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CIO interview: Simon Moorhead of the Rail Delivery Group discusses integration

Train services across the UK are fragmented, with data and systems in silos, which makes it hard to provide a seamless experience for rail users

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Unlocking value in the railway network’s data

For the rail industry, the coronavirus has led to a dramatic reduction in the number of people travelling. “This has meant there has been a 95% reduction in revenue and because people are not planning to travel, they are seeking refunds on season tickets,” says Simon Moorhead, CIO of the Rail Delivery Group, which oversees the running of the UK’s railways.

At the start of the lockdown, people were encouraged not to travel, which led to the government intervening in the rail network to enable operators to continue running train services for key workers.

The Rail Delivery Group sits at heart of the rail system. Its members are the train companies and its overall goal is to coordinate the decisions of the rail industry. “We have a strategy to try to join up a fragmented industry,” says Moorhead.

From an IT perspective, this fragmentation means there is an awful lot of data and technologies that sit in silos and pockets, he says. “We saw a need to make connections and interfaces that unlock value in data, and offer a pervasive way to work.”

Moorhead believes that the beauty of digital transformation is that it unlocks business value that can experience hyper growth because it is not constrained by the physical world. “You can design services that can underpin technology-driven change, which can then be replicated multiple times,” he says.

For the Rail Delivery Group, this means that a set of digital services can be replicated across the industry relatively easily.

About 15 months ago, the Rail Delivery Group began working with MuleSoft on digital railcards – the first project to start bringing together the silos of data. Moorhead says the project, which went live in November 2019, connects more than 20 services to enable passengers to buy paperless railcards. The project is not a one-off, and people across rail organisations are seeing the opportunities to unlock data, he says.

The Rail Delivery Group has used MuleSoft’s application programming interface (API) management platform to manage access to data and control access to back-end systems. “Once we build API connectors on top of core systems, we have the ability to reuse them,” says Moorhead. “This is very useful because we can take the asset we have already built and apply it to the next project.”

Impact of the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated initiatives to replace paper ticketing, and Moorhead says the crisis has meant there is greater interest in getting real-time rail timetable information. “We have concentrated on carrying on running services to ensure key workers can get to and from their job at the start and end of the working day,” he says.

But as the lockdown eases and the country starts to go back to work, Moorhead says passengers, rail staff and policy-makers are beginning to see beyond paper tickets to digital ticketing, which means rail passengers no longer need to queue at train stations to buy and collect paper tickets.

“The more we can deliver remotely, the more we can give customers the confidence and certainty that they have a valid ticket to get them through the station barriers and to their destination on time,” he says.

“We saw a need to make connections and interfaces that unlock value in data”

Simon Moorhead, Rail Delivery Group

Many businesses aspire to build a seamless customer experience, and for rail passengers, the pandemic has been a stimulus, says Moorhead. “A whole series of things are coming together, which is being accelerated by the need to limit human to human contact.”

The digital ticketing project made use of components and programming practices that can be built upon and reused, he says. “Now we have a fast way to integrate, so we can focus on issues brought up by Covid-19.”

One of the new integration projects is being driven by the need to replace the APIs that tell passengers if their train service has been disrupted. “We can give people the information they need and connect to rail timetables,” says Moorhead. This will enable information such as alternative services to be presented in an easily accessible way that can be used by both consumers and businesses, he adds.

“My interest is to deliver to customers services that run once across the industry, such as rail enquiries, journey planning, railcard purchases and seat reservations,” he says.

Later this year, the Rail Delivery Group will have a new reservation system in place, says Moorhead. “We will have a core back-end SaaS [software as a service] reservation system that connects through APIs.”

Read more about rail technology

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In Moorhead’s experience, the coronavirus pandemic has shown that there is now an appetite to bring people back to the rail network and promote smart ticketing, and there has been a definite shift in the general attitude to technology-led change. “I love it that I have had a conversation with business colleagues, and they are now repeating back what I have been saying,” he says. “It speeds up work.”

But the rail industry does not move very quickly – there is a long tail of commercial contracts that will need to be unpicked. “When we procure new trains or services, they need to last 10 years,” says Moorhead.

Open access to rail data

Nevertheless, he sees huge opportunities in opening up APIs, given the wealth of train telemetry and station escalator data that can be tapped into.

Moorhead sits on the Rail Data Council, a group comprising Network Rail and train operators, which, he says, aims to raise the bar on data access, rather than build barriers to data. Among the roles of the Rail Delivery Network is to issue and publish standards, he says, adding: “Part of our agenda is to create a platform approach for ticketing.” 

Inspired by the airline industry, which has established global data standards, Moorhead would like to see the Rail Delivery Group’s API strategy evolve to support a rail data marketplace, offering participants a standard way to connect to open data. “This will speed up the integration of new entrants to the industry,” he says.

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