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Innovation and the future of smart travel in the North of England

In this article Transport for the North’s newly appointed Director of Integrated and Smart Travel, Jeremy Acklam, explains more about how the implementation of innovative new technologies could revolutionise travel and transport across the North of England.

Transport for the North on course towards statutory status

Jeremy Acklam is hoping to lead a transport revolution in the North of England.

When I joined Transport for the North – the Sub-national Transport Body tasked with making the case for strategic transport improvements across the North of England – as Director for Integrated and Smart Travel (IST) earlier in the year I was excited by the opportunity to genuinely transform travel for the millions of people who live and work in the region.

I started at a particularly challenging time, with public transport usage plummeting and the Government, understandably, advising against all unnecessary travel to keep people safe. Despite that, the last six months have also still provided plenty of opportunities to create positive change.

Public transport operators and local authorities have reacted impressively quickly to changing passenger needs – including the delivery of flexible ticketing, new digital travel information to keep passengers in the know, and an important refocus on more active forms of travel like cycling.

Although it will take some time yet to overcome the challenging impact of the coronavirus pandemic, I think it’s vital for Transport for the North to work on behalf of all our region’s transport actors, whether they be citizens, operators or other organisations, to deploy an integrated, smart and future-ready vision for travel.

Improving travel and transport is key to tackling our region’s biggest challenges, including economic growth and decarbonisation. The size of the prize is enormous. In the North of England, we have five of the seven biggest cities in the UK outside of London – we need to do better at harnessing that potential. That’s why, in my first three months in this role, I was determined to drive forward our new Innovation Partnership Procurement which intends to explore how we can implement emerging smart technologies to automate and digitise our existing and future transport networks.

Introducing a Smart North Ecosystem

We know our transport networks and ticketing systems need to be better connected to enable the more seamless, integrated travel experience that public transport passengers want – and that’s always been at the forefront of the IST programme vision. But that’s easier said than done across an area like the North, where there are so many different operators, authorities and other ‘actors’ that play a role in getting us from A to B.

Transport for the North’s ambition is to reach a point where technology supports these different actors to communicate with each other – without having to change or undo everything else already in place – in the aim of then enabling new incentives and benefits that encourage people to choose public transport and other forms of greener, shared and active mobility. The enabling technical infrastructure is what we are calling the Smart North Ecosystem and our current Innovation Partnership is designed to inform how this could be implemented across our region.

New ways to incentivise travel

Solving the connectivity problem is only one element of the Smart North Ecosystem. As we look to the future, we need to be bold and imaginative in the ways we encourage and reward passengers who make sustainable travel choices.

A season ticket works well for people who are commuting between the same place regularly by providing a discounted fare compared to daily tickets, and there have been great efforts by the industry to make these smart and as easy to purchase and use as possible. But traditional tickets like that are much less impactful when we are trying to convert private car users or encourage people to use public transport to travel to specific locations or events.

That’s why in imagining the Smart North Ecosystem, we need to think beyond the boundaries of return, weekly, monthly and annual tickets, a transaction solely between the operator and customer, and even beyond exclusively monetary-based ‘fares’.  To decarbonise and transform the North, we need to evolve and create a system that allows us to incentivise travel in new ways.

Transport for the North’s Local Transport Authority partners are working with us to imagine schemes tailored to meet the specific needs of local areas and different passenger types. For example, perhaps citizens could ‘generate’ a discount by walking or cycling to the train and bus station, which would then entitle then to special concessionary or capped fares. A Smart North Ecosystem could help deploy incentives that encourage use of park and ride schemes; assist businesses who want their employees to travel to work in a more eco-friendly way; enable leisure and tourism venues to introduce specialised tickets; and provide new ways to support the unbanked and socially disadvantaged. But first we need the technical infrastructure to support it.

A smart transport revolution

Smart technology is already transforming other industries and it has the potential to do the same for transport. The manufacturing industry is currently undergoing a similar process of using smart technology to interconnect and automate existing processes and systems – known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0 – which serves as a template for the potentially transformative effect this type of innovation could have in the transport sector.

I am not being hyperbolic when I say I want to start a transport revolution. Historically, periods of great transport growth and innovation has always followed other industrial breakthroughs. It’s time for that to happen again, and my ambition is that it happens here in the North of England.

Ultimately the target will be the digitisation of the whole transport chain, but this may take a few years to achieve. Creation of a ‘Digital Twin’ will be a key part of this realisation. Digital twinning is a relatively new but crucial concept. Simply put, a digital twin is just a digital version of the real thing – so in transport terms, it’s a real-time digital representation of the transport network in all its forms.

It sounds technologically complex, but this will bring many tangible benefits for the passenger. For example, whether a citizen wants to know when to set off on their bicycle to arrive in time for the next metro service at the local hub – or when they will arrive by car, train and bus – the digital twin will be able to process that and provide an accurate, live response.

By digitising travel planning in this way, further digitisation of the entire travel chain will then be possible. The Digital Twin could also help transport authorities and operators to model the impacts of any proposed incentive schemes before deploying it in the real world via the Smart North Ecosystem. Together, they will provide incredible flexibility and speed of change. Whole new incentives for one-off events could be created in minutes. Reactions to long-term and well understood trends could be automated easily.

Industry-leading innovation starts here

Through the Innovation Partnership Procurement, I want Transport for the North to be working collaboratively with tech leaders, SMEs, start-ups and other innovators from around the world to explore the delivery of the Smart North Ecosystem and develop the tech solutions that could support this.

Importantly, we want to build on the technology and infrastructure already in place. There’s no point asking operators to ditch the systems that are already working. We should build on these and focus on connecting them with each other. I think this will be more commercially sustainable, and lead to a better, more comprehensive offer for passengers.

As far as we are aware, such a solution does not already exist – which is why an innovation-led approach is the right option.

I am sure there are developers and suppliers out there with new and in-development ideas which Transport for the North could help nurture, demonstrate and potentially explore how to scale these up and bring them into operation. We are excited to hear from them and explore how we could create mutually beneficial partnerships.

This approach is bold and challenges us all to think big, there is no doubt about that, but I am confident it is the approach we need right now.  I look forward sharing more as the procurement progresses over the next six months.

More information about Transport for the North’s Integrated and Smart Travel programme can be found on its website at www.transportfortthenorth.com/ist

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