Startups such as Seatfrog and Ticketclever aim to make rail travel cheaper and improve customer experience. It’s one of the last remaining modes of transport that has been relatively untouched by innovation. The UK rail sector transports 1.5 billion passengers annually and benefits from billions of pounds of investment, but has struggled to move with the times.
That could be about to change. Last month Virgin Trains East Coast signed a deal with startup Seatfrog, an app that auctions seat upgrades two hours before travel. Passengers with standard tickets have the chance of upgrading to first class for as little as an additional £5.
Seatfrog, which launched in 2016, originally targeted the airline sector but expanded the model after speaking to Virgin Trains. Co-founder and chief executive, Iain Griffin, says the firm has since been contacted by a number of other rail providers who are interested in the model.
Rail firms tend to have antiquated systems and a reputation for poor customer experience. Griffin says: “There is a real opportunity for rail organisations to embrace innovation to tackle this. [They] recognise it’s a win-win for them and their passengers.”
The rail sector appears to be waking up to the possibility of new ideas, particularly those that come from SMEs. Virgin Trains launched its Platform X accelerator this year, and HackTrain runs an annual hackathon and conference with backing from Great Western Railways, Stagecoach, Arriva, and others. Eurostar recently took a cohort of startups to the Viva Technology conference in Paris, that pitched for the chance to run a pilot with the company. The competition was won by DigitalGenius, which uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve customer service.