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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

IT Leaders: Trainline CTO Mark Holt on predicting prices and journeys using analytics

For several years, Mark Holt, the chief technology officer (CTO) at Europe’s leading independent train and coach ticket retailer, Trainline, has spoken at length about the cloud journey that his company has been on. The three key reasons the company wanted to shift to the cloud was to save capex every year, to make the organisation significantly more agile, and to enable the team to be ahead of what Holt called “the innovation curve”.

Since then, Holt says that cloud computing has proven itself time and time again as the right choice. This year, Trainline built a massive data infrastructure, for which all of the company’s data is funnelled into a big data lake. The company has then built analytics tools and solutions off the back off that – and this is where Holt believes the company is starting to really reap the rewards of migrating to the cloud.

The first such innovation is ‘price prediction’, where customers can go into Trainline’s app and find out what the predicted price for a ticket would be tomorrow and when it is likely to increase. The app will show them, for example, that the price will go up tomorrow, and then again next week, but will stay static for four days after that. The new feature is all based on historical data that the Trainline has.

Even more sophisticated is the company’s journey prediction feature.

“For about 90 per cent of people who come to the site, we can predict what their destination is going to be, and even cooler than that is for 30 per cent we can predict what day they’re going to travel,” says Holt.

This is based on data which shows that coming to the site on a Tuesday would signal intent to book a train for the subsequent weekend, for example, as well as data on frequent journeys.

“The average person has five train destinations that they want to travel to,” says Holt, who adds that it is the time of travel rather then the destination which is more sophisticated and has a lot of technology going into it.

Meanwhile, the company has also released BusyBot, a feature which helps customers find the best spot on the train.

“We crowdsource data about availability and we churn this to predict where you should sit on the train [if you want to travel in more comfort],” Holt says.

He adds that the company will take inspiration from anywhere to come up with new features; the price prediction feature has been found on flight booking sites, while BusyBot has been influenced by various crowdsourced information sources such as Waze for traffic. However, he believes that Trainline is the first train company to use the price prediction feature, and the first company to use journey predictions.

Integrating into intelligent voice

Predictions are not the only use case for the data at Trainline’s disposal – the company has also created a Google voice application.

“The nice thing with Google is that you can almost have a conversation with it,” says Holt.

The conversation could go something like this:

Trainline customer: “What time is the next train to London?”

Google: ‘In 15 minutes’ time’

Trainline customer: Is there a later time

Google: Yes there is one in the next hour

Trainline customer: How much is that going to cost me

Google: £27

Trainline customer: Can I get a return coming back later?

Google: Yes at 9pm

Trainline customer: What is the weather like at my destination?

Google: It’s raining all day

“We’ve got 12 levels of conversation so you can continue to have a conversation with the app,” Holt explains.

There are numerous other ongoing projects; Trainline is working with industry to get e-tickets with barcodes rolled out as widely as possible. The tickets, which can be saved onto smartphones can tell customers when the next offpeak train is and what platform the train will be on. Holt suggests that “it’s a train ticket that Harry Potter would carry as it’s constantly updating information about the train”.

In addition, the company is rolling out coach options on to its platform too.

“It’s the first of what we call our digital inventory, the same way that Amazon thinks of its inventory in the warehouse, we think of it as the number of routes we can sell and the number of carriers we can offer,” he says.

Incorporating train and coach companies in European countries, and the addition of Eurostar into its platform are other new features the company is bolting on to its offering in the weeks ahead.

All of this is part of the company’s aim, Holt says, of creating the best customer experience for rail and coach that the Trainline can.