Season 8 - Implementing the IT

Episode 1 - Buying a night train ticket, AKA the worst task on the web

Adrien Aumont — Anyone who has ever tried to buy a night train ticket knows that it is absolute hell. It's very simple, when you type in your origin and destination, you’re automatically offered tickets for night seats in different classes. But only through extreme digging and extensive research do you end up getting a cabin, usually to be paid for as well as a seat. Something like a private bathroom is generally on top of the price you’ve already generated. And so on. The options pile up with no logic. In short - it's long, painful, and counter-intuitive. Plus, you never really know what you're buying. At a time when companies are spending a fortune to optimise the user experience and the user interface (the famous UX and UI), it still remains the worst errand to complete online.

Romain Payet — If the other platforms are also unsuitable for the sale of night train tickets, it’s simply because they use tools designed for the day train. And they’re extremely different business processes, particularly on the IT side of things. But the night train is not only about getting around, it is also about the hotel industry. That's what makes it so complex.

These technicalities have four main parts. The first is inventory management. On a day train, it's simple - there are usually second class seats and first class seats, the numbers for which decrease as they are sold. In the hotel industry, it’s a little more complex since, in addition to the two ranges of classic rooms, some rooms are double or twin, with or without balcony, and with or without sea view. For the night train, and for Midnight Trains, the offer is much broader: three types of rooms, some with single or double beds, some for two people and others for four, some with showers and some without.

We came to the conclusion that we can’t use the tools of the day train or those of the hotel industry. The former totally lacks granularity, while the latter is too rigid. In a hotel, the number of rooms available at a specific time never changes. While on a night train, the number of cars, and therefore cabins, varies for many reasons, starting with maintenance. Not to mention the schedule variations that may occur. A Paris-Milan train can leave at 7pm on weekdays and at 8pm on Saturdays, and vice versa.

The second struggle with our night trains is in regard to revenue management and pricing. Indeed, once the number of cabins in each range, train and schedule is made available, they must be given a price. The tools of the day train, as well as the hotel industry, are perfectly adapted to our needs because they’re extremely flexible. We just need to find one that can be easily integrated into inventory management.

Issue number three: third parties. When you run a train, you have to send a lot of information to a range of organisations. At SNCF Réseau, for example, it’s necessary to communicate the number of kilometres travelled on the network, so that they can invoice. We must also send data to SNCF Gares et Connexions, so that they can manage arrivals and departures, as well as the display of our trains. It’s also necessary to be in permanent contact with its maintenance so that technicians know, in particular, the wear of the parts of each car and which ones to change when they pass through their hands.

Finally, there’s the front end. i.e. the part of our site and app that Midnight Trains travellers will see and where they will buy their train tickets. However, on Midnight Trains there are no seats - only cabins. This app will also be used to book meals in room service, or in the restaurant car, and even to pay for them. It might be used to buy small add-ons like phone chargers or bathrobes, or movies and series. To this will also be added a loyalty program with different functions, marketing and customer relations. Even if it seems common to bring these elements together in the same place, it’s not necessarily easy to connect such a tool to the rest of the technical environment.

Adrien Aumont — The conclusion? Running trains isn’t the only complex task we’re faced with. The more time passes, and the more we immerse ourselves in the construction of this technical environment, the more we realise that it’s a project in its own right. And even if we’ve both spent part of our lives creating digital products, we realised that we need to outsource this particular step.

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