Transreport, a London-based tech company focused on accessibility, inclusion and democratization of transport services, has released a new app to alleviate the sometimes horrific ordeal of traveling by train as a person with a disability in 2021.
Although this is a significant problem, inaccessible train travel involves far more than an insufficient number of step-less stations for wheelchair access, which include only 59% of the UK rail network according to a study released last year by the charity for the disabled Leonard Cheshire.
The much more onerous and unpredictable challenge faced by passengers with disabilities relates to assisting in boarding and disembarking trains at unmanned stations.
Currently, these represent 90% of the British rail network, with 45% of stations permanently unmanned.
In theory, in this case, the remedy for wheelchair users requiring a boarding ramp, or visually impaired people receiving guided assistance, is for this work to be done by the on-board attendant disembarking from the train to meet the traveler on the Platform.
Unfortunately, requests for assistance, which often have to be pre-booked a day in advance, are routinely dumped by rail operators into a generic staff inbox and buried among all kinds of network announcements ranging from cleaning from wagons to train maintenance.
Due to their urgent nature, these emailed requests for assistance are often missed by train staff, leaving disabled passengers stranded on the platform as the train pulls away. Worse yet, they can also be left on the train as it passes their destination stop.
No wonder, then, that the pre-pandemic research undertaken by a charity for people with disabilities Scope identified that 80% of people with disabilities surveyed said they were afraid of using public transport, with 56% going so far as to say they were “afraid” of traveling.
A smarter system
Through its recently released passenger assistance app, Transreport sought to move the rail industry away from a ’90s-style email-based system to a more streamlined, modern and responsive base using smart technology.
“Passenger Assistance” works the same as Uber, with rail staff and passengers using a separate interface to access the app.
The system offers a myriad of benefits to both parties. First, the app is fully integrated with the unique service code that rail companies apply to scheduled trips.
The app then sends notifications to the guard until the train approaches the station where assistance has been requested.
For the passenger, rather than getting stuck in long call center queues and having to continually rehearse assistance needs, all passengers need to do is set up and register their user profile for future use.
A photo can also be included to make them more easily identifiable by railway staff.
This cuts down on the time spent on booking assistance and Transreport has also taken care to integrate key accessibility features into the app, such as full integration with Apple voice over on iPhone in addition to improved color, contrast and font size options.
Overall, the app has brought much needed transparency to a customer service segment where it was previously too easy for vendors to pass the buck and play the blame game.
Jay Shen is the CEO of Transreport and started designing the system, which is now licensed by the UKs Rail Delivery Group across the UK rail network, in 2017.
Shen, who has a background in math and engineering, says the new solution will finally bring the power of data to service providers.
“With the old messaging system, there was no real data to work with,” says Shen.
“Now we can see when the train staff log into the app. Previously, the rail operator’s Customer Experience Managers had a lot of qualitative data related to assistance claims but very little quantitative information to rely on.
“Now all of this data is just stored in the database, so we are confident that we can provide some very important information for the industry,” he said.
The right tool for the job
Passenger assistance has been diligently co-designed with staff from some of the main UK rail franchises over a three-and-a-half-year period, including South Western Railway and West Midlands Railway.
The intention was to identify the most pressing pain points preventing staff from providing consistent service.
In addition to crucial real-time notifications, the app also allows rail staff to manage the passenger assistance workflow, such as assigning and taking over different tasks.
“Previously, when the staff weren’t providing help, it was easy to blame the staff member and believe that they weren’t doing a good job,” says Shen.
“However, we have seen by spending days and days in the field and talking with frontline workers that they are some of the hardest working people you can meet,” he continues.
“But relying on email and fax in such a dynamic and rapidly changing environment will never work. They just haven’t put in place the right technology and the right resource management system to help them solve this fundamental problem of leaving passengers stranded at the docks.
A smoother journey ahead
Longer term, Shen would like to see Transreport evolve into a broader Mobility as a Service (MaaS) platform providing door-to-door travel planning and booking, integrating different modes of transportation.
For now, the company continues to focus more on improving its passenger assistance application and is exploring the possibility of bringing improved features such as personal messaging between the passenger and the caretaker.
With the Williams Rail Review on the future of the UK rail network published last May, which included accessibility in its mandate, and the recent Turn around and go campaign to end long pre-notification periods for travelers with disabilities, Transreport’s entry into the fray is certainly timely.
In the coming months, as the company continues to exit pandemic restrictions, it remains to be seen whether commuters develop heightened awareness of their fellow travelers.
It may not be a risky bet to assume that most travelers’ fault of being unknowingly glued to their phone screen will prevail and pick up where it left off in early 2020.
Nonetheless, all passengers would do well to remember that fair transport access remains at the forefront of inclusion and is not necessarily binary in terms of who it applies to.
“There will always be people with temporary injuries and pregnant women,” Shen said.
“Ultimately we all have to get older and the day will come when somehow we will all need our own travel assistance, whatever form it may take.”