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Why We Take The Train – Sarah Disborough

How First-Hand Experiences Help Our Product Managers Build Better Solutions

It won’t come as much of a surprise to hear that we are, on the whole, train buffs. Whether it’s taking a trip to York’s National Railway Museum to admire iconic steamers from years gone by or hopping aboard the London Overground for our morning commute to the office, our love for rail sits at the very core of everything we do.

Put simply, we believe the world needs rail. After over a century of commercial planes filling our skies and four-wheeled gas guzzlers jamming our roads, finding greener alternatives that provide passengers with the same sense of freedom and mobility is more important than ever.

With transport accounting for a fifth of global carbon dioxide emissions (75% of which are from road travel and 11.6% from the aviation sector), developing seamless rail solutions that encourage more and more people to take the train will play a critical role towards mitigating the impacts of 1.5 °C warming above pre-industrial levels.

Making Rail Easy Through Product Innovation

While the fundamental DNA of rail travel has remained more or less untouched for the last 200 years (an engine pulls carriages along a track that stops at stations), today’s modern and tech-enabled passenger experiences are unrecognisable when compared to previous decades.

Product innovations that embrace the rise of digital technologies and tackle age-old frustrations provide the modern passenger with unprecedented levels of choice, flexibility and comfort. While the rail sector still has a long way to go, product innovations in the digital age have fundamentally transformed the way we move from A to B and present exciting opportunities for the future of mobility.

At SiverRail, our design philosophy revolves around the idea that you can’t design great products unless you know exactly who they’re for or what challenges you’re trying to solve. We believe the best solutions are passenger-centric, which is why our product team will go out of their way to put themselves in their shoes to build powerful products that bring real value into people’s lives.

Sarah’s Trip to Devon

As part of SilverRail’s commitment to being a Climate Perks accredited employer, we offer our team two additional days of annual leave if they choose to travel on holiday using green rail alternatives over flights or car journeys.

Recently, our Technical Product Manager, Sarah Disborough, opted for a ‘staycation’ instead of jetting overseas to explore the sunny skies and seaside air of Devon. While she would usually make the trip by car and endure the perils of Summer Bank Holiday traffic, this year’s holiday was a much more leisurely affair. After boarding a South Western Railway train from her hometown in Hampshire, she journeyed through the beautiful countryside of Somerset before hopping aboard the Great Western Railway in Exeter to reach the charming seaside town of Paignton.

“While I’ve always enjoyed the freedom and sense of adventure that comes with throwing your bags in the boot and hitting the open road, opting for rail over road opens my eyes to an entirely new perspective of the English countryside. There’s something very relaxing about sitting on a train, staring out of the window, and watching the world go by as you sip on a warm cup of tea. Forget traffic jams or roadworks — taking the train offers a rare opportunity to switch off, unwind and revel in the beauty of nature’s playground.”

– Sarah Disborough, Technical Product Manager at SilverRail

Sarah’s 4 Observations About UK Rail

Following her trip, we sat down with Sarah to hear about her experience with UK rail and understand how it compared to alternative transport options.

Besides her desire to reduce her carbon footprint, she explained the significance of taking the train from a Product Management perspective — noting that unless Product teams have a first-hand appreciation of rail, they will struggle to build practical solutions that address real problems.

Specifically, Sarah’s trip helped her identify four standout pain points that she fears could perturb holidaymakers from embracing the joys of train travel.

Pain Point #1: Luggage Limitations Could Restrict Some Holidaymakers

Sometimes the simplest problems are the most overlooked. In this case, Sarah was surprised by the lack of luggage space for larger suitcases and the difficulty she faced when moving her bags on and off the train. While the airline industry has developed fairly prescribed baggage protocols where customers are advised on size and weight limits ahead of travel and have the option to pay for additional hold luggage, Sarah felt rail’s ad hoc approach to luggage was something that could cause havoc if more and more people vacation by train.

If rail is to be a viable option for a significant proportion of holidaymakers, Sarah explains how passengers would benefit from pre-travel luggage information and a system that guarantees there will be a dedicated space for their luggage.

She also mentioned the possibility of bringing back the old-school luggage carts where passengers leave their bags at a designated point on the platform and bags are loaded onto a dedicated luggage carriage. While this is still a popular option in many countries and on longer routes such as the high speed LNER trip from London Kings Cross to Edinburgh Waverley, the security and safety implications of leaving bags unattended present their own issues. Sarah explains how product innovations that make use of digital labelling systems could help to modernise this age-old approach to luggage haulage and provide a more seamless passenger experience that won’t put your back out!

Pain Point #2: Carbon Calculators Need to Be More Sophisticated

With reducing her carbon footprint being her main motivator for taking to train, Sarah was frustrated to discover that existing carbon calculators overlook a number of fairly critical factors and use relatively crude estimates that significantly distort the accuracy of her calculations.

Namely, she noticed that when comparing the carbon efficiency of her train route against her usual car journey, the distance used for the car calculation used the exact same route as the train. In reality, however, she explains how the rail route was significantly longer as she had to take a detour towards London before catching her westbound train to Exeter. Going one step further, she also identified a lack of transparency about train types and their associated carbon emissions per kilometre. Similarly, the carbon calculation for road routes failed to consider variables such as car type, traffic levels, and fuel consumption associated with different speed limits.

Interestingly, Sarah’s trip to Devon gave her an opportunity to improvise with various carbon calculators and scribble her own calculations on the back of her ticket to generate a more sophisticated estimate. She notes how this creative process of identifying a technical challenge and using out-of-the-box thinking to find DIY solutions is often the birthplace of pioneering product innovations. The clever bit involves translating and distilling complex methodologies into highly-accessible and digestible solutions that make people’s lives easier.

Pain Point #3: Multimodal Journey Planners Need to “Talk to Each Other”

Possibly the biggest differentiator between trains and roads is the fact that trains stop at stations but cars, buses, bikes and scooters can stop wherever they like along a route. With this in mind, almost all train journeys will require some form of road-related travel to connect passengers to their departure point and final destination.

In Sarah’s case, a seamless door-to-door experience was particularly important given the 25kg bag she was carrying around. After juggling one app for bus timetables, another to plan her train route and a third to avoid delays on her way towards London, she feels there should be more connectivity between various journey planners to provide a seamless and headache-free multimodal experience.

Pain Point #4: Carriage Information Is Sometimes Inadequate

Sarah believes improving information transparency is the first step towards shifting public attitudes in favour of rail. Whether it’s providing detailed carriage floor plans to help passengers find their seat or providing pre-travel information about WC facilities, food and drink availability, or charging stations, the more information passengers have about their upcoming journey, the more comfortable they will feel.

Following her trip to Devon, Sarah reflected on the significance of providing passengers with reassurance and the value of information transparency to combat uncertainty. As more and more passengers turn to digital route planners and ticketing apps over platform announcements or printed schedules, the opportunity for rail operators to transmit useful information to customers before, during, and after their journey could unlock a host of exciting benefits that enrich passenger experiences.

Making Rail Easy

Here at SilverRail, our Product teams are constantly working to identify friction points between a passenger leaving their front door and arriving safely at their final destination. Sarah’s story is just one of many that contributes to our ongoing product development pipeline and mission to develop smooth door-to-door rail solutions.

Despite handling over 2 Billion rail searches, processing over 25 Million rail bookings, and saving over 1.9 Million tonnes of CO2 emissions every year, we have no intention of slowing down any time soon. We’re committed to enhancing our existing rail solutions and learning from our first-hand experiences to push for pioneering product innovations that make rail easy.

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