6 innovative SNCB technologies that improve the travel experience

Published on 03/11/2021 in Inspire

SNCB establishes the Innovation Lab. “Flexibility and connectivity are the challenges of the mobility sector,” says Stefan Costeur, Head of Innovation Lab. “The lab analyzes trends and tests IoT and data analytics through innovative projects.”

6 innovative SNCB technologies that improve the travel experience

While the general public may not always associate SNCB with innovation right off the bat, our Belgian national railway company is clearly serious about innovation. And the Innovation Lab is a crucial catalyst on that front. “We want to get as many internal employees and departments as possible on board to create a culture of innovation and help new ideas and projects flourish faster,” said Stefan Costeur.

6 Innovation Lab innovations

1. Artificial intelligence predicts crowds

Focus on the passenger is the common theme in every Innovation Lab activity. That was highlighted recently at the MoveSafe appNew window launch. The app informs passengers about the expected train occupancy rate. “It's a handy function that adds to passenger safety in the COVID-19 era,” Stefan Costeur explained.

MoveSafe relies on historical data and current variables to predict crowd density. “What few passengers are aware of, is that train conductors forecast crowding for each journey and pass that information on. We collect these data in a huge data lake, enriched with current factors such as the weather forecast, infrastructure works, train composition, etc. Smart algorithms and artificial intelligence then take that data and generate an accurate estimate.”

2. Mobile data analysis counts passengers

The Innovation Lab is researching opportunities in the main Brussels stations for passenger counting. Sensors, IoT devices, Wi-Fi sensors, and Proximus mobile data provide the data for the passenger count. Measurements take place in the station, on trains, and throughout the entire journey.

“Mapping passenger flows promotes safety on our trains and in our stations,” Stefan Costeur continued. “We would also like to acquire insight into the number of passengers per car in the future. It’s not unusual for everyone to leap into the closest crowded car, while there are still plenty of available seats at the front and back of the train.”

At Brussels Midi station, the data is visualized in a retail dashboard. Thanks to the dashboard, the station department gains insight into the ratio between the number of station visitors and the number of people in the stores.

3. Location data simplifies ticket purchasing

More and more passengers are buying their tickets digitally. “We aim for that to be a seamless experience. The hop-on-hop-off buses in tourist cities inspired a test project in which a single smartphone swipe is all it takes to register the trip. Once the passenger is back on foot again after their train ride, the app suggests terminating the train ride and generates the passenger's final bill. 98% accuracy opens prospects for expanding the application’s rollout,” Stefan Costeur said.

4. Chatbots for young passengers

SNCB appeals to young passengers with its innovative projects. “We launched a test project for the sale of Go Unlimited in 2018. It’s a flat-rate ticket that provides young people with access to unlimited travel for a set period. “We sold Go Unlimited directly via a chatbot on Facebook Messenger,” Stefan Costeur recalled. “Meanwhile, the ticket has a new name – Youth Holidays.”

“In the meantime, the chatbot has evolved too. It answers frequently asked questions like “Can I take my bike on the train?” and provides real-time insight into our timetable. We'll soon be updating those features with a ticket sales module. We aim to provide an equal service through WhatsApp and Google Voice Assistant.”

The chatbot answers frequently asked questions like “Can I take my bike on the train?” and provides real-time insight into our timetable.

Stefan Costeur, Head of Innovation Lab at SNCB


5. Virtual assistant shortens ticket desk lines

The virtual assistant is another communication channel developed by the Innovation Lab. “Lots of passengers ask our ticket agents fairly simple questions, like ‘What’s the fastest way for me to get from Brussels to Bruges?’ Our virtual assistant has no trouble handling that. At the Brussels-Midi and Namur stations, we reviewed how it helped passengers along on their journey while reducing ticket desk traffic at the same time.”

6. Gamification motivates ticket sales

Gamification-related test projects illustrate how Innovation Lab thinks outside of the box. “People are inherently motivated by a playful approach,” Stefan Costeur points out. “One idea is to use our app to tell people how much CO2 emissions they save by taking the train and then to offer them a reward in return. Or – along the same lines as the Foursquare application – we could award badges to those who make a certain number of journeys.”

Stefan Costeur is SNCB’s Digital Sales & Marketing Manager and Head of Innovation Lab. The Innovation Lab is a cross-cutting, autonomous department that focuses on innovation.

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