A tale of two trains

I started typing this on Wednesday, from my seat in Car 19 of the TGV from to Paris, with a view of a snow-covered landscape outside. The fields and woods of northern France had been transformed into black and white images; the only colour coming from the reflection on the window of the orange lights in the carriage.

View from TGV window

Our departure from Saint-Malo was delayed by 50 minutes and we were further behind schedule by the time we reached the Gare Montparnasse. Nonetheless, my fellow passengers appeared quite sanguine about the delay. The conductor had passed through the train, noting their final destinations on a handheld device. Later, she made an announcement, with an assured tone, about our revised arrival time and the arrangements for passengers whose connections had been disrupted.  I was struck by the  contrast between the calm mood on this train and the tension that I sensed on a delayed journey from New York to Boston last year. The conductor on that service was only able to tell us that the cause of the problem was  fallen cables in the Metro-North area, and that we should refer to the Amtrak app for more information, because he was unable to get any to share with us. (The Amtrak app turned out to be just as unhelpful).

There’s a Customer Experience lesson in this tale of two trains. SNCF’s passengers were calmer than Amtrak’s, not merely because of their Gallic sang-froid, or the pleasant demeanour of the conductor, but because of the entire ecosystem that SNCF and its partners have created – the investments in infrastructure, systems, training, and so on, to enable the conductor to provide meaningful assistance.

One of the critical elements in that ecosystem is communications technology – networks, devices, and systems that put train crews in touch with the control centre, and allow passengers to update friends or vent on social media. We take it for granted these days that we will be able to use digital services almost anywhere thanks to apparently ubiquitous WiFi and mobile network coverage.

It’s a new communications technology called LiFi (Light Fidelity) that has drawn me to Paris this week. The city of light is hosting the first global conference to discuss this optical data communication technology, and a Japanese company asked me to attend the sessions on their behalf and report on the conference to them. It’s not a typical project for me, but it’s nice to have a project that stretches my analytical muscles, as I consider the potential of a new technology, while applying a measure of healthy scepticism.

As I listen to the enthusiastic presentations from the speakers from academia, business, and technology backgrounds, I find it helpful to remind myself of two adages that my manager told me when I was an analyst at Forrester Research:

  1. In some cases it’s easy to predict that something is going to take off, but what’s hard is predicting when it will happen.
  2. The worst enemy of a new technology is the presence of an existing, good-enough, solution.

A range of organisations have assembled at this conference, including local and national governments, universities, hardware manufacturers, infrastructure providers, and solutions providers. If LiFi succeeds, the people who use it might only be aware of the customer-facing elements of the ecosystem – just as the passengers on the train give credit to the conductor for the helpful support she provides – but it can only succeed if the entire ecosystem of companies works well together.

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