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CIO interview: Neil Roberts, head of digital, Eurostar

Eurostar’s head of digital talks about the benefits of bringing development in-house, Wi-Fi headaches and on-board entertainment

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At Eurostar’s head office, conveniently located less than a minute’s walk from King’s Cross St Pancras Station, head of digital Neil Roberts is busy improving the customer experience.

Over the last 18 months, the train company has made a lot of changes. It has launched mobile apps and created an onboard entertainment system, letting travellers watch films and TV shows during their journey.

One of the biggest changes, however, has been bringing development in-house, which Roberts says has made a huge difference to the speed of developing new services.

“We needed to have some more control over what we do. If you're working with a third party, every time you change your mind you need to put in a change request and all that sort of stuff.,” he says.

“Now we just walk over to the other side of the office.”

Three years ago, Eurostar launched its new website and rebuilt its infrastructure, followed by a mobile site the year after. The team is busy building yet another website to replace the two currently in use.

“I like to think of it as a stretchy website – at least that’s the phrase I use to explain it to my boss,” Roberts says.

“We’re re-factoring the underlying infrastructure, separating and rebuilding some of the services. We’re also re-doing the presentation layer to make it responsive, so it’ll be one interface that adapts to the device you’re using.”

Although the initial design work was done with an external agency, it’s been migrated to the in-house design team, which is taking those design concepts “and working in an agile method”.

“I expected the challenges with the technology and integration, but what I didn’t expect was not having a licensing model”

Neil Roberts, Eurostar

Roberts says that while the term agile has been used for some time, “we’re now working in a much more agile way than what we called agile last year,” he says.

Being located so close to St Pancras also has its benefits – it’s fairly easy to get quick user research and testing done.

Wi-Fi headache

Under Eurostar’s programme to update its train fleet, it has spent a significant amount of money on its e320 trains on its London-Paris route. As part of the process, the company decided to install entertainment systems on the new trains, giving customers access to Wi-Fi, films, TV shows and games.

“The number one request from customers is Wi-Fi. But Wi-Fi on a train is a real challenge,” Roberts says.  

“A customer goes into a café, spends £2.50 on a coffee and gets free Wi-Fi. Then the customer spends £29 on a train ticket and expects Wi-Fi as well. The difference being the café doesn’t travel at 200mph,” he says.

“Wi-Fi also doesn’t go through tunnels, and there are a lot of tunnels between here and Folkstone. It also doesn’t go under the sea.

“It’s beyond our control, but it doesn’t change the customer experience, so we had to get our creative thinking caps on how we could get the best customer experience and preserve the bandwidth to the people who really needed it.”

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One of the big bandwidth concerns was around video streaming, so providing an on-board entertainment system removed some of the worry, Roberts says.

But Wi-Fi continues to be an issue. With six other European high-speed rail operators, Eurostar is part of the Railteam alliance, where Wi-Fi “is part of the conversation”.

“It needs to improve, so we’re actively working on it, he says and adds that the aim is for Wi-Fi to be improved by the end of the year. 

Mapping the journey

The onboard entertainment system brought up a challenge of its own – one that Roberts didn’t see coming.

“I expected the challenges with the technology and integration, but what I didn’t expect was not having a licensing model – probably the most mundane of things, to potentially cause the project to fail.

“I didn’t expect the television and film licensing to be such a challenge. We are the first international rail company to ever try and do that,” he says.

Having worked out a model, GoMedia provides the entertainment system with films, tv-shows, games and digital newspapers.

“It’s integrated into the Eurostar app as well, so you can view it on your phone or tablet.”

However, the most important feature to customers was having a movable map, akin to what you find on a long-haul flight, Roberts says.

While adding a map might not sound like a problem, it was, as Roberts puts it “a bit of a journey”.

“The first iteration was very much like an airline map,” he says. But as the train went through villages and fields, the map didn’t follow that, which “wasn’t satisfactory”.

Eurostar then decided to partner with Snowdrop – a company that acts as Google Map’s professional services team.

“They worked on our behalf to do a lot of the integration with the onboard system and the app,” Roberts says.

Adopting new technologies

While Roberts is keen to digitise the business, he only wants to introduce digital solutions where it can improve services.

“It’s about removing the default action of ‘here’s some shiny new tech, can we find a problem for it’, and rather to look at the customer journey, identify ways of improvement and use a blended approach,” he says.

“We’re now looking at things like smart watch technology. You might say we’re fairly late to adopt that, but it’s only now watches are becoming more popular and the case for where they can help throughout the service is becoming more obvious.

“We could add in interactions or alerts, like saying the train is on time, or send an alert saying ‘you’re running late, do you want to book on to the next service’.”

At the end of the day, he says, “we’re quite happy to do some experiments with the view of learning whether they work, but it’s really around how it supports the customers”.



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