The route has been complex to navigate, but train operator Eurostar could finally be on track to deliver its long-awaited (and somewhat delayed) direct service between London and Amsterdam by the end of this year, although reports suggest it could still take until Easter 2018 for the service to run on a regular basis.
Either way, Amsterdam will soon be another outpost to add to the list of stations and offices in the UK, France and Belgium that Eurostar CIO Laurent Bellan and his team need to support, along with Rotterdam, where the new service will also make a stop.
Partly with that in mind, Bellan recently took the decision to give network connectivity at the company a revamp, signing a deal with Masergy to provide a custom hybrid WAN (wide area network) for the applications that Eurostar uses in train stations, back office and ticketing and call centres.
This new network delivery both primary and back-up connectivity, and most importantly, direct and private connections to the many cloud services Eurostar already uses, as well as those it might adopt in future.
Masergy is also providing security for Eurostar’s IT assets, using its Unified Enterprise Security service, which combines continuous monitoring by security experts combined with network behavioral analytics for rapid threat detection and response.
The list of cloud services that Eurostar already uses is long, and includes Salesforce.com for customer relationship management (CRM), Box for file storage and collaboration, Okta for identity management, Microsoft Office 365 for productivity apps – and increasingly, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure for back-end infrastructure.
But the journey to the cloud, which has picked up pace in recent years, makes perfect sense for Eurostar, says Bellan:
We are actually quite a small company of around 1,600 employees only, but these employees work in a wide variety of roles and locations, with many of them mobile. And for us, the agility that cloud gives us is a big advantage. We need to be agile as a company to adjust our services to market changes.
That’s important, because in addition to the proposed expansion of its services, Eurostar still faces ferocious competition from low-cost airlines on both speed and price of routes. Added to that, last year was a difficult one for the train operator: political uncertainty in Europe and the US, combined with tourist concerns over terrorism in mainland Europe, saw passenger numbers over the year fall 4% to around 10 million and sales down 3% to £794 million.
That was despite the company clocking up its busiest December on record, with travellers taking advantage of the weak pound in the wake of the Brexit vote and flocking to London for Christmas shopping. Overall, the train company reported an underlying operating loss of £25 million for the year, compared to a profit of £34 million in 2015.
That said, the signs from its 2017 first quarter were far more positive, buoyed by strong performance in business travel and from overseas markets. Overall, business traveller numbers were up 6% year-on-year in the first three months of the year, and up 9% in the UK. According to an official company statement:
The combination of Wi-Fi connectivity, productive working time onboard and a new business lounge in Paris is reinforcing the convenience and ease of high-speed rail for the business traveller.
Rolling out that Wi-Fi on its new e320 trains, along with on-train ‘infotainment’ systems that passengers can access from their own mobile devices, has been a big focus for Bellan in the year or so since he became CIO. In fact, he adds, his whole approach is to put the passenger experience front and centre in all the IT projects that Eurostar undertakes – and that’s only natural, when you consider that his previous role at the company was head of customer systems. He says:
This is what will make us stand out for travellers, whether they’re travelling for business or for leisure: a smooth journey, one where we use technology to our best advantage to help them book easily, to keep them informed and make everything as convenient as possible for them.
That has meant a steady flow of projects during his first year in the CIO position. Looking forwards, he’s planning to deliver further integration of customer information in Salesforce as well as improve the company’s digital marketing activities off the back of that work. A redesign of the company’s website along responsive lines, meanwhile, is making it easier to keep mobile apps for iOS and Android up-to-date and to introduce new features and functions.
The emphasis on cloud technologies meanwhile, doesn’t just make it easier to be more agile, he adds. It’s also keeping costs down:
In the past, we had servers running in back offices often with low utilization rates and, since those have moved or are moving to AWS, for example, there’s a big opportunity in terms of costs and time. We can much better adjust what we have to suit our needs.
Of course, those needs are changing constantly, especially with new services to the Netherlands coming on board, Bellan concludes:
But we strongly feel that cloud-based services and reliable connectivity to them are what need to be at the heart of our digital transformation and our goal to become a customer-first company.
Image credit – Eurostar
Disclosure – At time of writing, Salesforce is a premier partner of diginomica.