© Virgin Trains
© Virgin Trains

Virgin Trains CIO and Project Director John Sullivan plays a key role in supporting 38 million journeys every year.

His IT team helps passengers search timetables, book tickets, and enjoy entertainment on board; and staff to plan services, respond to incidents and communicate with customers.

The business has recently been bolstered by a range of new digital services - from mobile apps to automated customer services - but none of them would work without staff buy-in.

In order to gain that support, Sullivan spends one day every month in a Virgin Trains station, where he speaks to frontline staff about their work.

"There's no particular agenda, but we'll have a lot of fun and we'll have some good conversations," Sullivan tells CIO UK.

"We've got some great staff in our frontline, and they've really enabled us through that engagement to work out what we should do for them. If they have that involvement and contribute to their projects, that helps adoption and makes a much better project."

Sullivan says that when he joined Virgin Trains in January 2015, staff were often reluctant to embrace new technology. These days when he visits them at the stations, they show him the benefits and suggest their own improvements.

Sometimes their ideas find their ways into new products, including a new smartphone app that they use to record issues spotted on a train. They can then notify their colleagues in the train depot so that they’re ready to resolve it as soon as the train arrives in the evening.

"Before they had their phones and these applications, the customers sometimes knew more about the train times than the people that run the trains did," says Sullivan.

"Now they've got all the information, and if there is disruption, they know exactly where the trains are, the train times, and what platform it's going into. That information is there in one place, and that idea came from workshops from a frontline team."

All aboard the digital journey

Staff engagement is one of four aspects that Virgin looks at when introducing new systems. The others are the change in technology, the effect on business processes, and customer engagement.

This method has boosted the adoption of new digital services for passengers. Onboard, they can use the BEAM entertainment service, to stream TV, films, games, newspapers and magazine directly to their personal devices.

Virgin is also refitting its trains to offer free Wi-Fi to all Pendolino train passengers, who comprise more than 85% of the company’s customers. The new technology has been future-proofed to work with 5G mobile phone networks as they come on stream.

The ticket purchasing experience has also been enhanced. Customers can now use Alexa to make bookings and receive digital tickets.

"About two years ago, less than 1% of our tickets were digital, but today it's about 30%," says Sullivan. "The customers' ticket is on their mobile phone. They show the mobile phone at the gate, the gates open and the train manager scans it. It’s really convenient and they don't have to do the queuing."

Staff have also received their own new digital tools. Sullivan recently rolled out a programme of new applications including Office 365 and Box cloud file storage.

"In my experience, deploying multiple applications at the same time is incredibly powerful," he says.

He follows a formal tender process when selecting suppliers, but also places a high value on the business relationship.

“We go through a tender process, and a lot of times, that works, but there's an element of just the feel for me too,” he says. “It isn't just about numbers. The chemistry has to be right.”

Box helped attract Virgin’s investment by presenting a roadmap that fit the company's plans, while Amazon won Virgin over by engaging with them personally.

"In digital transformation, if you want to be on the leading edge, you want to have those good relationships and have access to the technical staff and their capabilities," says Sullivan.

The benefits of the products show that the investment has paid off. Box has helped Virgin eliminate the sort of version control problems that will be familiar to any large enterprise, helping ensure that all staff are on the same page.

It has also sped up the process of validating digital tickets and helped Virgin meet its GDPR requirements.

"With GDPR, I think you have to be proactive, and if you do have any issues, then you have to be able to show the process that you've gone through to identify and resolve the issue," says Sullivan.

"For the process of mass scanning of data when it's needed and notifying the right person, you can set those rules up as you feel fit. When you set the rules up for scanning in the cloud, it's all done quite quickly."

Communicating change

Some issues require a more reactive approach.

In March, the beast from the east arrived to wreak havoc across the UK railway lines, forcing Virgin to cancel numerous trains. The IT team played a crucial role in placating disgruntled customers.

"We've got an outstanding social media team," says Sullivan. "We're talking about actually what tweets are we sending out, and making sure the information is accurate. Not always the best news for our customers, but it has to be accurate.

"Wherever we could use the technology to do the communications through the CRM and any notifications that we can put on your mobile phone, then we deployed all of that."

Another big project is around analytics.

Virgin has always had an enormous volume of data, but when Sullivan joined, the disparate siloes and systems limited its value.

"Different departments had their own data, and it wasn't joined up, so when you asked questions, you could get two different answers depending on who you asked," he says.

To resolve the issue, his team first linked up all the data, and then began to explore the business questions it could answer.

Virgin is now using AI to automate ticket refunds for delayed trains, but Sullivan believes the journey with analytics has only just begun.  

"I think in the future, it will tell us the right frequency of trains to come and when to change trains," he says. "If we need to run more trains to Manchester, our data will be able to tell us that."