Northern wins national customer award for innovative approach to accessible rail travel
Northern has scooped a national customer experience award for its unique and innovative approach to improving accessibility on trains and at stations and ensuring ‘Northern is for everyone’.
As the largest train operator in the north of England, Northern recognised that for the 14m plus disabled people in the UK, including 700,000 individuals and families affected by autism, that more needed to be done to reduce travel anxiety and make journeys easier to plan and make.
An innovative new Accessible Travel Simulation “Serious Game”, which won the Gold Award for Innovation at the recent UK Customer Experience Awards, has been developed to support people who are anxious or need Passenger Assistance, including disabled customers and those with hidden conditions, to build confidence to travel by train.
Users can now choose a character and scenario that represents their needs and experience trains, stations and interact with staff in a realistic simulated environment on their own phones, tablets, PCs or in Virtual Reality headsets for a fully immersive experience.
This first of a kind digital solution has been developed by Northern with lead partner Chrome Angel Solutions and digital technology experts Totem Learning, working closely with industry partners Angel Trains and Community Rail Lancashire. The team won funding from the Department for Transport’s Accessibility Transport Research and Innovation Grants (TRIG: Accessibility) programme delivered by Connected Places Catapult to develop and test a proof-of-concept demonstrator.
Speaking about the benefits of the new travel app and the award win, Northern’s Commercial and Customer Director, Mark Powles commented: “Our challenge was to offer a tool to help those who would like the opportunity to travel but are not confident enough to take the train.
“This amazing new app will give confidence to some of our customers, and even prospective rail travellers to enable them to take independent journeys and widen their horizons by travelling by train.
“Rail is so important, it’s not just about the journey between A and B, but about removing social isolation, creating opportunity in work and education and connecting friends and families and creating memories.
“We are enablers to making these things happen and this national award is great recognition of our commitment to operating train services for everyone.”
Katie Douglas, Accessibility & Inclusion Officer with Community Rail Lancashire said; “Working on this project was a real learning curve for Community Rail Lancashire but it has demonstrated how effective new technologies can be to support people access rail travel confidently. It was a pleasure working all those involved and hope that the recognition of this award will mean that this work can be developed further. We look forward to using this highly effective tool in our Rail Confidence programme and supporting those who currently struggle to access our rail network.”
Chrome Angel Solutions has specialised in the transfer of technology from other industries to railways and has been working with digital experts Totem Learning to develop the travel simulation.
Mark Robinson, who led the project, said: “It has been one of the most fantastic experiences of my career to work with such an enthusiastic group of users, staff and the brilliant team of coders, artists and game designers at Totem Learning to bring this amazing idea to life.
“It’s has been an incredible collaboration; it couldn’t have been built without all the partners and users working so well together”. Mark believes that Serious Games have massive potential to support building confidence and help people.
“Our vision is that someone who has never had the confidence to take the train before could arrive at the station for the first time and feel like an experienced traveller. To have all the information they need, know what support to expect and what to do if anything goes wrong.”
Northern were committed to addressing the challenge of making train travel easier and worked with the Northern Accessibility User Group (NAUG), an independent pan-disability railway user group who help advise on accessibility improvements across Northern’s services.
In the user group testing the travel simulation achieved impressive results with 100% of game players agreeing the travel environment was both detailed and realistic and 91% of the panel enthusing that the simulated journey experience would make those with accessibility needs more confident in travelling by train.
Mark Wilson, accessibility adviser working alongside Northern’s accessibility team said: “Railway stations and trains can be busy and daunting places for those with accessibility needs.
“I often think about things like, where the ticket office is, are the platforms step free, will there be a ramp, how do I reverse my wheelchair on the train, and a whole host of other issues that able bodied passengers don’t have to consider.
“This new app, which is also great for those with non-visible disabilities, takes lots of those worries away, helps to plan out journeys and will build confidence for those who need it.
The team has since continued to develop the simulation to incorporate key feedback from the user testing and is now rapidly expanding pilot testing with wider user groups, as well as demonstrating to passenger and disability groups across the network.
Angel Trains and Northern have recently jointly funded VR headsets for Community Rail Lancashire to take the game into classrooms as part of their educational programme that supports thousands of children each year.
Northern is keen to engage with customers to continue developing the simulation game to be as effective as possible. If you would like to receive news and progress, or would like to join a future user test group (and are based on the Northern rail network) please complete this short registration form here or scan the QR code below. *
*Data capture and hold will be conducted by Chrome Angel Solutions Limited on behalf of Northern Trains and data will only be used in relation to the ‘Serious Game’ feedback.