Digitalisation of the railways offers huge potential for passenger growth – and with it opportunities for suppliers, says Roger Williams

With many airlines battling to find additional runway capacity at overcrowded airports, Europe’s railways believe they can double intercity passengers by 2030. Such massive growth is being made possible by ERTMS (the European Rail Traffic Management System), closing gaps between trains and optimising track speeds.

This massive growth in customers has enormous potential for caterers and hospitality providers, as well as significant challenges – the answer to which is undoubtedly digitalisation of customer interfaces and automation of processes. It’s an opportunity for tech suppliers too, as rail caterers look for systems that help them cope with rising demand.

At a recent Digital Rail Revolution conference in Paris, Jenny Gejke, head of Digital Channels at Swedish Railways (SJ), said: “Digitalisation is disrupting the travel experience for the better, and we can learn about what works for the airline industry and apply positive solutions to our trains.”
However, identifying which digital disruptors are the ‘must haves’ while avoiding the ‘white elephants’ is vital if you are going to generate the best return on your investment.

Digital analysis

As consumers are switching to apps to browse, book and buy, my consultancy, Explore Catering, took a look at the types of technological sophistication onboard service providers might prioritise in the years ahead.

Understanding user behaviour

They say ‘feedback is the breakfast of champions’ so giving your customers a digital, user-friendly way to detail their ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ is a smart move. It brings understanding of their emotional hooks and can help shape future service offers.

Consider pushing QRS’s (Quick Response Surveys) directly to your pre-registered customers’ smart devices. Collect and feed qualitative behaviour data into your service delivery review process, either singularly or as part of a customer panel programme. Use an app with notifications prompting a response, or simply send an email link. Digital analytics partners such as Verve and Further, who work with Virgin Atlantic, research in this way following customer bookings.

Open data transfers

All rail customers have one thing in common – they need a ticket. Many railways are moving to mobile ticketing and caterers should consider ways to link advance food purchases to ticketing through train companies (or third-party online ticket agents).

This increases sales opportunities before travel, helps adapt to demand fluctuations and target special offers. Links to travel reward schemes also offer similar opportunities.

Onboard offers

Use digital menus either online, via an app or onboard screens, to adapt pricing and match demand, stock availability and time of day. Offer non-food and drink ancillary revenue opportunities such as tickets for major attractions via your EPoS or app.

Early results of ‘at-seat delivery’ apps are showing increased revenues. Including incentives for certain purchases (for example, gifts for home delivery), means you can see how your passengers react to each different stimulus and design future offers accordingly.

Automated logistics

‘Real time’ warehouse management means every sale, whether online or onboard, can create a virtual order for replacement stock, instantly defining demand from production kitchens, warehouses and suppliers.

Consider how digitalisation can also help automate other supply and logistics processes, such as staff scheduling; matching goods-in with ‘FIFO’ warehouse space allocation; harmonising train-side deliveries with train ID systems; linking client invoicing direct to onboard scans confirming delivery receipt; and joining product lifecycle and waste tracking with recycling, redundant stock management and product development.

Harvesting data from these and similar activities will help leverage cost efficiencies, measure performance and manage accurate and meaningful KPIs, both internally and with clients.

Staff support

Apps designed for training staff online, using instructional video streaming, can help inform and ‘up-skill’ employees, simultaneously providing training records and compliance.
Benefits include reduced training resources, fewer courses taking staff away from frontline duties, and brand standards that are more easily maintained. This is being used in Poland by WARS and other companies will follow.

Cyber security

Security of any digital system is critical to protect data and avoid business disruption. Build in back-ups and security systems, business continuity planning, maintenance, licensing and upgrades to reduce risk. Working with the right partners from the start will ensure the right fit for your needs and best value for money.

In short, embrace the right digital technology, engage customers, staff, suppliers and clients through intuitive interfaces and the future success of catering and hospitality in rail seems assured.