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Smart Mobility Webinar #6: UK Public Transport, The Road to Recovery

We know that Covid-19 and changes in working patterns will have a long-term impact on public transport, but it’s unclear how. We’re not waiting for ‘normality’ to return: the WHO expects the virus to become endemic, which means we will have to adapt.

Traditional providers face a variety of interrelated challenges. In part, they need to understand how to evolve the customer experience as services return.

We sat down with the leaders in UK public transport to discuss how they are handling the changing landscape.

Here are our panelist:

Hanna Kops Head of Experience at TfL

Manages and works with the digital team, which oversees all digital channels. They recently launched TfL Go (a project in the works for 4 years), but have also worked on improving design, CX and strategy.

Sanchit Kandelwal Head of Group Digital Products at National Express Group PLC

Overlooks the strategy and management of digital products for the international National Express group which includes bus, coach and rail services in the UK, Europe, Northern America (USA and Canada) and MENA (Bahrain and Morocco). He’s currently working on building a Mobility as a Service solution with governmental bodies.

Danny Gonzalez Chief Digital and Innovation Officer at LNER

Started as database management and marketing at Virgin (both Atlantic Airways and train). He has a focus on customer tech and is exploring how to enhance connectivity.

What’s been the impact of Covid on the ground floor and what has changed?

National Express: Before Covid, National Express were planning to invest into developing strategic and visionary projects but as the pandemic came into focus there was a more cautioned and close look at their existing digital transformation programs. As the months have passed, there’s been a push to focus on revenue generation and safety. For example, they are working with local councils on a MaaS (Mobility as a Service) offering — looking beyond the coach and bus services they provide to how they can be connected and support their customer’s entire journey.

Sanchit said that ‘until now, National Express wasn’t exploring data deeply, now we are building to be a data-driven company.’ As a result of the pandemic, National Express is planning to build an API and make their data available both internally and externally, opening new potential partnerships and collaborations.

Covid has shown that having an effective data structure and strategy is critical for any business. We took our learnings from projects with rail management company, VR Group and energy supplier, Fortum and wrote the Best Practices for Creating Fast Business Value from Data and Analytics.

They’ve even changed their design and build philosophy, opting to bring micro-projects to market at pace rather than a ‘Big Bang’ approach, this makes them more agile and able to implement changes faster.

TfL: Of course, COVID has brought down ridership significantly. With such a drastic adjustment we had to have clear communications. But beyond that, the TfL digital team didn’t actually see much disruption apart from the acceleration of some projects. For example, in the summer of 2020, they had to release TfL Go ahead of schedule. This is an app built in-house that gives customers a dynamic view of TfL’s services. It’s early release meant that when the lockdown was eased, riders were able to navigate changes in real-time.

Hanna commented that COVID didn’t change the business case or approach to the app, it just accelerated the roadmap. She highlighted other features to come, for example tracking the business of stations and options for walking and cycling. She also mentioned that their process hasn't changed much, the only difference is having to use remote user testing and that a lower ridership means a lower engagement for their digital services, therefore less feedback.

LNER: Danny mentioned that managing the team remotely has been challenging. Their digital team was very comfortable with tech but bringing on the rest of the company was a hurdle. This was especially prevalent when introducing products and services to frontline staff. He added that they’re normally present in person to demo new tech and use those sessions to learn.

A silver lining was that it presented good business cases for the CX projects they had in the pipeline. It brought more innovations to the fore at LNER, allowing them to work with AI, for example. Which gave proof of concept for ideas like seat mapping, live scheduling and allowed them to bring unique products to market faster – like with their social distance tracking measures.

This also meant a change in their approach. They are now taking a McKinsey 3 horizon model which allows them to get projects done faster and to boost efficiency. They have also brought in new partners to add to their service offerings, such as the digital onboard food ordering service.

Digital Service for Safety

At National Express, there has been work to do to keep staff safe while also managing full services at only 30% capacity. This hasn’t just been a challenge though, as it’s also opened opportunities for the team to experiment more as they have less load to carry. They took this time to redesign their site and optimise their operational services. It also helps elevate their digital tools to more parts of their business, for example, they have developed a more efficient way to handle their form handling and licensing.

It also made National Express re-evaluate their routing strategy. They held a service sprint which looked at how to convert passages from cars to public transport and the key takeaway was to look at the passenger’s end destination, supporting that by any means, even offering help outside of core capabilities with trains, trams and so on.

This philosophy of experimental thinking beyond their ‘circle’ has made fundamental changes throughout National Express. Sanchit mentioned adjustments to safety as an ongoing KPI, and that legal and management are invested in optimising assets and network planning, not limiting themselves to prior tools. Culture Change

LNER are using some of the disruption the pandemic has brought to analyse company culture and make improvements. As COVID has accelerated the digitisation of companies, it’s more apparent that quality, well implemented tech is now an absolute necessity. The conversation around digital and tech has, for example, helped the wider LNER team be more receptive to new ideas.

National Express has seen similar cultural changes. Sanchit said ‘with only a handful of staff members at the office, a huge investment has been made into tech and data management’.

Hanna made an interesting statement that ‘with any digital change comes a cultural change’. Adding that working remotely has changed their process but has caused the team to be much more productive, efficient and agile. She feels they’ve found a just-right Goldilocks Zone, where everyone can move quickly and get strategic thinking into products and go live faster.


As a government-owned company, TfL does have different regulatory obligations to offer accessibility, more so than private companies might. Hanna explained that when developing the app they had to build a new language to make it easier to design more accessible features. This, she adds, will be an ongoing conversation that goes beyond the TfL Go app and that they plan to publish the language and their learnings in the near future.


National Express has had a focus on bringing more sustainable assets to its portfolio. Their aim is to go fully hydrogen/electric powered by 2030 and have been making headway with that. Sanchit added that they also plan to eliminate paper tickets completely, this will also solve some issues they’ve had with fraudulent tickets.

Being a government-owned business means that LNER is aligned with governmental goals but they also plan to go beyond this. Danny said, “the ‘public transport is more eco-friendly than cars’ statement is a common trope for businesses similar to our’s to fall back on, but we’re going beyond that”.

Hanna stated that TfL has had sustainability at the core of every team. They are exploring how to reform the company to be more sustainable inside and out, really delving into and being strict with what they need. She said ‘do we really need post-it notes? Or even paper at all?’

18-month Prediction

At TfL, Hanna predicts that the trajectory they are on will continue and that both the cultural and operational changes are fundamental and will continue to evolve.

Danny said that senior management at LNER was having a long conversation about how to be more agile. He added that infamously the rail sector can be slow and dismissive of disruption and innovation but having looked at all the potential threats and opportunities for the future, they are rapidly becoming more agile and operationally innovative.

Looking to the future and potential international cooperation, National Express has been opening its doors to collaborations. This is happening externally with their partnership with Transport for West Midlands and internally with their expansion of MaaS projects to their international teams. Their goal is to bring better mobility options and freedom of choice to their customers. They’re also looking to invest more in sustainable assets like hydrogen-powered coaches and are this time of low traffic to experiment with new avenues.

Hanna added that their TfL Go app has made them invest more into improving their data. TfL has been a leader in having an open data policy and is well known for its open API but are looking to grow this by improving data points for incidents and addressing accessibility issues

Closing Statements

Hanna: TfL is focussed on truly integrated, flexible and accessible mobility.

Danny: LNER is using collaboration to deliver innovation.

Sanchit: National Express is developing inventive services that will bring people back.

Watch the full discussion here.

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  • Portrait of Matthew Edwards
    Matthew Edwards
    Co-MD, UK