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How Two Queensland Students Helped Build a Journey Planning Algorithm That Outsmarts Google

Following SilverRail’s acquisition of Jeppesen’s Brisbane-based Journey Planning platform in 2013, our team ‘Down Under’ continues to enjoy the city’s bustling atmosphere and maintains strong ties with many of the founding members who helped to drive the area’s thriving technology scene.

Today, our Brisbane office is home to over 22 SilverRailers and serves as a hotbed for emerging talent across the state. Not only are we passionate about the opportunity to make rail and other ground transportation easy through innovative software solutions, but we’re also committed to identifying the next generation of engineering talent who have big ideas about the future of mobility.

One such example is our longstanding affiliation with the University of Queensland. Our annual internship programme invites burgeoning software engineers and mathematical maestros to apply for an intensive eight-week internship programme that focuses on solving real-world problems — providing the perfect springboard for a career in software development.

SilverRail’s University of Queensland Internship Programme

For the last seven years, SilverRail’s collaboration with the University of Queensland has seen some of the brightest young minds apply their theoretical skills to complex technical challenges.

From creating a Java programme and accompanying app in 2018 that tackled London’s Tourist Trip Design Problem (TTDP) to improving the performance of an intensive data processing procedure in 2020 that reduced SilverRail’s running costs, our interns continue to enrich our product innovations with fresh thinking and novel approaches.

For our 2021-2022 cohort, we were delighted to welcome University of Queensland students, Emily Jones, studying Mathematics and Samuel Jacobi, studying Computer Science with Maths. Throughout the process, Emily and Samuel received ongoing mentorship from SilverRail engineers, first-hand training across a suite of industry tools, and the opportunity to pitch their findings in front of C-level decision-makers.

What Were Emily & Samuel Working On?

While many internship programmes have earned the reputation of doing little more than honing an intern’s tea-making skills or finessing their photocopying prowess, an internship at SilverRail brings a whole new level of intensity and responsibility to the table.

After welcoming Emily and Samuel to the team and taking some time to understand their skills and interests, the Brisbane team got to work on setting their assignment. As part of the team’s mission to change the way people move through innovative search and journey planning products, the brief was to help the existing team improve the efficiency of one of SilverRail’s existing algorithms (KPaths) and to develop elegant solutions to provide end-users with optimised route recommendations.

With KPaths being a powerful asset in SilverRail’s tech stack, we were excited to give Emily and Samuel the opportunity to apply some lateral thinking to a real-world use case and inject some fresh ideas as to how we can refine end-user experiences. Their contribution to the Brisbane team’s search and journey planning technology plays a pivotal role in SilverRail’s wider company mission: to change the way people move through brilliant products that make rail and other ground transportation easy.

What Did They Discover?

After eight weeks of number crunching, scribbling on the backs of napkins and plenty of head-scratching, the Brisbane team cracked it.

While there’s never a final solution to a problem of this nature, we were blown away by Emily and Samuel’s contribution and their ability to understand the nuances of the challenges at stake.

Specifically, they worked on defining query attributes such as “reasonableness”, “desirability” and “diversity” to assess how the existing algorithm (and competitor algorithms) could filter route options to provide the most relevant results to end-users. This ability to combine technical capabilities with a practical understanding of how users might interact with the output data is extremely rare. This is a trait that we value enormously at SilverRail.

A particularly notable discovery was the relationship between slack time and the desirability of a route — where slack time describes the amount of time allowed for journeys to arrive after the earliest arrival time, whilst desirability is calculated using the following equation:

As shown in the graph below, desirability initially increased dramatically with slack because we were able to find more than one good journey that arrived after the earliest arrival time. However, as slack passed a certain point, desirability started to decrease because the algorithm generated lots of possible results for a narrow range of modal routes — providing passengers with a less diverse selection of journey options.

From this graph, we deduced that a slack value of 30-120 minutes will help to maximise desirability.

Emily and Samuel also demonstrated strong collaboration skills when they encountered a difference in opinion as to what approach they should use to adapt the existing ​​KPaths algorithm. While many engineers would see this as a cue to part ways and prove they know best, they chose to join forces by testing both models against each other and pushing one another to maximise the efficiency of each model.

When asked about his experience of working with Emily, Samuel said the following:

“I think we worked great together, and it was good to have someone closer to my skill and experience level to share ideas with and get a sense of how multiple people can collaborate on a single project. It was also relieving to have someone equally baffled as me when we came across especially confusing or challenging problems.”

Emily also shared the following reflections:

“The best part of my internship with SRT was being able to be creative and come up with novel algorithmic approaches to solve a problem. It was a great experience, and it was excellent to have Sam as a peer intern who had skills that complimented mine. I immensely enjoyed having some of my mathematics background and programming experience converge and to learn and evolve as the weeks went by.”

Following several iterations and testing phases, the final results compared a ‘Radius Approach’ which prefiltered results by duration, the number of legs and minutes spent walking and a ‘Transport Mode Approach’ which used a grouping algorithm based on the types of transport used on a given route, against our existing KPaths algorithm.

To our delight, both approaches produced significantly better coverage results than the existing algorithm and, perhaps more impressively, showed a greater result for “desirability” than Google Maps. In this instance, “desirability” is a measure of how much journeys differ from each other — scaled accordingly to incorporate the number of options available in the returned query (see below).

While it’s still early days and more testing is needed to understand user preferences and qualify these assumptions in practice, the SilverRail team were delighted with Emily and Samuel’s input and the personal growth they each demonstrated in just eight weeks.

On top of the clear technical accomplishments of the 2021-2022 programme, Samuel also offered the following words about his first experience of life at SilverRail:

“The best part of the internship has been the people already working at SilverRail. It’s amazing how friendly and helpful everyone has been, particularly how much interest some had taken towards our project. Both of us were new to programming in C# and tackling problems like this so it was fantastic that so many people were willing to help and sit down with us for an hour while we brainstormed solutions and dug through code to find a way around a problem.”

What Happened Next?

So, what happens when two switched-on students take on the challenge of reworking a tried and tested algorithm from a global rail tech company and help them find a solution that has the potential to outsmart Google?

Well, you hire them, of course!

After successfully embedding themselves into SilverRail’s Brisbane team, we are delighted to announce that we have offered them both full-time engineering positions. We loved their can-do attitude and their ability to translate complex problems into elegant solutions that can change the way people move.

Welcome to the team.


Want to help us change the way people move?

We’re always looking for talented people who share our vision for the future of travel. We’re also a remote and flexible employer.

See our open roles and apply here.

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knowledge

Making it easier to book international rail tickets for Nordic clients

Today, we’re excited to announce some product updates that help our Nordic clients sell international rail tickets more easily.

Throughout Europe, international rail travel is having a renaissance. Last year, SJ and Snälltåget, two Swedish rail carriers, launched direct services to Germany, whilst several other rail operators have for the first time in decades, resumed crossborder night trains. Moreover, as rail continues to liberalise, travellers should be able to get even more options to take trains to other countries.

Our mission here at SilverRail is to make rail easy for carriers, agencies and travellers, so given the surging interest in international rail travel, we’re delighted to have launched some platform enhancements that make it even easier for agencies to sell international rail tickets. 

Firstly, travel agents that use Linkonline, will be able to book international rail using the same flow that they use today for domestic bookings. Prices for international tickets, both for IRT and NRT fares, are also now visible in the timetable interface, aligning with how ticket prices are displayed for Swedish carriers.

Secondly, travel agents that use our Sales API will be able to book international rail using the same easy price query in our API that they use for domestic bookings. This makes the integration easier, with only one API call to receive prices for international tickets.

These changes are part of an ongoing investment in Distribution+, our next-generation content platform, maintaining our long-standing commitment to improving the travel ecosystem within Sweden. 

“This is a positive step forward in our mission to make rail easy. The new feature we’ve released today removes the friction for our customers when they’re selling international rail tickets either through Linkonline or our Sales API. It’s part of a set of product enhancements we’re making as part of the wider Distribution+ investment”

Håkan Augustsén, Head of Portfolio Management

So, if you are a travel agency that wants to sell rail easily, get in touch. You’ll be joining over 300 retailers who use our products every day.

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IWD #breakthebias

Today we celebrate International Women’s day, a day to recognise the great achievements of women around the world, past and present.

At SilverRail we believe in true equality and inclusion, ensuring each and every individual is recognised, heard and supported to attain greatness!

We asked some of the women powering rail at SilverRail a bit about what International Women’s day means to them and how society can continue to #breakthebias.

Here’s what they had to say:

For me, International Women’s Day is about recognising and celebrating the achievements of women around the world, not just the big wins that we hear about in the media etc but also the small achievements in our everyday lives. It is also about recognising that we still have a way to go, and we need to raise awareness about the benefits of equality, inclusivity and diversity in our ever-changing world.

Lucy Quinn, Manager of Financial Control

I think it is important to acknowledge that bias is part of our humane experience and we all have it to some extent. Starting with the self, usually works. When it comes to bias or any other form of antagonism, I learned that staying away from the “other” and focusing on the self tends to work.

Roxana Diaconescu, CTO

We should be proud of our identity and never be afraid to own it, instead embrace it with confidence and courage.
I strongly believe it should start from the roots. Educating children on gender equality and rights plays a major role in building the future generations. Always encourage the girls to be bold, independent and take risks.
Build an inclusive work environment where women are not afraid to speak their mind.
Inspire and celebrate each other – when women support each other incredible things happen.

Prathyusha Vemu, Quality Engineer

When my grandmother, born in 1916, participated in cycling competitions as a 20- year-old, many were horrified that she had trousers and a bicycle with a buck handlebar instead of a skirt and a regular women’s bicycle. She was a fantastic, stubborn and curious woman and didn´t let anything stop her! 

She was also one of the few female taxidrivers in Stockholm in the 1950’s, how cool is that!

Linda Branäng, Portfolio Manager

My favourite quotes that represent female empowerment are; “Feminism isn’t about making women strong. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.” – G.D. Anderson.

“Be the woman who fixes another woman’s crown without telling the world it was crooked”

Juliette Thorpe, Senior Director Commercial

By continuing to challenge gender stereotypes, discrimination and keep speaking up. Remember that it’s ok to take up space and have a voice. Differences should be celebrated, valued and be appreciated.

Harriet Berwick, Senior UK Product Manager

We are incredibly proud and inspired by all the strong, resilient and powerful women working at SilverRail!

To join our great team, check out our latest openings here.

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SilverRail is Climate Positive

We are happy to announce our partnership with Trace, a leading app that helps businesses on their journey to net zero.

After measuring our company’s carbon footprint (106.5 tCO2), Trace are helping us reduce & offset our emissions through handpicked climate projects.

You can see the projects we’re funding here, including Rimba Raya Peatlands Conservation in Indonesia; more efficient cookstoves in Nepal; and an initiative in Thailand that makes cement manufacturing more sustainable.

We’ll keep you updated on how we’re getting on!

If you want to measure and reduce your own climate footprint, visit Trace.