How the train operator GWR is working towards being a top travel retailer

gwr train phil wakely wikipedia cc
Image: Phil Wakely/Wikipedia

Train operator First Great Western rebranded as GWR last year, the initials of the long out-of-business Great Western Railways, which first opened in 1838 and was headed by famed English engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

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Now that FirstGroup has transformed the livery and the logos for GWR, it is setting out to rethink its digital strategy, according to the firm's UX lead Julian Richards.

"Before we started the transformation journey, 50 percent of our customers bought once in the last year – we didn't really have a relationship with them," says Richards. Now GWR is encouraging customers to sign up through its My Account service to book tickets direct, rather than with comparison sites like Trainline or from a ticket office, the first port of call for most customers.

‘Digital' is now a core tenet of almost every heritage or high-street brand and that includes railway operators. But there are obstacles ahead.

The way the franchise model operates – where operators aren't sure how long they will be running a particular line before it goes back out to tender – makes it difficult to know when to invest.

Standardising travel

One area digital could help is in standardising certain aspects of travel – for example, in ticket machines. So no matter which vendor model you're using, the customer gets the same experience and knows where to point on the touchscreen.

"There are a number of different vendors across the country," Richards says. "There's a rolling replacement of those ticket machines, and that's a requirement of the franchise. Some machines are still running [Windows] NT, some of them are running Windows 7, but you can use digital to try to standardise the interface. That's a big challenge across the entire national estate."

Despite all this, GWR is trying to embrace digital and become a retailer of more than just bums on seats, and it picked digital agency ORM to help lead its efforts.

"There's always been a criticism and there still is today in the industry that customers don't trust the digital sites in terms of getting best value," Richards explains. "This is all the train operating companies. Customers simply don't believe that we're offering the best deal online and they feel they get better services from ticket offices."

"We needed to increase our power to be able to personalise, and be able to say: we can offer you the best deal, you don't need to go to a ticket office to get the best ticket – you'll always get the best one from us."

The first round of that was upgrading the first page of the booking flow with the My Account login section, along with a consistent user experience across mobile, tablets and PCs.

All of this can be tracked with monitoring and analytics software like 4C, Sessioncam and Qualaroo, to try to glean as much useful user data as possible.

"The great thing is you can monitor it very closely – you've got so much data you can do session replays and see how people are using the service," Richards says. "We're also introducing help videos soon with a simple ‘thumbs up' or ‘thumbs down', so we're really beginning to measure customer experience now."

Selling experiences, not seats

And according to Richards, the truth is that GWR is just not making the most of the destinations it serves. When its new electric Hitachi trains are operational this September, packed with better Wi-Fi, more power and USB ports, the goal will be to sell the customer not just the seat but the entire experience of their destination.

"A great digital experience would be customers that want to come to us to sign up to My Account, and book more than just their GWR journeys," Richards says. "It will take time because we're trying to move away from being a provider of seats, to a provider of an experience – from A to Z via G H and M, which people don't see at the moment."

"It's difficult when you're running trains that are 40 years old, but when we're running the next generation of Hitachis that can provide a better onboard experience, when you are running from Paddington through to Bristol on electric without diversions and replacement buses, that's where the real experience will start to be built."

GWR already serves seven of the UK's 10 most popular destinations with its network, but according to Richards, the firm is just not capitalising on that yet.

"We've never tapped into associated products," he says. "At the moment if you come up from Bristol to London for the weekend that's all you buy, the return from Bristol to London. We don't currently sell you your hotel, your theatre trip. If you're going from Paddington to Bristol, we can sell you a Europcar but it's not as connected as it could be – so we're looking at personalisation and digital experience to be able to buy those packages as well."

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