HackTrain 2.0

It seems like a lifetime ago, but the first HackTrain event was actually only 9 months ago — It probably feels so long ago to me as so much has change in the interim, including me getting a job as a result of the first event.

When an opportunity came up to represent Trainline at the second HackTrain I jumped at it as I thought it would be nice to go full circle in a  sense, going back with a job in the industry, and simply because I loved the friendly competitive atmosphere of the hackathon.

HackTrain 2.0 was a much larger event than the original, with 3 trains of Hackers rather than 1. I was assigned to the Big Data Train, in which participants would focus on using the APIs made available by the rail industry,

I originally thought I would be mentoring teams and helping them get set up with any RailTech APIs I knew about, however I actually ended up participating in a team consisting of myself, two Computer Science students and an engineer from french national rail operator SNCF. We worked together to build a web application called TrainGuard.

Desktop view of TrainGuard
Desktop view of TrainGuard

TrainGuards tagline is Calmer, Drier journeys. This is because the aim of the application, which is written in Node.js, is to allow customers to make more informed choices about their journeys. When using travel booking services that are currently available you can see what time you’ll depart from your origin and what time you’re expected to get to your destination, but nothing is said about what will happen in between.

When we were conducting market research on our South West Trains service to Bournemouth a lot of people told us they disliked being on trains which were full of football fans, or loud people coming out from a gig. The small sample we took rated those experiences as being as bad or worse than being on a delayed train, and that to avoid such circumstances they would be willing to reschedule their booking. Weather factored into peoples travel decisions less, but was still important.

Mobile View of TrainGuard
Mobile View of TrainGuard

On match days, or other particularly busy periods of rail travel the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) would much rather that their load of passengers was more evenly distributed throughout the days services. This is because each minute a train is delayed on the British Rail Network the train operating company gets fined, in some cases hundreds or thousands of pounds per minute — depending on where the tardiness occurs and how many other train services are affected by it.

The idea therefore occurred to me that we could aid both the traveller and the TOCs by allowing passengers who wish to avoid such events a chance to reschedule their journey and change their tickets. Initially we started out with the idea of making this an API that ticket distributors, such as Trainline, could tap into — however, we realised that at a hackathon client facing applications are more likely to do well.

As a team we implemented a subsystem that could connect to the SilverRail travel planning API, which had been specially opened up to the public for HackTrain 2.0. This subsystem would accept a journey plan in the form of an origin station code, a destination station code and a departure time and return a list of stations comprising the complete route. Using this information we then checked for events within a given distance of each station en route on Eventful, which is itself an aggregation of many other event websites — using specific filters we could find only the events that we felt could cause disruption to the end user.

In a perfect world this information would be shown to the user at or before the time of booking, or if circumstances changed their could be alerted via a notification on their phone — however, for our prototype they would have to visit a webpage hosted by us. The webpage was written using semantic HTML5 and styled using CSS3, it was designed to be responsive and as you can see above it works well on both desktop and mobile, mobile being especially important of course as the act of travelling means you’re most likely to be on a mobile rather than a desktop when you check this page.

When designing the page I wanted to make it beautiful to look at, but also really easy to grok what the page was trying to tell you — therefore I went with a design that included Bootstrap Jumbotrons with parallax scrolling high quality image backgrounds.

As with all Hackathons the most nerve-racking, but equally exciting, part of the weekend was the pitching at the end. We felt we had a good product that was mutually beneficial for both the industry and its customers but we had to convince 2 panels of judges of that. As I mentioned before, the event this time round took place on 3 different trains, so in order to get to the final we had to have one of the top 3 pitches out of the 10 teams on our train.

Excitingly we did make it to the final, in which we pitched to judges from the rail industry. There were judges from SilverRail, Trainline, Great Western Trains and The Ministry of Transport. Unfortunately we didn’t come in the top 3 teams at then end, but we had a lot of fun over the weekend and were proud that we got to the final and were given an opportunity to tell the industry how we felt they could deliver Smarter Journeys — which is something Trainline is currently focused on.

Thanks to everyone at HackPartners who made the event possible, and all of the sponsors of the event for making it so fun and giving 120 of the best hackers a chance to develop much needed improvements for the Rail industry.


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