The great UK rail disruption: How Virgin Trains restored order from chaos

Virgin Trains, a ServiceNow customer, is undergoing transformation like so many industries. Where it differs is with its team, its perspective, and its success. Listen to John Sullivan, Virgin Trains CIO tell you about it. You will learn something.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

Recently, I was at the ServiceNow annual shindig Knowledge 19 (a.k.a. Know19 -- which is 18 more things than I know) and had the good fortune to meet and have breakfast with a trio of genuine transformation leaders (two terms I don't use lightly).

These three were leading the transformation effort at Virgin Trains, a very significant UK passenger rail company and a leading ServiceNow customer. These guys -- John Sullivan, CIO, Dean Underwood, head of IT Services, and Barj Duhra, platform owner and service delivery manager -- and I had an amazing breakfast discussion that, to say the least, was both wide-ranging and a total blast. What is captivating, beside their personalities and sense of humor, is the Virgin Trains transformation story, so I figured I'd make this known.

So, voila! Here it is -- written by John Sullivan, with the able support of his two sidekicks. Read, listen, and learn. And, if you ever get the chance to hang out with them, you should do it.

Take it away, John.

Like many projects that have a completely fresh approach, this initiative started at the heart of the business, namely on the platforms of Euston Station (London). I and my colleagues in the tech team at Virgin Trains had left their desks to help our colleagues and customers on the platforms, as a significant disruption was happening. Although we were trying to help, I remember going home feeling so frustrated, as all day we could not give our customers the full picture as we did not have the necessary information ourselves. Our root-cause problem is simple: Thousands of colleagues, trying to communicate to circa 100,000 customers each day, everyone doing manual work with little/no automation and trying desperately to get quality information so we can pass this onto customers. One way to understand the size of the problem, just Google "rail disruption" in the UK and you will be returned with 237 million items.

I had a strong sense of frustration, long after the event was over. As a result, I thought we had to do something to improve both the customer and colleague experience. We realized it was going to be a challenge, as this issue has been around since rail began, in fact since the inception of transportation. However, I wanted to use my frustration in a positive way and use my energy to make the much needed changed. My positive thoughts turned into excitement, as I realized Virgin Trains would be the first transport company in the global to address this challenge.

Undeterred, we set out to address the issue, which in summary, was how to bring structure to a chaotic situation. To start with we engaged with our technology partner, ServiceNow. The first question was: How do we fix one of the largest business issues we have? We spent half a day agreeing the process, which started from nothing right through to delivering a fresh thinking application, the first of its kind. This involved getting the business involved with detailed workshops; asking what the problem is and how could we fix it, in the best way possible. I knew that, with change, 'engagement' is critical, so we set-up Executive Engagement Day to ensure we had full buy-in at the most senior levels, which is where we demo the mock-up of the system with the lens of a customer and our colleagues. This event was a great opportunity to show-case our thinking, as well as receiving feedback when listening is so important. The Engagement Days were so important to show how the future could be, not just with tech but also the business process and how we would involve the frontline.

Fast forward six months, and our gleaming system is ready to launch. What does the system do? We check if our frontline teams are safe, and if so, we clearly outline on their mobile phone in a highly intuitive way, what they should do, and where they should be. The control and resource teams, who suffer the most in times of larger disruption, have a number of disruptions scenarios that we have put into templates that can be quickly deployed, depending on the type of disruption -- from small to large! This correct information to our teams is delivered very quickly and stops them making calls to control, in fact any manual tasks. When large disruptions happen, they can take 1,500 call in two hours, which really makes it impossible to do anything and they certainly don't have the 'thinking time' needed.

By getting the latest information to all our colleagues we ensure that they know what the latest plan is, and theyreceive personalized and quality messages. The frontline teams can also feedback into the process. So, for example, how many people are affected in any one station -- or, on a train, are there any customers that need special attention and are in danger? This is incredibly useful as our teams were disconnected and geographically dispersed, not to mention being tied up making phones calls not helping customers.

We also have a destination portal, where both colleagues and customers can see clean information on exactly what is happening and work out the best way home. Disruption is an everyday thing, be it small or large scale. We want to give our customers the right information, at the right time to get them home in the quickest and safest way possible. Having clean/accurate data is critical for both customers and colleagues and it addresses one of our key challenges, that being that customers often know moreor different information compared or our colleagues. Now the customer will know what the onward journey will be with an accurate ETA. They will also lose the anxiety of not knowing if the ticket will be accepted -- because they will be and everyone will be aware of this.

Finally, now control and resource teams have quality time and information, they can change the destination of trains. For example, if there are 1,000 customers in Euston London and 700 of them want to go to Manchester, the next train can be diverted to Manchester, to get our customers home earlier than we did before and with all the correct information. By removing the anxiety of travel, it will make customers more likely to use rail in future.

Our NPS score general runs at 40, but in times of disruptions it can get to lower than 30. This is exactly the same for colleagues as it is for customers. We are super confident that our system will make a really positive impact for everyone and this will be reflected in the future NPS scores. That is the main purpose of this transformation: By reducing anxiety when disruption happens, Virgin Trains will deliver a more consistent service by addressing the 'blips' in our operation.

This is how we as a team and with our great partners at ServiceNow can resolve really significant business issues. For us all, it is so fulfilling to make such a positive change, especially as we are the first to address such a significant business issue across the world. This is a system we want to share, only as we feel it is the right thing to do for the benefit of both customers and colleagues.

No one has faced the challenge of resolving disruption across the world, so we know it would be a challenge. However, with our determination, creative ability, working as a team we were very confident we would make a difference.

My experience with project delivery tells me that proactive engagement is critical for a successful delivery. Also, the technology is so good (I cannot think of a better example than ServiceNow) and fast-paced now, it changes the way we should think about delivering change. Here, at Virgin Trains, we very much focus on engagement. We engage the business in every possible way. We ran a competition to name our disruption project, with the incentive of winning an iPad. So, out of the 3,500 colleagues, we had 2,000 of them apply. The winning entry was "Back On Track." Get it? We even asked the frontline team to design the logo to use on the email footer, which everyone on the project team uses:


Example 1: Task Summary

Provides an overview of all the tasks that are currently being carried out by the Response Team. This gives staff members the transparency into how the team is responding, and they can get an idea of when certain activities are due to complete.


Example 2: Customer Impact Assessment

Provides the ability for Station and Train staff to capture information about the customers that are stranded at their location. Each section represents a destination, and the Station Team Lead or Train Manager can specify how many people they have going to each destination. This information is then given back to control to help make better decisions about how to best support these customers.


Example 3: Business Impact

Provides executives an overview of how the disruption has affected customers, staff and services. This information can be aggregated over time using performance analytics to help articulate the true effect of disruption.


Both the technology team at Virgin Trains and I are incredibly excited about our disruption story, and we strongly believe our 'thinking' should change the way any business deals with surprising events. Isn't that what we all go to work for: To make a positive change for people, especially as in this case, from a negative situation. I love the concept of 'technology for humanity,' and this project delivers it, from checking our colleagues are safe to getting customers home quicker.

Thanks John.

Once again, the same housekeeping note: If you would like to register for the CRM Watchlist 2020, please send me an email at paul-greenberg3@the56group.com. For information on the CRM Watchlist and how it works, read this post and this post, and you'll get the idea, though there are a few changes for 2020.

The best Tech inventions of all time 2: Transport

Editorial standards