In March last year River Baig and Alejandro Saucedo wondered if they could run a 48 hour hackathon on a train through the UK. “We started this just for fun,” says Baig. “We didn’t have a desire to turn it into what this is now.”
What it is now is a three month accelerator for startups looking to solve major issues that the UK’s constantly under-fire rail industry faces. They clearly hit a nerve: five of the six big rail operators in the UK invested in HackTrain.
Great Western Railways, Stagecoach, Arriva, Go Ahead and National Express all want to see if HackTrain and its cohort of ten startups can solve the sort of problems they have been wrestling with for decades: overcrowding, ticketing, delays and staffing.
Sat on beanbags in the HackTrain offices, a large corner of the trendy WeWork Old Street shared office space building, Techworld.com spoke to founder River Baig as HackTrain reaches the halfway mark, to discuss the current crop of startups and the big problems they are looking to solve for the UK rail industry.
What is HackTrain?
Baig started out by saying how pleasantly surprised he has been by the reaction of the rail companies to HackTrain. “They want to make a difference. They realise that they have lots of problems. They’ve tried to solve these problems in the past and haven’t been successful so they are looking for new options, and this is why they are so interested in us.”
“The way we’ve selected the teams is around solving problems the industry faces. So it’s not about selecting the next big social media train app, or dating apps for trains, but the types of companies that are solving critical problems that the train operators face.”
One of the major issues for the rail companies has been overcrowding. Major commuter stations like London Bridge and Waterloo have been bearing the brunt of customer complaints and bad press for some time now, and the rail companies seem no closer to a viable solution.
HackTrain incumbent Vivacity Labs is a group of Cambridge graduates with a unique piece of hardware. Their cameras have on-board video analytics capabilities which gives real-time data on the population density and flow within a given space - say, a train station concourse.
Baig explains the importance of this being in real time: “There are technologies like this around the world, where the camera scans an area and knows what is happening. However, the camera sends that information to a central server and then processes it. That is not real time, so the best they can do is around fifteen minutes accuracy in terms of delay.”
The way train companies can use this information is: “They can know exactly how busy or how empty a station is on the fly. They can also calculate congestion on carriages and relay that information back to the train company, or even ourselves through some form of mobile app. So before you get on the train you could see what is and is not busy.”
Baig says that HackTrain and Vivacity Labs have submitted a proposal to London Bridge station already to help them deal with severe congestion issues while renovation works occur.
If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to have to request a refund because your train was delayed by more than thirty minutes, you will know how old-fashioned the process seems.
Baig laid it out for us: “You physically submit your tickets to some random office in Plymouth where staff physically write down what tickets you have, add it to a spreadsheet, scan those tickets, add the scan to the spreadsheet, send this to finance and then finance makes that payment. So they’re slow because they have very inefficient methods.”
HackTrain incumbent Ticket is a two-man startup which allows passengers to claim delay repayments from train companies in under a minute simply by scanning their ticket, instead of the usual four to eight weeks. Baig says four out of five of the train companies he works with want to use this product and are already in active trials with the platform.
It may not be a sexy issue for a startup to take on, but bad staff management can cost rail companies huge amounts of money.
Baig puts it in terms any rail customer can understand: “Have you ever been on a train, or are about to get on a train, and they suddenly say it is cancelled because of staffing issues? That’s because they can’t find a driver. The reason they can’t find a driver is because they haven’t done their staffing rota effectively to be able to know when a driver is needed. It’s not even the driver has called in sick, they just haven’t done the rota effectively.”
HackTrain incumbent Sirenum is solving this specific problem: “It’s very simple,” says Baig. “They have an online tool. You enter the data about your staff: this is the driver, these are the routes they are qualified to run on and you enter their rota in terms of their schedule and how many hours they can do and it calculates what is the optimal and effective rota for them.”
Sirenum has been working with Great Western Railway (GWR) already to trial it in one of their depots. “So it’s not running on all the trains on the GWR network,” Baig says, “but it has already saved them £60,000 a year in efficiency.” Apparently GWR are already looking at rolling the software out across another eight depots with a view to going network-wide.
Another way of solving the overcrowding issue is through better crowd management and route-finding within stations, and this is where HackTrain’s Pointr comes in.
As Baig puts it, a lot of the issues the train companies are facing don’t have to be infrastructure-related: “It’s not about buying more trains, or building new stations but about using new software to solve problems.”
Pointr is slightly more mature than some of the HackTrain companies having already been implemented by three major airports, but it has its eye on the rail industry and HackTrain holds the keys.
Then there is i.geolise, which Baig sums up by saying: “What they have essentially done is map where you can get to in a certain area by time not distance. What these guys have done is map how long it will take you to get somewhere based on all of the public transport routes. What that allows you to do is have a much more accurate analysis of where you can get in that timeframe.”
Train companies could integrate this into their website to promote UK breaks and for more integrated directions in cities once a passenger has arrived.
Unfortunately for all of us HackTrain won’t be solving the biggest issue plaguing the UK rail network: train delays.
“That is an infrastructure problem which is more Network Rail than the train companies,” says Baig. “It’s something I would love to solve, and it’s not impossible, but we need to work with Network Rail on that one and Network Rail is an extremely hard beast to work with.”
Baig admits that as he reaches the second half of the accelerator programme he is “starting to sweat a bit.” He is confident in HackTrain’s ability to solve real problems though: “It will work purely because we have these trials agreed, now it’s just the last hurdle, it’s getting it done.”
And what about when it is all over? Baig is fully committed to the HackTrain model and already has his sights set on other problems: “There’s buses, construction, infrastructure, there’s Network Rail. All linked back to rail.”
And if he fails? “If it doesn’t work out I will not ask them for their money again, and figure out a way to make the money myself because I have failed. [The rail companies] know that and appreciate that, they know my life is on the line and Alejandro’s life is on the line.
“Literally if we don’t deliver this, everything we have done for the last year will have been for nothing. They won’t fund us, our brand will die and no one will want to work with us. Which is fine, that’s acceptable.”
The good news is that everyone involved wants HackTrain to be a success. The train companies and consumers would benefit and the startups will find a ready-made customer base. Let’s just hope they can stay on the rails.