How technology could nudge more Europeans from planes to trains

At a time of climate emergency we want more people to use trains rather than planes, so we need to make looking for journeys as easy as possible. But that isn’t enough. We need to make it fun. Why?

Let me take you on a journey.

I want to show you some of the obstacles that prevent some people from choosing to travel by train across Europe and how they might be removed or even turned into features.

Before we set off, please pay attention to the following information.

  1. We are in a government declared climate emergency.
  2. People use planes for all sorts of reasons. Some people should continue using planes, like fighter pilots. So on this journey we’ll be talking about different ‘cohorts’ – grouping people according to the types of journey they take.
  3. Most of us want to do the right thing, but need a little nudge in the right direction. We want to use less plastic, recycle more, eat more healthily, do more exercise, blah blah blah, but we’ll carry on doing what we’ve always done if the ‘right thing’ isn’t made very easy.
  4. On a personal note, I love planes and I can’t wait to start guilt-free flying again – I’m just waiting for a less carbon intense technology to be found…

Let’s start with one of those cohorts and a story:

A family summer holiday

My other half and I were sitting in front of the laptop on a dark winter’s eve.

We wanted sun – no, we craved the sun.

We both knew that trains were the ‘right way’ to travel, but we looked at the practicality of taking a train down to somewhere sunny. We saw how long it would take, how much it would cost and immediately started looking at Skyscanner for a cheap flight instead.

Let’s call this group, the ‘independent family’ cohort – people who aren’t really into package holidays.

Once we got a vague idea of where and how much, we looked at villas and we booked both. Closer to the time we hired a car and airport parking. Finally a week or two before we set off, we started looking at things to do in the area.

If we were organised people, we might have made a list that looked like this:

  1. Book flight
  2. Book accommodation
  3. Hire a car
  4. Book airport parking
  5. Find things to do in the area (pay for them at the time or book in advance for the stuff we really want to do)

To nudge the ‘independent family’ cohort from planes to trains, this ordering needs to be disrupted. Why?

Because planes are cheaper than trains. The nudge will fail at point 1.

Actually, the perception of being cheaper is probably just that thanks to the Ryanair effect, where costs come in dribbles. It looks like your flight will cost 1 Euro but that doesn’t include a seat… or the costs incurred in points 2-5.

Asking people to take a more leisurely journey to their sunbed by the sea means regaining the idea that travelling to somewhere might even be the best bit of the holiday.

At present, this requires a bit of imagination and a lot of Googling, so for nudging to work, the things to do en-route need to leap out at you. They have to be in your face and appealing enough for you to to trade a few days on that sandy sunbed.

It’s also crucial that the savings you are making are also in your face – a kind of reverse Ryanair effect. Look what you are not spending on points 2-5!

When searching for some sun in southern Europe, we need to see that on the way we could be spending an hour or two e-scooting around Aachen, cheese skittling in Edam or escape rooming in Liege?

This involves a little bit of clever technology. New algorithms that plan in stops to do fun things on the way.

The good news is that the technology and companies to deliver it are already here.

One example is TripAdvisor. You can use their app to pick what you want to do and when, but at the moment, all they can do is offer up things to do at a destination because they don’t have the mid-point data.

Having the technical infrastructure in place, could lead to a whole new form of tourism. Instead of focussing on endpoints, with the bits in the middle being flown over, those parts could become holiday highlights.

So, the ‘independent family’ cohort could be nudged by integrating transport information and allowing companies like TripAdvisor to merge it with other activity data.

Let’s visit another cohort.

The silver horde

Europe is old, and by that I mean it’s population is living longer than ever. Nearly 20% of Europeans are over 65 and this is a cohort with time on their side. At present, algorithms for journey planning focus on speed or cost.

Integrated data can allow more sophisticated algorithms to be devised which cater for people who can take a leisurely ‘cruise’ around the treasures of Europe.

By making surfing for trains easier, we’ll be breaking down the technical barriers that prevent older people from finding their freedom on the rails. Let’s give them easy apps backed up by big data to make them a generation of liberated silver surfers.

What about other cohorts?

I’m going to make a sweeping statement. I think what holds true for ‘independent families’ and ‘the silver horde’ will also hold for the bulk of other holiday makers, including the package holiday companies that serve some of them. However, I may be wrong and I’m happy to work that one through with anyone who is willing to challenge me to a game of chess in a park in Gdansk – just tell me how to get there by the most fun route.

So let’s take a break from the holidaymakers and visit another cohort.

The international business traveller

This year I’ve met and travelled alongside people who need to cover long distances and have made the choice to use the train. I’ve also been doing it myself with mixed results.

Three principal needs are:

  1. The places you are travelling between must be connected.
  2. While you are travelling, you need to be able to work on the train. That means having a seat and blazing fast WiFi. Get that right and it can be better than being in the office.
  3. Being able to use sleeper trains to cover longer distances.

So, how can integrating train (and other transport) data help with making the right services available for business users?

A valuable resource here is the feedback from searching.

Google, Facebook, Instagram and the plethora of other new technologies are free because of the data fed back from people using them.

By being able to gather information on what journeys are being looked for and booked, we get to learn about where the demand is and how services can be modified to meet it. At the moment, this can only be done with surveying and guesswork.

Smarter routes and value-add services like meeting rooms can be planned when we know what journeys are required.

A lack of data isn’t the only issue – many trains run at a loss, and are provided by government because of the economic value they add. Data could help make the case for what services would get used to add more economic value.

By the way, all this additional data gathering might feel quite insidious but it’s a Faustian pact we’re already making, so how about we use it to mitigate against climate change instead of liking each other’s cats on Instagram?

How easy will integrating European transport data be?

If it’s like any of the other integration projects I’ve worked on, I doubt it will be much fun. It will be painful at times, but it will be a step in the right direction.

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