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Home TECH Danny Gonzalez, Director of Innovation and Digital, London North Eastern Railway

Danny Gonzalez, Director of Innovation and Digital, London North Eastern Railway

Danny Gonzalez, Chief Digital and Innovation Officer (CDIO) at London North Eastern Railway (LNER), says technology and data are increasingly enabling his company’s ability to deliver high-quality services to customers. “Digital runs through our work like words through a stick of rock,” he observes.

González transitioned to LNER, the rail company that operates the UK’s East Coast Main Line, in late 2018 when the franchise moved from previous operator Virgin Trains. He became CDIO at LNER, having previously been director of marketing at Virgin. His appointment to the role coincided with a broader recognition by the board that digital transformation would play a key role in the future direction of the business.

“We wanted to make sure that we could compete in the market today and in the future, and that basically led to the creation of a digital directorate that I run, which is actually really unique in a rail franchise,” he says. . “I was tasked with setting that direction and taking on digital transformation.”

Gonzalez’s day-to-day role is to ensure that the specialists in his 38-strong leadership support a broader business transformation. He acknowledges that rail has a reputation for not being the most innovative industry, and that is where González aims to change perceptions.

“For me, a big part of the role is being that transformational and cultural broker who sets the challenges for the business,” he says. “More specifically within the digital direction, it’s about making sure our teams are supported and empowered to drive the change that the business needs.”

The transformation of the company covers two main lines. Externally, it’s about ensuring customers have a digital experience that supports high-quality travel with LNER. Internally, the change is about creating an efficient and well-managed business, with the development of operating systems and processes that are aligned with the future objectives of the organization.

“It’s about making sure that the whole business is being modernized so that it’s in the best place to compete and that we become the transportation of choice in the rail market,” he says.

“It’s about making sure the whole business is modernizing”

Danny Gonzalez, LNER

González is part of the executive board of LNER. A technology team led by an IT manager is located within the organization’s business services department. This IT team is in charge of enabling the innovative ideas that González generates and his digital leadership.

“A big part of LNER’s success in this space is our collaborative approach to working,” he says. “Everyone on the executive team is clear that digital transformation is a priority for us when it comes to being a successful business.

“That positioning really helps all the teams in the company to come together and understand that digital transformation is crucial for us. We are fortunate to have a managing director who is absolutely on board and champions what we are doing. And even on top of that, we have a very supportive president.”

Building a platform for change

González acknowledges that transforming an industry that relies on legacy processes and systems is no easy task. In addition to having to move away from reliance on paper records and often decades-old systems, his team must help make passenger journeys as smooth as possible through a complicated set of interactions.

“The railway is absolutely full of things that can go wrong on a journey from one end to the other,” he says. “From the retail part of the experience to getting to a train station and the delays that can happen when you’re on the trains and going through the experience on board and even walking away from the station.

“We believe that digital plays an absolutely crucial role in helping customers be in complete control of all those elements of the journey. We look at how we can address pain points and prioritize the different types of customers we have.”

Another key factor driving LNER’s business transformation is the need for operational efficiencies. If technologies can be implemented that help reduce costs and increase profits, then González and his board are eager to explore potential applications.

“The other part of the equation is the well-documented challenges around the cost of running the railways,” he says. “We really need to modernize to be viable businesses in the future. A big part of that will be the digital transformation of how we run our business and moving away from legacy processes and legacy technology.”

The digital team has focused on a couple of major programs to help support its technology explorations. First, they moved the company’s IT infrastructure to AWS to provide a scalable, cloud-based reservation platform. Second, they have implemented real-time data systems to help create personalization for customers.

“AWS has helped create an integrated ecosystem to move data between the different components of the business,” says González. “That allows us to give our technology teams what they need and create the products and services that our customers require.”

Exploring cutting-edge innovations

LNER’s digital leadership has already driven some creative solutions to business challenges and the team continues to look for more openings. González says that his efforts are often focused on innovation opportunities.

“We’re looking at things that can really make a difference to the business and we’re looking much further down the roadmap to see new technologies that could help us address our pain points,” he says. “We give the team a lot of freedom to test things, run proofs of concept and understand where the technology works or doesn’t work.”

A crucial element of this activity is an internal accelerator program called FutureLabs, where LNER works with the startup community to explore new and exciting directions. Since 2020, the digital leadership, in combination with an ecosystem of start-ups and partners, has released more than 60 tools and tested 15 proofs of concept.

LNER has just run the third cohort of its accelerator, where selected startups are mentored and funded to scale up technology solutions alongside the digital team. FutureLabs’ first launch led to LNER’s QR code-enabled “Let’s Eat at Your Seat” feature, which allows passengers to order food and drink from their seats, which was crucial during the social distancing requirements of the coronavirus pandemic. .

Other innovative product launches include Quantum, which leverages machine learning technology to help process large volumes of historical data on rail travel. Developed in conjunction with a specialist start-up called Junction, Quantum helps LNER employees reroute potentially delayed train services while minimizing the impact on passengers.

“Everyone is really excited about this project and how technology can be used to transform the way we provide our train services,” says González. “When you look at the list of customer requirements, the one that comes up as absolute number one is ‘I want my train to be on time.’ If anything is going to keep people off the rail, it’s long delays.”

Providing excellent connectivity

The provision of Wi-Fi connectivity is another major issue for people using public transport. As González acknowledges, it’s difficult for companies to provide high-quality connectivity to passengers on trains hurtling through the countryside at 125 mph.

That challenge is intensified by the growing number of customers using their smart devices to consume TV shows, music and games online from major entertainment companies. LNER research suggests 69% of customers consider a good Wi-Fi connection when choosing how to travel. For business travelers, this figure rises to 79%.

Providing connectivity is difficult at the best of times, but it becomes even more difficult when people stream content that demands significant amounts of bandwidth. LNER’s response is an innovative approach called Edgecasting, which allows passengers to stream content from the ITV Hub without affecting the Wi-Fi capacity of the trains.

The railway company is working with technology specialist Netskrt to test the technology. Popular content is stored on train servers. When passengers log into the LNER Wi-Fi service, they are presented with the opportunity to stream content. In addition to the proof of concept, González is exploring how other media companies could get involved in the future.

“Edgecasting caches streaming platforms directly on the Wi-Fi service on a train,” he says. “For users, it’s almost as if their ITV Hub account is now on board the train. We are testing the service on some trains at the moment. We’re also looking to introduce BBC iPlayer and are talking to Amazon to see if we can get those guys on board as well.

“We’re very excited about Edgecasting because I think it could solve what has been a very difficult problem with how people stream content. It also frees up bandwidth, so business customers can use our Wi-Fi capability for the things they need to do. So far, it’s working flawlessly. It’s a very smart piece of technology.”

arrive at the destination

Over the next 24 months, González says his team will try to understand how applying more machine learning tools can help transform the business.

“We really see it as a space that can change the game in terms of a lot of things that we do,” he says. “It will help our people make better, more informed decisions. Machine learning also wants to help us automate some of our processes.”

González believes that automation encompasses a large area of ​​possible technological advances. He says there are still too many barriers that make it difficult for people to buy transport tickets and services quickly, and there is a significant opportunity to automate processes and allow customers to serve themselves.

“By empowering everyone through technology, we really strive to provide customers with digital touchpoints at every point that matters to them when they interact with us,” he says. “Ultimately, we want customers to get off our trains and say that LNER is delivering an amazing experience, whether it’s through digital channels, through our people or on our trains.”

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