The HackTrain Initiative: Driving Rail Industry Innovation
Image courtesy of Naomi Thompson
As Railway-News has reported, this year’s HackTrain took place in London and York on 20–22 Nov. The HackTrain initiative is supported by the private sector as well as government to push forward rail industry innovation. HackTrain’s founders Alejandro Saucedo and River Baig feel the rail industry is an overlooked sector that would hugely benefit from technological advancements to improve the customer experience and the running efficiency of train operating companies (TOCs). HackTrain is also intent on driving policy changes so that the whole industry is more attractive to technology start-ups.
120 software developers and designers participated in the HackTrain event. They were divided into three groups of 40, focusing on data, customer experience and infrastructure. Each group assembled in teams of three or four and took special trains from London to York via different routes during which they brainstormed and developed solutions to the problems given to them by the rail industry at the initial briefing. On the final day of the event all the teams pitched their ideas to the judges in York.
The three top teams of the HackTrain weekend were:
· 1st: Trainlicious
Trainlicious wants to use CCTV footage on trains to solve the problem of uneven passenger distribution within a certain train by displaying a train’s crowdedness on the platform or sending that information straight to smartphones to allow passengers to make better judgements about where to board the train and increase the likelihood of them getting a seat.
· 2nd: Good Things
Good Things wants to focus more on overcrowding on entire trains, rather than on passenger distribution by offering passengers rewards for not getting on busy trains, thereby reducing the number of people travelling at particularly busy times to enhance the customer experience for everyone.
· 3rd: Ticket
It’s confusing sometimes to know what trains your orange ticket is valid for and what ones not. Ticket wants to allow you to scan your ticket at the station or on your smartphone to find out what trains passengers can use.
Trainlicious won tickets to Tech in Asia, Singapore and all three teams won tickets to Smart Rail Europe in Amsterdam in April to present their ideas. The top ten teams also got an additional ten days to refine and perfect their products and ideas before pitching them to the rail industry and standing a chance of winning a place on the HackTrain Accelerator with £25,000 in funding. This accelerator aims to speed up the time it takes tech to go from the drawing board to implementation in the rail industry.
The Post-Hackathon took place on 2 December. The teams who made it were:
· Good Things
· Disruption Feed
· RICCS (Rail Incident Contingency Control System)
The rail industry judges at the event were Iain Roche from HS2, Jacqueline Starr from ATOC, Carmel Roche from SilverRail, Alison Smith from GWR, Stéphanie Rivet from Stagecoach Group and Thomas Ableman from Chiltern Railways. Each team had four minutes to pitch their idea and then the judges had two minutes to ask some probing questions.
4th place was announced by Thomas Ableman and went to RICCS, whose aim was to use maths to solve the problem of disruption and get trains running on schedule as quickly as possible again after a disruption. The problem is that disruptions are currently dealt with manually and this is time-consuming, whereas if software were used to calculate the most efficient solutions, time delays and therefore costs would be lowered dramatically. The reason RICCS placed fourth, said the judges, was because their project was hugely ambitious, probably more ambitious than they realised. However, Chiltern Railways invited the team to come and learn with them to see if they could then move forward with their project.
3rd place was announced by Jacqueline Starr and went to Ticket, while 2nd place was announced by Stéphanie Rivet and went to Trainlicious, the winners of the HackTrain weekend.
1st place was announced by Alison Smith and went to Disruption Feed. The team’s central point was that the posters that are made available to passengers to inform them of disruptions are awful and that getting any information out of them is nigh on impossible. They wanted to give customers very simple, visual information about where disruptions are taking place and when. They wanted to do this via intuitive, clear monitors and also provide the option of having a calendar feed, so that passengers could automatically see disruptions in their calendars on their smartphones. When it came to the judges’ questions, Chiltern Railways Commercial Director Thomas Ableman said:
“I don’t have a question, I just want to apologise on behalf of the rail industry.”
Railway-News chatted with the winning team after the announcement. Team member Patrick Siu explained that what they had won first and foremost was an opportunity. Two of the three team members have full-time jobs and the prize on the HackTrain Accelerator programme is a three-month commitment. The Accelerator would take place in March 2016.
Patrick Siu said that they wanted to take the time between now and then to develop their idea further to see if it was viable and showed economic prospects before committing to the programme and making further career choices. When asked whether they would maybe consider rival offers to develop their product, the team were adamant that HackTrain had been very good to them in their support and in giving them this opportunity so they would remain loyal to HackTrain if they went forward with the development.
The need for supporting start-ups in the rail sector is clear and the HackTrain accelerator isn’t alone in offering such a programme. Deutsche Bahn have had teams pitch their start-up ideas to them and four of the teams have been given €25,000 as well as office space in mindbox Berlin, DB’s very own coworking space. This year’s focus was on business models for infrastructure as well as on new technologies and services. The four winning teams were:
· CHROMOSOME Industrial from Munich who want to connect sensors for the automatic and constant exchange of data.
· eMio Sharing from Berlin, who want to expand DB’s fleet by providing electric scooters.
· Naturtrip.org from Berlin have a new approach to explorative rest and relaxation close to home, offering spontaneous activity plans with dynamic travel route suggestions.
· siut is also from Berlin promises a wide variety of applications for DB with their innovative fibre light concrete.
As is the case with the HackTrain Accelerator, the winning teams don’t just get funding, they get access to mentors. The Deutsche Bahn accelerator will start on 15 January. DB is continuing its collaboration with two start-ups from its previous accelerator programme: KONUX, who’re developing a sensor solution that provides real-time information about the condition of the tracks, and senvisys, which uses sensors like an ‘ear on the tracks’ to detect objects on the tracks.
In many ways the railways are associated in our minds with the Victorian age, with steam, industrialisation and heavy industry. However, in the current climate it is becoming increasingly obvious that we need to protect our planet from global warming and rail travel stands out as being the most environmentally-friendly, future-proof transport option. Programmes such as HackTrain and DB’s Accelerator play a vital part in moving our railways into modernity, making them user-friendly, efficient and green so they can fully seize their opportunity of positioning themselves as the 21st century choice.
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