MTR Crossrail won the £1.4 billion operating concession to run the new Elizabeth Line for TfL in July 2014, with its commitment to use beacon technology across the network a key commitment in the deal. The company has now deployed two staff-facing apps to help avoid fines from TfL when it comes to keeping stations operational and trains on time.
Mark Daniels, head of IT at MTR Crossrail, told Computerworld UK: "We had to deliver it as part of the bid and we had a timeframe to do that. It was held highly for them as an innovation, not an optional extra."
The contract means that MTR are measured on how well Elizabeth Line services run, staff performance and punctuality.
When it launches in 2018 the Elizabeth Line will run through 40 stations from Reading to Shenfield, passing through Central London.
A beacon is a device which works on bluetooth low energy (BLE) which can communicate with multiple devices to create a network. MTR saw the potential of this technology and partnered with Mubaloo Innovation Lab, a company that specialises in developing bespoke, enterprise-grade mobile applications, to create applications to help audit staff and drivers day-to-day.
First though, they had to get the beacons working. Daniels spoke at Gartner Symposium in Barcelona last year about the initial technical challenges around getting bluetooth beacons working in close proximity.
Daniels says solving the technical challenge amounted to simple hard work: "Working out the problem, trying different versions of the firmware and working with Mubaloo to work through variations to get them to work in proximity."
Spotlight audit app
MTR Crossrail gives all employees an iPad mini, pre-loaded with the Mubaloo apps. The Spotlight app for audit staff could save the company money in TfL-issued fines.
Mike Crooks, head of the Mubaloo Innovation Lab told Computerworld UK: "For example, if a ticket machine is broken or has graffiti on it and TfL notices, they will fault the machine and MTR would be liable for a fine for a period of time to get that fixed."
The Spotlight app gives audit staff a way to submit these faults and get an engineer sent out quicker than before. Previously they would have had to file a report on paper back at head office.
Crooks explains: "The beacon acts as a triggering mechanism for the app and spits out some IDs all the time. The app will use the IDs and go to a backend system we built and that will then return the asset list and the associated questions for that given location."
This amounts to a virtual checklist for the auditor of all the assets listed at the station they have been detected by the beacon. If there is a fault they can take a picture and send off a fault report immediately. Not only will this save the company in fines, but it will save audit staff a lot of time and hassle.
Driver advisory app
Next there is the driver advisory app. Mubaloo's Crooks says: "The driver side is a completely different user group." Before the app a driver would print off their schedule and operating notices before a shift.
So the app doubles up as both a content delivery system, which surfaces the relevant information depending on which station the driver is at, and automatically rolling schedule information.
Drivers no longer have to cross things off a piece of paper, and the app even gives them a countdown to know how long they have at a station to stay on time, again saving on TfL fines. "So we want to tell them they are getting there early, so they drive in a more efficient manner," Daniels says.
Although staff-issued iPads aren't locked down, the driver's devices will be switched into a safety mode once a beacon sees that they have entered the cab of a train, so "all they can see is the schedule card, they can't play Pokemon Go," says Daniels.
Staff feedback has been positive for both of the apps, according to MTR and Mubaloo. Daniels says although there was a "small minority resistant to change", the vast majority have been positive.
Crooks adds that there is "always a little bit of a learning curve for some around expectations. When we demo these concepts it could be seen as a bit voodoo the way the app can react to stuff."
When it comes to improving the customer experience, MTR is looking to deploy internet of ihings (IoT) sensors on new trains to track passenger numbers and flows to ease congestion on platforms and trains.
Daniels explains: "We have new trains which have more ability to load data for passengers passing through the doors. We will pull that together for a better view of customer habits to tie into the timetabling data for staff to move passengers to the right locations on platforms so that they can get seats and get the train off quicker."
This will be implemented over the next "nine to twelve months," Daniels says.