Feature Story

Tech Talk

As the CIO, what is your role in terms of driving the technology used at VIA?

The Chief Information Officer (CIO) is the senior executive in an enterprise responsible for the information technology and computer systems that support the enterprise’s goals.

As the CIO, I initiate strategic goals for VIA Rail Canada. I manage the implementation of technology to increase information accessibility as well as do integrated systems management and adapt systems through the use of existing technologies. The IT group is in charge of developing new technologies to expand corporate technological capabilities.

How far have we come in the past year in terms of tech advancements?

This past year has been very productive for the IT Department. We have launched some major projects such as in-station WiFi. We are in the process of installing WiFi in stations that don’t already have internet access along the “long haul” routes as well, which consist of stations between Toronto and Vancouver and between Québec city and Halifax. We have also been doing a lot of work to improve the WiFi on board our trains within the corridor (Québec City - Toronto), which can now be accurately described as “the fastest WiFi on rails”.

Other projects that we launched this year include the TSI+ system, which allows us to monitor train status as well as the mobile viarail.ca website for customers to check trains schedule, reserve tickets and much more through their mobile devices. Another great project for our VIA Preference members is the online Points Redemption program that allows customers to redeem VIA Preference points they have accrued for train tickets.

Within our offices, we have launched projects to increase employees’ efficiency. One such project is the electronic invoice approval system, which helps VIA save paper by printing fewer invoices. It also means less wait time for employees in term of invoice treatment.

We have also launched an electronic Human Resources form system, which has greatly improved internal efficiency within that realm. Not only does it vastly reduce the amount of paper used within HR, it has also improved internal communication between departments.

What do you foresee for the coming year?

Some major projects will be rolled out throughout the coming year. An on-board WiFi entertainment system* will provide customers with options to watch many shows such as movies or the daily news on the train.  The On Train and Station Automation (OTS) project has many benefits that range from e-ticketing to improved communication between passengers and on-board VIA personnel. Through the OTS project, we will also provide our on-board staff with a BlackBerry which, among many other functions, will allow them to access an up-to-date on board Manifest (real-time list of passengers on the train). The BlackBerry will also be loaded up with security procedures and other important information.

The E-ticketing project is great as well as it will allow customers to have their ticket electronically validated on-board and means they don’t have to print out their boarding pass, but can instead have it sent directly to their smartphone.

Within our offices, a continuation of the electronic invoice program will mean that VIA will begin to receive all supplier invoices electronically as well, instead of in paper form. That means a huge reduction in paper in our accounting department!

How are decisions made about which technology projects to move forward with?

Since VIA is a customer service company, our target is to develop technologies that will help provide our customers with the best and most efficient service possible. Therefore, our main target is to develop and prioritize the projects that will allow VIA to deliver more to the customer.

Of course, budget is also a major component in any project’s priority; we have to make sure that the cost is worth the overall savings and/or potential revenue generated so there are many factors to consider before moving forward with a project.

How much testing goes on behind the scenes?

All new technologies need to be tested in order to make sure that they are compatible with the main systems at VIA. When we launch a new program or new application, whether it is for the customer to enjoy like the WiFi or to increase employee efficiency, we always make sure that they are compatible and will be supported either by our help desk or the suppliers.

There is a lot of internal testing that goes on before anything is lunched. Quality control, which translates into good customer service, is essential to us.

We asked you for your questions about our Tech projects, and below are answers to questions posed by you, our Facebook fans:

Susan De Rosa asked: Since the focus is on tech, it would be important to learn about safety improvements or innovations. Can you tell me about some in terms of the IT?

Safety is the most import aspect of VIA Rail operation. In terms of the IT safety projects, one very important one is currently underway: VIA is investing in an advanced “telemetry” system that will allow remote access to locomotives and passenger cars to obtain real-time status diagnostic of train subsystems information such as engine temperature, train handling as well as other important safety elements.

Chris Johnson asked: What are the technological issues you have to deal with to implement the On Train and Station Automation (OTS) system with regards to the long haul trains. Does the lack of WiFi at many of the stops affect your implementation of this project nation wide?

One of the challenges on long haul trains is indeed the lack of adequate cellular coverage in North West Ontario and between Toronto and Vancouver.  Since many of our routes travel through rural zones where cell towers are quite spaced out distance-wise, there is inevitably a reduction in signal strength and at times no connectivity possible at all.  However, we have been working to design a system whereby the messaging protocol between on-board mobile devices can work offline and we are also using sophisticated retransmission and automatic reconnection, which will help alleviate communication gaps along the way.

Chris Johnson also asked: You just implemented the TSI+ system along the corridor. Are there any plans for improved train status monitoring outside the corridor. I know that the system involves your WiFi service, but wouldn't it be possible to implement something which uses points where there is cellular service to update the status so that station agents and passengers have a better idea of the status of their train?

We are currently investigating the possibility of using standalone GPS device combined with a 3G cellular radio to communicate real-time train equipment geo-location to our centralized system, as an alternative to a  full fledged on board WiFi system.  This is still under consideration and not yet approved as a project.

Chartreux Man asked: When will there be a VIA Rail app for iPhone ?

VIA has chosen to develop applications which are not specific to a particular phone. We prefer to provide Web Mobile applications. These are independent of the end-user phone and are therefore easier to maintain for both VIA and users (no checking for and installing updates necessary). VIA Rail has deployed several customer applications that are mobile-friendly in the last few months including:

Mobile Booking (February 2012): Enabling customers to use mobile devices to book train travel (among other functionalities).

Automated Point Redemption (March 2012): Enabling VIA Preference members to purchase tickets by redeeming points through the mobile reservation system.

Thanks to Mr. Bourbonnais for taking the time to answer our questions and to everyone who took the time to send in their queries on Facebook.

To read about all our tech projects, simply click hereto read about all our tech projects. To read about VIA Rail’s Billon-Dollar Transformation, check out viarail.ca/TransformingVIA for lots of articles, images and videos.

*Note: check back soon for an article all about the on-board entertainment system!