Trainline On Track: Innovating And Navigating Change

Taking the tribulation out of travel

From autonomous vehicles to flying cars, up and coming mobility as a service solutions have changed the state of the industry. Traditional travel and transportation businesses aren’t just competing with each other, they are competing with products and services that might not even exist yet.

D/SRUPTION spoke to Jonathan Midgley, Director of Engineering at Trainline, to find out how the business is avoiding derailment by delivering the highest possible level of customer service.

A platform for platforms

Travel can be complicated, in all senses of the word. For Midgley, the goal is to make travel planning as easy as possible for customers.

“We see our role above all else as a technology company that makes planning and booking rail and coach simpler and more accessible. If we don’t succeed at doing that, I don’t think we would have succeeded for our customers,” he says.

Removing complexity is a critical aim for all businesses, irrespective of industry. This is especially the case for consumer facing businesses whose success or failure lies, often quite literally, in the hands of consumers. Since joining the company a few years ago, Midgley has seen Trainline expand from the UK to a further 45 countries across the world, working with over 200 coach and rail carriers. Clearly, the travel platform is doing something right. But what?

Talent, technology, and teamwork

Talent remains a key challenge for businesses – particularly when the knowledge and expertise required for technical roles is so vast. As Director of Engineering, Midgley is tasked with building and leading a team of 300 tech travel specialists.

“The thing that I’m most passionate about is engineering culture. We really seek out the very best talent in each of our locations, and it’s always hard. The flip side is that, once these amazing people are through the door, you have to retain them and make them feel rewarded, satisfied, and highly motivated,” he says.

To some extent, retaining talent is about giving people room to grow. This might include sending employees on study days and courses, or encouraging them to take part in enriching or educational activities. At the same time, this brings new learnings, approaches, and technologies into the organisation.

In terms of working structures, Trainline has adopted the ‘two-pizza rule‘ favoured by Amazon, in which employees form small working groups that could, as the name suggests, be fed by two pizzas. As well as leveraging internal employees as a source of innovation and ideas, the company collaborates with hundreds of international partners.

“We pride ourselves on being a highly collaborative business,” Midgley says. “We’re very aware of what’s competitive in other industries, and of course, in our own. We constantly look at what the major players are doing.”

Let’s talk travel

A willingness to observe, try new things, and work with partners has enabled Trainline to take advantage of one of the most prominent rising technologies to date: voice. Voice has already become central to our interactions with technology, creating a seamless channel between products and services and their users. In partnership with Google, Trainline has created a voice app for Google Assistant with 12 levels of conversational depth.

“It’s highly tailored, highly personalised, and we can integrate to such a level with our customer’s voices and our own data that we can tell them what platform they need to go to, for example,” says Midgley. “Voice is new, so as an organisation we invested in our lab smarts to learn about voice technology. As we move forward we’ll certainly be pushing those learnings out across the business.”

Voice technology also plays to Trainline’s central objective of removing complexity and making the customer experience more natural and intuitive. What could be more natural than finding out the answer to a question simply by asking for it?

“I think great products should be as invisible and intuitive as possible. Very often, our approach is to build features into our products that just feel natural to our customers,” says Midgley. “We have put some great AI products in our customers’ hands. A lot of companies feel that they need to talk about AI and say that they’ve got it, but we’ve put our money where our mouths are and embedded AI into products that are used daily by our customers.”

As customers use these products, Trainline is able to gather more data and use it to ultimately improve the overall experience. At the very start of product development, teams are encouraged to think carefully about the consumer, asking if the solution will genuinely provide value in a real world scenario. Will it make it easier or quicker for someone to make a booking, or get the information that they need about a certain journey? For Midgley, part of working out what works is actually using the products that are being developed.

“One of the cool things about working at Trainline is that we use our own products every day,” says Midgley. “We call it ‘dog-fooding’. I sit with my family and I ask my Google Mini if my train is on time, and that data is then used to build products.”

Looking down the line

Companies across all sectors need to adapt quickly, but for those operating in travel and transport, there’s no room for delay. The sheer breadth of emerging mobility solutions is a challenge in itself, as is the growing complexity that comes from the convergence of technologies like AI and IoT. And, at the centre of it all is a consumer market that, in Midgley’s words, rightly expects the best.

Handling these huge directional shifts, whether that be changes in customer behaviour or the advent of a groundbreaking new technology, relies on having talented teams who are aware of and willing to experiment with technology. Trainline’s approach has been to do just that, forming inquisitive and practical teams with access to novel technologies and a rich global network. The result? Intuitive, real world solutions for the biggest and yet simplest mobility challenge: getting the customer from A to B.

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