"Our team have been working incredibly hard to make sure we have the right processes in place for continuing the ideas after the hackathons. It’s not perfect, it never will be, but it’s always going to keep evolving as the industry changes."
For an industry that relies increasingly on digital technology to keep it running efficiently and safely, it’s perhaps unsurprising that rail faces challenges that didn’t exist more than a few years ago. Helping the rail industry come up with some of the solutions, there is a growing number of hackers using their skills for good to make rail a better way to travel. Known as Hack Partners, the group tours the world to bring on board some of the most creative young tech minds to develop new ideas. The man who got the ball rolling is River Tamoor Baig, Hack Partners founder, and he is the subject of the latest SmartRail World 5 Minutes With…
River is gearing up for fifth edition of the show designed especially for the rail industry – Hacktrain 5.0 – and he spoke with Dave Songer to give a lowdown on the upcoming event, explain why he does what he does and how it is they find hacking talent.
Dave Songer (DS): For those that don’t know, can you tell me a bit about Hack Partners?
River Tamoor Baig (RTB): OMG, there are people who don’t know about us? Just kidding. It’s always great to meet new people who don’t know about the initiative! Hack Partners is a hybrid event and technology company whose goal it is to solve some of the rail industries biggest challenges. Our flagship event, known as the HackTrain Hackathon, is a movement leading innovation across Europe influencing policy change, bringing key stakeholders together, and improving the customer experience for passengers.
DS: What was your original motivation for starting up Hack Partners?
RTB: To just solve some problems which were low hanging fruit. I travelled a lot in the North of England at the time… basically a third of my time was spent on trains and the services weren’t running too well, so I decided to take matters into my own hands and do something about it.
DS: What are the main challenges that you as an organisation faces?
RTB: I think the biggest challenges are to do with being able to traverse through some of the massive political changes that affect the industry from top to bottom. The changes in government ministers; another rail review; cancellation/delays of franchise bids; and other issues have happened without any warning, which as a result really caught us – and many other businesses I would assume – off guard.
DS: You’ve been involved in a broad range of project management, marketing and events roles since graduating, how have they helped you in your current position?
RTB: Haha, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for what happens in the rail industry! Actually, the biggest thing I’ve learned over the years is that in order to make an impact and drive change, you need to get people on board. That sometimes means slowing down so others can get involved as opposed to just going 200mph all the time!
DS: You’re soon going to embark upon Hacktrain 5.0 – what have been the biggest changes since the first one?
RTB: The first one we actually had access to only 1 data feed, Darwin. Now, so many years later because of the trust we’ve built with the likes of Network Rail, SNCF and Deutsche Bahn we are able to get access to so much more rich data that ultimately makes our event and the outcomes 100-times better. Better outcomes ultimately lead to better savings and improved performance for the passenger.
DS: Is anything different going to be happening at this year’s show?
RTB: No, actually. This year’s show will be the same as last. What happens afterwards in terms of continuing ideas will be very, very different. Our team have been working incredibly hard to make sure we have the right processes in place for continuing the ideas after the hackathons. It’s not perfect, it never will be, but it’s always going to keep evolving as the industry changes.
HackTrain 6.0, though, now that will be a completely different event! We have some really, really cool things in the pipeline which I’ll be able to share in due course.
DS: Exciting times. How do you ensure that you have only the best, most capable participants join the Hack Train events?
RTB: We have a full-time ‘talent manager’ who throughout the year interviews and assesses potential participants for the hackathon. It’s a lot of work, last year we interviewed 500 people altogether. By doing this, we’re able to ensure that the participants aren’t only the best capability wise, but also, they’re the type of people you’d be okay spending 48-hours on a train with!
DS: What are Hack Partners’ future goals?
RTB: Our biggest goal for the future is to create even more good news stories regarding the outcomes from our events and how they’re being utilised within the industry. Show how we’re making a difference and amplify it even more. As to whether we make a difference to the industry, I don’t think it’s for me to decide what impact we’ve had. Hopefully over time history will make it clear who did what.
We’ve also expanded into the world of infrastructure with our newest initiative, InfraHack, which is focused on improving critical economic infrastructure that the likes of Bentley Systems, Mott MacDonald, and Fujitsu are collaborating with us on.
DS: Other than you own, is there a technology/innovation out there that has really grabbed your attention?
RTB: Nothing yet to be honest, but I like what the guys at FlixTrain are doing, and the increased utilisation of electric scooters has been cool too. Thomas Ableman, ex-commercial director of Chiltern has been growing super-fast with his Sn-ap Travel Technology start-up, which offers premium intercity coach travel on demand at reduced rates. I’m keeping my eyes opened to see how the tech community starts integrating all of this together. Flix is in the best position to do this in my opinion – don’t be surprised if they announce something soon.
DS: We certainly look forward to that, River. Thanks for your time and we hope that Hack Partners and Hacktrain continue to go from strength to strength.
SmartRail World readers can get 25% off the ticket price at the HackTrain Conference, where they will be able to see the outcomes of HackTrain 5.0 + HackTrain InnoTrans.