This blog post is by ^DH, views my own!
One of my biggest annoyances of 2017 with Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) was their implementation of new technology. I remember speaking to David Horne at the first York VTEC Airtime event back in 2015 and he shared my enthusiasm for using technology to improve the customer experience. But if you see my Tweets now you might not believe I want things to move forward. I urge people not to use VTEC mobile tickets, I mock their attempts at innovation, it doesn't sound like someone who really wants VTEC to lead the way with technology.
It wasn't always like this, initially I was very supportive of the project. Back in 2015 I took a day of my time to go to a focus session in Leeds where we looked at early proposals for how the site was to function and gave feedback. As I had to sign an NDA at the time I can't comment on these.
Fast forward to 2017 and finally I heard the site was in beta. In June I spent a few hours going through the site documenting bugs both small and large and also offering suggestions (this was done privately so no link available). I sent these to VTEC and also continued to update them when other issues and ideas came up. My view on the website was it had issues, but it also had potential. I thought the main issues with the site (e.g. changing tickets) would have been addressed before release so I concentrated on smaller issues that I considered important (cycle reservations being that main one) which I thought would be more likely to be cut from the initial release.
In the end it turned out the site was going to launch before I considered it ready and based on the feedback on Twitter I was not the only one to agree. It was like they took a step back 10 years in terms of functionality. The official launch was made on 1st August when it was still lacking lots of features and was not ready for release.
I've worked in many mismanaged IT projects in my life. I believe that with a small team working with hand picked developers I could get a better booking engine from initial designs to beta in around 6 months, the main problem with IT projects these days it that the teams get too large and hard to manage, if a third party is developing the site they will often drag things out in order to charge more. I'm also not convinced in the way many organisations implement the agile methodology, it's often implemented without thought for the needs of the project and the best way to work with the team. Whichever way development of the website was conducted it certainly was a farce, after a long wait it was still something not ready for prime time.
The other products of the planned digital revolution didn't go to plan either. The new ticket machines have a lot of issues that have been addressed before and the new Travel Buddy app is the biggest joke of the lot. All it does is launch webpages and act as a ticket wallet. Unfortunately the ticket wallet functionality often crashes that app.
Why the frustration?
I've been both angry and frustrated by the way things have progressed with these eCommerce projects. They had the potential to produce something amazing for VTEC when in reality they've made things worse than what we had previously. The anger is because I want to see the East Coast remain as the premier rail operator in the UK as well as wanting to see the rail industry in general start pushing ahead using technology. I know if I had been involved on any of the projects I would have raised the alarm bells if things were starting to go off the track I certainly wouldn't have stayed quiet as it's a project I want to succeed.
Bart Quinton-Smith, Travel Industry Manager at Google said "The rail industry is so far behind all other industries, but if you want to look within the industry, then I think Virgin Trains are doing some really interesting things." By other industries he'll be referring to the travel industry as that's his area of expertise, I've been using airline boarding passes on my mobile phone for over 10 years now without issues, the rail industry does have some unique challenges and when that quote was made it did look like VTEC were on their way to addressing those issues.
The frustration is due to the breakdown in communications at first the head of eCommerce was quite receptive to feedback, but when I started asking questions about the lack of cycle reservations and would they be ready for the official release and all I got back was silence that suggested things weren't going to plan. As feedback was being ignored I tried various approaches to getting the message out there including humiliation, writing various articles on this site, comparisons and humour (the Virgin Train's [sp] East Coast website was a spoof site created in an amateur 90s style to show how they were taking the company backwards). These approaches were only taken once VTEC had started ignoring criticism and claiming all had gone well.
Now it's nearly Christmas and the key features we were hoping for have yet to appear but they have added support for PayPal so we do know the site is still being worked on. I'd like to understand what has gone wrong and why, but the failure of the eCommerce team to reach out when the going got tough means that never happened.
Other departments within VTEC have been happy to reach out in the past to explain their side of the story when things haven't been looking good. If I knew the full story I might be more understanding, in fact I might be able to offer advice on getting back on track.
Innovation v basics
So far the only visible example of innovation I've seen from VTEC embracing start up companies is Seatfrog, an app that allows you to bid on upgrades close to the time of travel. In typical VTEC style it was launched to great fanfare when it wasn't ready for prime time. Some of the issues have been resolved, but many are still finding it difficult to get upgrades months after the high profile launch. It's hard to know whether this disastrous launch was because Seatfrog wasn't ready or the systems VTEC needed to provide to enable it weren't ready. It's not looking good for them though. Currently VTEC is their only partner, although they have an airline section in their app they don't currently have any airline partners (although they're said to be coming soon), this poor launch regardless of whether it's the fault of VTEC or Seatfrog will put other partners off getting involved with the service. Their app is currently mostly 1-star reviews and their Twitter following has now dropped to just 1,331 (at the time of writing) which is not very high for a company promoted heavily through not just the VTEC social media channels but also other ones in the Virgin Group. The fact that Save East Coast Rewards has more followers on Twitter despite not having a Virgin sized marketing budget promoting it should be worrying for Seatfrog.
What would I have done differently? I would have used in-app offers to push upgrades in a similar way to British Airways does. When 1st class is quiet then upgrades could be offered directly inside the VTEC app at a fixed price. Once you accept the upgrade then it's confirmed immediately with the option to choose your seat.
As for other innovations VTEC got involved in the Hacktrain events in 2015 and Platform-X in association with Virgin StartUp this year. It is great that they are trying to encourage innovation and new ideas but there needs to be some thought put into it before things are released to the public.
The most important thing is whatever they decide to do with encouraging innovation the basics aren't forgotten. When you see millions being spent on a useless app while at the same time you see cutbacks on-board both to the number of staff and the service offering you have to wonder if their priorities are right.
There's room for both innovation and getting the basics right, but the basics always should be covered first. Excellent results could also be achieved with a smaller innovation budget, but the money has to be invested smarter.