Transreport Rail Assistance App Alleviates Travel Misery For Disabled Passengers
Transreport, a London-based technology company focused on accessibility, inclusion and democratization in transportation services has released a new app to mitigate the sometimes-horrific ordeal of traveling by rail as a person with a disability in 2021.
Though a significant problem, inaccessible rail travel involves a lot more than an insufficient number of step-free stations for wheelchair access, which comprise only 59% of Britain’s rail network according to research published last year by disability charity Leonard Cheshire.
The far more onerous and unpredictable challenge faced by passengers with disabilities relates to receiving assistance in boarding and disembarking trains at unstaffed stations.
In theory, in this instance, the remedy for wheelchair users requiring a ramp for boarding, or the severely sight impaired receiving guided assistance, is for this job to be carried out by the guard on-board alighting the train to meet the passenger on the platform.
Unfortunately, assistance requests, which often need to be pre-booked a day in advance, are routinely dumped by rail operators into a generic staff inbox and buried amongst all manner of network announcements ranging from carriage cleaning to train maintenance.
MORE FOR YOU
Given their time-sensitive nature, these emailed assistance requests are often missed by railway staff, leaving disabled passengers stranded on the platform as the train pulls away. Worse still, they can also be left on the train as it rattles past their destination stop.
Little wonder, then, that pre-pandemic research undertaken by disability charity Scope identified that 80% of disabled survey respondents reported anxiety relating to using public transport, with 56% going as far as stating that they felt “scared” to travel.
A smarter system
Through its recently released Passenger Assistance app, Transreport has sought to move the rail industry away from a 1990s style email-based system onto a more streamlined, modern and responsive footing using smart technology.
‘Passenger Assistance’ operates in a similar way to Uber with railway staff and passengers using a separate interface to access the app.
The system offers a myriad of benefits to both parties. Firstly, the app is fully integrated with the unique service code railway companies apply to scheduled journeys.
The app then pings notifications to the guard up until the point at which the train approaches the station at which assistance has been requested.
For the passenger, rather than becoming tied up in lengthy call center queues and having to continuously repeat assistance requirements, all passengers need to do is set up and save their user profile for future use.
A photo can also be included to make them more easily identifiable to railway staff.
This cuts down on the time spent booking assistance and Transreport has also taken care to embed key accessibility features within the app like full integration with Apple’s VoiceOver on iPhone in addition to enhanced color, contrast and font size options.
Overall, the app has brought much-needed transparency to a customer service segment where it has previously been all too easy for providers to pass the buck and play the blame game.
Jay Shen is Transreport’s CEO and began designing the system, which is now licensed by the U.K.s Rail Delivery Group across the entirety of Britain’s rail network, back in 2017.
Shen, who has a background in mathematics and engineering says that the new solution will finally bring the power of data to bear on service providers.
“With the old email system, there was no real data to work with,” says Shen.
“Now we can see when railway staff are logging into the app. Previously, the rail operator’s Customer Experience Managers had a lot of qualitative data related to assistance complaints but very little quantitative information to learn from.
“Now all this data is just sitting in the database, so we are confident we can provide some very weighty insights for the industry,” he says.
The right tool for the job
Passenger Assistance was assiduously co-designed alongside staff members from some of Britain’s major rail franchises over a three- and half-year period, including South Western Railway and West Midlands Railway.
The intention was to identify the most pressing pain points preventing staff from delivering a consistent service.
In addition to crucial real-time notifications, the app also allows railway staff to manage passenger assistance workflow, such as assigning and taking over different tasks.
“Previously, when staff failed to provide assistance, it was easy to blame the staff member and believe they’re not doing a good job,” says Shen.
“However, we saw from spending days and days out in the field and talking to workers on the frontline that they are some of the most hard-working people you could ever meet,” he continues.
“But relying on emails and faxes in such a fast-moving, dynamic environment is never going to work. They’ve just not had the right technology and resource management system in place to help them resolve this fundamental issue of leaving passengers stranded on platforms.”
A smoother journey ahead
Over the longer term, Shen would like to see Transreport evolve into a wider Mobility as a Service (MaaS) platform providing door-to-door journey planning and booking, incorporating different modes of transport.
For now, the company is maintaining a tighter focus on refining its Passenger Assistance app and is investigating the possibility of bringing in enhanced features like a personal messaging facility between the passenger and guard.
With the Williams Rail Review into the future of Britain’s railway network published this past May, which included accessibility within its remit, and the EU’s recent Turn-up-and-go campaign to end lengthy pre-notification periods for travelers with disabilities, Transreport’s entry into the fray is certainly timely.
In the months to come, as society continues to emerge from the pandemic restrictions, it remains to be seen whether commuters develop a heightened awareness of their fellow passengers.
It is, perhaps, not an unsafe bet to presume that the default of most travelers being obliviously glued to their phone screen will prevail and pick up from where it left off at the start of 2020.
Nonetheless, all passengers would do well to remember that fair access to transport remains at the bleeding edge of inclusion and is not necessarily binary in terms of who it applies to.
“There are always going to be people with temporary injuries and pregnant women,” says Shen.
“In the end, we’ve all got to grow old and the day will come when, one way or the other, we will all need our own travel assistance, whatever that might look like.”