Crossing borders by train

What can be improved for international train travellers?

Do international train travellers arriving with the Thalys from Paris understand how to exit the station through the closed gates in Rotterdam? How does the German Deutsche Bahn ticked vending machine work at the Roosendaal station? Where do you have to check out with your ov-chipkaart when traveling to Antwerp? Do you have to check out at all? What service do travellers need when a train is cancelled? And where do they expect to find it?
To improve the customer experience of international train travellers, you first have to understand exactly what goes wrong. We conducted research for the Technical University of Delft.

Interviews and observations

We combined research methods to construct an overview of the problems faced when traveling in and out of the Netherlands by train. We interviewed stakeholders and made several international train trips.
In the trains we spoke to international travellers and at the stations we interviewed service personnel. And we made a lot of observations, logging how and where travellers look for information, buy tickets and navigate the stations. And (attempt to) cross the physical barrier of the ov-chip gates at the closed stations.

The international customer journey

We found many opportunities for improvement. To structure all findings, we created a customer journey for international train travel. There is no universal series of steps that each customer of international train travel goes though, but there are distinct phases to categorise issues.

A report at different speeds

Different people have different needs when it comes to research results. A high-level overview is crucial, but the factual experiences of customers add another dimension to the problems. And an in-depth understanding of the details is vital for selecting appropriate solutions. So we described our findings on three different speeds.

The big picture

To provide an overview of the problem space, we created a poster. It shows the different phases in the customer journey and lists the issues that we found in each phase. For each issue it gives clarity about the target group experiencing the problem and the impact it has on their customer experience.

A highway of user experiences

In our report all even pages are filled with pictures and illustrative quotes from travellers. They offer a detailed and sharp picture of how actual customers experience the issues we found, and what impact they have on their travel and their mood.
By placing these illustrative items on every left page of the report, they form an information highway that is easy to scan when flipping through the report. This offers some valuable first-person insights to readers who are pressed for time and focus on the executive summary, conclusions and recommendations.

Detailed insights

An understanding of the details is necessary to be able to come up with good solutions. That’s why we describe our findings in detail, outlining the user goals in each phase of the journey and how the issues we found prevent customers from reaching these objectives. Apart from all findings, the report also offers a detailed description of the methods we used. And of course the conclusions and recommendations that could lead to improvement of the customer experience for international train travellers.

The closed payment border at station Roosendaal can be an unexpected barrier, as we found out from a traveller arriving in the Netherlands from Belgium: “What do you mean I need my ticked to open this gate? I just threw my ticked in the bin on the other platform.”

An actionable report

The Dutch railway company NS and NS international immediately started work on the actionable conclusions and recommendations in our report. Within weeks the poster of the customer journey map had evolved into a to-do poster, with notes scribbled next to the different issues to indicate what actions would be taken on the short term to improve the customer experience for international train travellers to and from the Netherlands.

Many thanks to Jasper van Kuijk, Bas Rijnders, the service personnel at station Rotterdam, Roosendaal, Heerlen, Arnhem, Enschede and Venlo and all the international travellers that were kind enough to share their experiences.

insights + report for TU Delft