Along for the Ride
Team e-motion on the Eurostar
I’ve been following HackTrain with interest throughout my entire time at Railway-News. Their aim is to bring innovation into the rail industry and reduce barriers to innovation so that good ideas and solutions can be implemented, and in a sensible time frame too. This is vital not just for keeping customers happy and operations running smoothly but also for keeping rail as a transport option viable for the future.
This year’s HackTrain hackathon is bigger than ever as it got off to a bang at London’s St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. The hackers who made the cut attended the pre-launch during which the industry members supporting the event delivered their challenges and data sets to the participants. These sponsors included many big names such as the UK’s Department for Transport, Transport for London, BAI Communications, Angel Trains, Nomad Digital, Arriva, SNCF, Eurostar and EY. The approach is simple: the sponsors tell the hackers the key problem areas in their industry and then ask them to come up with solutions. The ideas get developed and refined over the weekend until all of the teams pitch their events to a panel of judges on Sunday and a winner is chosen.
Last year, teams were divided up into three trains with different subject areas (e.g. customer experience), all of which were in the UK. This year, HackTrain 3.0 has a UK train and an EU train and later in the month there will even be a separate HackTrain in Hong Kong!
To learn a bit more about the process, rather than just showing up to the launch and the finals in London, I’ve come along on the HackTrain EU.
After the keynote speeches at the launch event, after the pizza and drinks and after the initial ideas were pitched and teams were formed, we boarded the Eurostar to Paris and the teams immediately got to work focusing and developing their ideas. A rumour went around to everyone’s amusement that the HackTrainUK team was actually on a replacement bus service. Apparently that wasn’t true. Spirits were lifted by the copious supplies of food and drink and the inevitable banter and waving of lightsabers. Lightsabers, as it turns out, aren’t just great for a photo op, they’re also massively useful as a literal guiding light when you’ve got a large group of people all following someone to a destination in a busy city in the dark. Maybe city guides quite generally could pick up this idea? In any case, we all arrived safe and sound in the hotel, where opinions broadly fell into two camps about what to do next: either “bed! Definitely, definitely bed!” (fearing the 6.15am wake-up call) and “sleep, who needs sleep?!”. Apparently the French say ‘dormir c’est pour les faibles’. Some brave souls therefore took a late night trip to the Eiffel Tower.
By the morning, caffeine was much in demand. The mission for day 2: take the TGV to Lyon and spend the day hacking in a co-working space. People immediately got to work with a match of table tennis. Others played with drones. An hour later, HackTrain’s Chris announced ‘we’re trying to communicate with you through snacks’ – a much-welcomed idea, but he quickly corrected himself ‘Slack! We’re trying to communicate with you through Slack’.
Also on this trip were around ten mentors – industry experts who were there to advise the teams on their developments and pitches. Throughout the day they helped and encouraged the teams along the way until late that night, when they staged a ‘Dragons’ Den’, the dress rehearsal where the teams could try out their pitch and get some final suggestions. By day 3, everyone realised it was in fact possible to be even more tired. But then, back on the train to London, if there is no wifi, that’s the time to sleep!
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