A three-month trial at Birmingham New Street Station involving the Department for Transport (DfT) the Transport Systems Catapult (TSC) and SME ‘ChargeBox’ is addressing the problem of low battery anxiety, through the provision of free to use charge stations on the main concourse and waiting lounges. Beyond the trial it is hoped the project will have provided stations with a low-cost solution aimed at enhancing customer experience and supporting digital services.
In this blog, senior technologist Kristoff van Leeuwen discusses the thinking behind this project and its implications for the transport industry.
Take a cursory glance around any busy train carriage or waiting lounge and you will immediately be able to identify the impact the smartphone has had on our lives. Whether it is for news, directions, entertainment or keeping in touch with friends and loved ones, this technology is now an integral part of our lives, and our travel experience.
OfCom now say that smartphones have overtaken laptops as the UK internet user’s number one device. The TSC’s recent research suggested that there is a 72% penetration of smart phones amongst transport users and that 54% consider it an essential part of their travel experience. We spend two hours on the internet on our smartphones a day. For many who commute on public transport, a significant proportion of this screen time will take place whilst they travel.
Smart phone technology is becoming an integral part of the transport network and is seen by many as the future of customer experience and transport management. Furthermore, thanks to the likes of Uber, Google maps and mobile ticketing, consumers are expecting transport to be accessible or supported by their smartphone. For travellers who can now stream HD movies to their phone from onboard train entertainment centres it is not an unreasonable expectation to be supplied with power to do so.
The transport industry is embracing this digital revolution. Train operators are increasingly focused on digital ticketing systems as a means to provide a more efficient service and thousands of smartphone applications exist to do everything from purchasing tickets and route planning to providing tourism and shopping advice on the go.
Meanwhile, the industry has noticed the potential for data from mobile phone users in managing capacity and design challenges to create new solutions to improve efficiency.
But an increasing reliance on smartphone technology, both from suppliers and customers, to achieve a transport service which meets the demands of the internet age customer experiences brings with it new issues and risks.
Whilst working on this project I came across the concept of “Nomophobia”, a recent phenomenon pertaining to the anxiety people get when their phone runs out of charge. It’s a curiously modern problem which seems like it might tell us more about modern society than it does transport, but for transport providers, this presents a simple, but real problem. What happens to the travel experience if customers cannot access the smartphone services which you are asking them to rely on? Could a dead battery effectively shut down a traveller, giving them a bad experience?
A solution to help power digital innovation
As part of the TSC’s Station Innovation project we are partnering with Chargebox [https://chargebox.com/], Network Rail and the DfT Station Policy team to install eight charging ‘Qube’ units in four locations at Birmingham New Street. Each unit delivers optimised charging up to eight devices simultaneously, in some cases providing 20-25% battery life in just 15 minutes. ChargeBox are a UK SME who develop all their technology in the UK including telematics and system reporting. The issue we are addressing is a simple one, but one that highlights the need to consider the complete picture when using new technologies to improve travel experiences. Transport solutions cannot be considered in isolation, and must account for the implications and risks of utilising new technologies for the user.
The project will also bring additional benefits, including the collection of anonymous data about the types of devices, how long they are being charged and the charge location. We are also collecting customer experience survey feedback throughout the trial – much of what we have received already has been overwhelmingly positive. All of this will be combined to help the DfT develop further services in the future.
In the first three weeks of the trial, over 26,000 people used the ChargeBox units in Birmingham New Street, a number that highlights the need to have proper solutions in place to address the potential pitfalls of using smartphone technology to deliver transport solutions.
Network rail are also happy with the installation, Michelle Joyce, Stations Customer Experience Manager, said ‘We welcomed the opportunity to host this trial which offers customers an enhanced service while collecting informative data on customer needs. The Station Manager at Birmingham New Street, Patrick Power, is delighted with the positive feedback from customers. ‘
In conclusion, smartphone technology can help us to create a truly Intelligent transport system which can make travelling easier for everyone. However, we need to understand and address the potential limitations around digital infrastructure to ensure that new ways of delivering transport solutions are helpful rather than hindering to the end user.