If there’s one word which divides the rail industry, it’s innovation. Some will argue that the UK’s railways are the most innovative in the world while others will tell you that we still have a long way to go.

Increasingly, the industry is waking up to the fact that innovation is critical to any improvement in customer experience or operational efficiency. It’s no surprise, then, that activities around innovation are attracting more funding from the train operating companies than ever before.

It’s important to remember, though, that an increase in funding can only go so far if projects are not suitably ambitious. Innovation should mean constantly striving for the next big breakthrough, not simply settling for playing catch-up. We should lead the world.

This approach is what made the UK the birthplace of the railways all those years ago. Rail was one of the original disruptive technologies, changing the way that people thought about both passenger and commercial transport. The rail network would go on to open up the country and introduce a new freedom of movement that would later be outgrown by the widespread adoption of cars and lorries.

Today’s technology

Similar revolutions are taking place today. However, many are now being fuelled by clever software, big data, and increasingly intelligent sensors. A prime example is probably sitting in your pocket right now. Phones have developed to the point where people have immediate access to the extent of humanity’s knowledge in seconds.


Technology is also disrupting industries that previously seemed far too regulated to ever adapt to new and innovative solutions. The huge expansion of FinTech and companies such as PayPal and TransferWise has shown that even an industry as highly regulated as the banking and financial services sector can make use of new technology to improve internal efficiency and the customer experience. If technology and innovation can disrupt the banking industry in less than a decade, just imagine what it could do for the UK’s railways.

Much like everyone who travels by train regularly, we at HackTrain want customer service and efficiency to improve. It’s something that we are incredibly passionate about and why we are so driven and motivated to play our part in making the UK the world’s hub for RailTech. By RailTech, we mean any use of new technology to inject innovation into the UK’s rail industry, whether it’s applied to how train stock is managed, how customers buy and use tickets, or how passengers are efficiently managed while at stations.

It’s not enough to just want RailTech or to crave innovation. We have to do something about it. That’s why we launched HackTrain, a movement bringing the rail industry together for a common purpose, to fundamentally improve customer experience and operational efficiency. This was kicked off with last year’s HackTrain hackathon – where we challenged a selection of the world’s best software developers and data analysts to solve some of the rail industry’s biggest challenges. We wanted to see what would happen when the world’s best problem solvers turned their attention to seemingly unsurmountable issues. The results were impressive to say the least, with technology being built in 48-hours that the industry has spent two decades wishing existed.

We are keeping up the momentum we’ve created with the launch of our HackTrain Accelerator, a programme that nurtures early-stage technology companies, helping them introduce their products and services to the market. Working together in our new RailTech Hub in London, these teams will collaborate, develop their ideas and get them into the hands of customers faster than ever before.

The programme is supported by five major owning groups: GWR, Arriva, National Express, Go-Ahead and Stagecoach; and top level service partners including EY, Osborne Clarke, BAE Systems and the Novacroft Group. These relationships are critical for the success of our companies. If they come across a specific problem which might otherwise block a project for months, our teams will be able to get help and advice almost instantly from industry leaders at all points in the supply chain.


Speedy implementation

Crucially, we’ve identified that one of the biggest barriers to innovation in rail is lengthy procurement cycles. Our teams need to test their new products quickly by getting them into the hands of drivers, passengers, station managers or engineers. Only then can they get the feedback they need to refine and improve their product. It’s for this reason that we’ve partnered with Osborne Clarke to create a new innovation procurement framework that any train operating company can use to trial new products and services faster. It’s this speed that allows mobile and FinTech businesses to innovate so quickly and it’s this speed which will make RailTech a success.

The HackTrain Accelerator will set off a new wave of innovation within the industry as customers will be able to use products much faster than the existing time frame. We have a great collection of driven teams that are passionate about their RailTech ideas, whether it be technology to help customers understand what the orange ticket in their hand actually means, or using existing CCTV infrastructure to create smart queue management at stations for efficient resourcing.

Knowing exactly why innovation in the rail industry has not kept pace with the amazing new developments other industries have seen in the last decade is crucial to our project. Therefore, along with our Accelerator programme, we will be compiling a full report on the barriers to innovation in rail based on our teams’ successes and challenges. Why do so many start-ups who go into the rail industry fail, and why do so many end up selling most of their technology overseas? Why are some people put off working in the rail industry and how can we change this? Why is innovation sometimes blocked within some rail companies, despite the enthusiasm and investment which clearly exists?

RailTech isn’t just a short-term project or a buzzword for your next meeting. It’s what is going to make the UK’s railways the best in the world, creating new products and solutions that both passengers and the industry will love.

Written by River Tamoor-Baig, co-founder of HackTrain.