"One of the key projects we are working very on right now is enabling smart card payment across our franchises – much like Transport for London’s Oyster card."
With a rail division that includes Southeastern and Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), the largest rail franchise in terms of passengers, staff and fleet in the UK, the Go-Ahead group has been heavily involved with the Thameslink Programme that will increase the frequency of services across England’s South East.
The company prides itself on the technology that it has built into its services, with a smart ticketing system that includes delay repay services chief among them. SmartRail World caught up with one of the key individuals behind such innovations, Craig Ellis, chief technology officer at the Go-Ahead Group. Craig speaks with Dave Songer about his career to date, why rail suits him so well and where in the world he’d like to be for his favourite rail journey.
Dave Songer (DS): You’ve been working in rail for around six years now but worked for technology-specific companies prior to that. What do you most like about working in the rail industry?
Craig Ellis (CE): At first I was a bit shocked and taken aback at the size and scale of the railway, and the complexity involved in moving train passengers up and down the UK. One of the main drivers in my decision to leave global telecoms and to move over to Network Rail Telecom (as its head of technology and engineering) was that the underlying telecoms platform is one of the five biggest telecoms networks in the UK. It was also the vision of both the board and my boss Andy Hudson, director of telecoms, had in enabling the future of the Digital Railway.
In my time there I was fortunate to be responsible for the design and build of Network Rail’s next-generation telecoms network (FTNx) which will serve as the underlying platform for the Digital Railway. It was a huge challenge, but very satisfying and a great learning experience.
DS: Chief technology officer sounds like a lot of responsibility – can you give me a description what it entails?
CE: Regardless of roles, the primary objective of everyone who works at Go-Ahead is to ensure our customers have safe, reliable and enjoyable journeys on a daily basis. My role as chief technology officer is to first ensure that the current technology used to enable the journeys (from the backend datacentre platforms to the front-end user interfaces) are fit for purpose and delivering the required capability.
However, a lot of my time is naturally focused on enabling additional capability via the use of technology around areas such as virtualisation, the cloud, Internet of Things (IoT) or more recent innovations such as blockchain utilisation, or how we use and enable Artificial Intelligence across the rail and bus companies we operate. It is a lot of responsibility, especially given we’re such a critical transport operator, but I work with great teams of people so it’s all achievable.
DS: How has rail industry technology progressed in the time you have been involved in the industry?
CE: At an alarming rate! When I joined in 2012 it was still very much around like-for-like project replacements, and in understanding the problems facing the industry. Since that time, we have seen the Digital Railway concept develop and grow with Go-Ahead’s Thameslink franchise in 2018, which uses digital technology for the first time across the UK. We’ve also seen major improvements around smart ticking, smart applications, automatic delay repay and a real change in mentality across the industry in putting the customer first.
@TheGoAheadGroup has been at the forefront of this innovation, including the operations on Thameslink trains. We were the first operator to run and operate smart card payments, as well as the recent groundbreaking introduction of automatic delay repay compensation in 2017 – delivering a better service for our customers.
DS: You spent a number of years working in The Netherlands, Czech Republic and Bulgaria – how has working in different countries helped you in your career?
CE: I think it helped me to understand different personalities and cultures, and how to adapt as required. I was fortunate that each country I worked in was quite different culturally, and you quickly learn how to manage and lead in differing ways. In addition, being an expat means you must be open to change and adaptable, as both work situations and personal situations can change quickly. At British Telecom (BT) I had some great mentors and was a great start to my management career. In moving to Interoute, which was still, in essence, a start-up in global telecoms, I was exposed to a very different approach in which each customer counts, every sale is critical, and every employee must pull their weight and be aligned in the same direction. Finally, fate led to me meeting my wife whilst working in Prague – she is Serbian and was working also at Interoute – and we now have two beautiful boys who keep me very busy away from work.
DS: What has been your biggest professional challenge?
CE: I would say two things stand out. Firstly, at a young age, and at the start of my management career at BT, my colleagues and I had to complete some major network mergers in a short time frame period of time for BT UK’s 2005 acquisition of Infonet. I had to very quickly learn how to lead versus actually doing the job, learning the importance of strong stakeholder engagement in successfully delivering large-scale projects.
My second challenge was the design and build of the next-generation telecoms platform at Network Rail. Having not worked within the railway environment before, I was unaware of the regulations and safety standards that had to be incorporated and complied with, nor the challenges of building a telecoms network across a live, operating railway trackside. It was very stressful but it brought many insightful times for me and the team. I’m happy to say we delivered on-time and on-budget, and I’m proud to have played a part in developing what is a fundamental layer for future UK Digital Railway operations.
DS: What do you think will be the biggest change(s) to rail industry tech over the next decade?
CE: The introduction of the Digital Railway concepts, especially ETCS and Traffic Management. ETCS Level 2 across the UK will help to unlock significant capability and capacity and I can see Go-Ahead Group and our franchises as leaders in this area.
Secondly, I believe blockchain could have huge benefits if incorporated in the right manner for the rail industry. Fundamentally, blockchain helps to manage trusted/untrusted relationships of whatever form in a more effective way, and areas such as ticketing, supply chain and people management across the transport industry could really benefit from blockchain technology if the industry and government can get aligned and deliver it in an uniformed manner.
DS: What are Go-Ahead’s key business priorities? Can you give specific details on a project or target?
CE: While I’m afraid I can’t go into specifics, I can confirm that our key business priorities are all aligned to our “A world where every journey is taken care of” vision. We recently outlined to the City our business strategy which is aligned around three strategic objectives of:
1) Protecting and growing our core business
2) Winning new rail and bus contracts
3) Developing the future of transport.
One of the key projects we are working very on right now is enabling smart card payment across our franchises – much like Transport for London’s Oyster card. We’re very proud of the success of our smart card, which has resulted in us establishing a business fully focused on the area of smart ticketing – it’s named Hammock. Smart ticketing like this is an area that can really help to make customer journeys more convenient, efficient, and deliver the full door-to-door experience customers demand, and there are exciting times ahead.
DS: You spoke at SmartRail this year – what did you cover in your talk and what did you most enjoy about the show?
CE: I spoke talking about Go-Ahead’s work around smart card technology and our rail/bus applications. In the last couple of years, we’ve put a lot of time and energy into our customer-facing apps, and we’re very pleased of their look and feel today, their functions and their capabilities.
It was a great event, where I met many interesting and like-minded people and we also won the Passenger Innovation of the Year award for our work on automatic train delay repayments, which was a proud moment that topped the event off brilliantly. I’m looking forward to SmartRail 2019!
CE: I’d like to name one that I haven’t done yet, if I may. I’ve always wanted to take the Simplon Orient Express route between Paris and Istanbul via Belgrade. It stops off at Lausanne, Milan, Venice and then Belgrade, Sofia before arriving at Istanbul. I think people often overlook the beauty of Western and Eastern Europe, and I would love to take that journey – especially as it stops in my adopted home of Belgrade.
Closer to home, and it’s a cliché I’m afraid, but I really enjoy my Friday commute home from London Euston to Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire after a busy and enjoyable week at work. It’s great to grab a drink with colleagues after a busy week at work, enjoy London’s vibrant atmosphere and then take a 30-minute commute back home to spend some quality time with family and friends.
DS: Sounds good to me, Craig. Thanks for taking part in 5 Minutes With…
If you enjoyed this, why not check out the last edition with David Shipman, signalling innovations manager at Network Rail.
Would you like to get involved in this feature? This informal feature gives our readership the chance to get to know more about the personalities behind the industry, what it is that inspires them and where they see the industry heading. Get in touch with Dave Songer: firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.