is to improve our passenger experience on board our trains, reducing operational costs and providing better and safer station environments," says Seglias.
In addition to mobile apps that provide information such as arrival times and transport to and from the stations, current trials also include a media and information service for passengers, dubbed “Sky+ for trains”, an onboard Wi-Fi project that aims to provide tailored information and entertainment for passengers throughout their journey.
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Internally, Abellio is testing Android-based apps for staff in specific roles, for email access as well as provision of real-time information about the train service operation and other productivity tools.
Remote monitoring and control of station equipment is also being trialled to allow ongoing replacement of components and materials as needed, rather than at regular, specific intervals. According to the CIO, this will result in better maintained, safer and cleaner stations with lower running costs.
By this time next year ScotRail is due to be fully migrated to Abellio and some group-wide contracts will have been negotiated to cater for the IT needs of the expanded group.
"We will have a well-defined agenda in place around projects, change and information security, and I think we’ll also have a much better defined and understood innovation pipeline," says Seglias.
"Finding the right resources to put together my ideal organisation will be the main challenge, as well as making sure that we deliver the IT to support ScotRail by April, since that's a deadline that we can’t miss.”
Over the next few months, Seglias will also be looking to implement the new IT strategy and "win hearts and minds of IT and other senior colleagues across business units", as well as supporting the firm's expanding German business.
"The mission is ensuring we have the right IT in place, at the right time. For that, we need to identify, put in place and leverage strategic partnerships with technology providers to support the delivery of our IT strategy and innovation agenda," he says.
"I want to develop a world-class capability, as well as a reputation in digital innovation and change management across the group. IT will be at the core of Abellio’s innovation culture – that's my ultimate goal."