John Sullivan
CIO and Digital Innovation, Virgin Trains
Virgin Group Ltd

Last Updated: 09/21/2017

Executive Summary

Sullivan is Chief Information Officer at Virgin Trains, a train operating company in the United Kingdom owned by Virgin Rail Group that has operated the InterCity West Coast franchise since March 1997. He joined the company as CIO at the start of 2015 and has responsibility for digital projects. He is charged with helping the company harness digital technology to support the ideal customer experience to drive its business forward. Sullivan joined Virgin Trains from Gondola Holdings, which owned the Pizza Express, Zizzi, ASK and Byron Burger restaurant chains, where he served for more than eight years as Director of Group Information Technology. Before that, Sullivan from 2002 to 2007 was Head of Information Technology at Laura Ashley Holdings Plc. Earlier in his career, Sullivan served as a Manager for Information Technology at HMV Retail Ltd from 1990 to 1997 and Head of Information Technology for the Disney Store at the Walt Disney Company from 1997 to 2002.

Current Focus

  • Company Snapshot: Virgin Trains (legal name West Coast Trains Limited) is a train operating company in the United Kingdom owned by the Virgin Rail Group that has operated the InterCity West Coast franchise since March 1997. Virgin Trains operates long-distance passenger services on the West Coast Main Line between London, West Midlands, North West England, North Wales and Scotland. The service connects six of the UK's largest cities; London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh, which have a combined metropolitan population of over 18 million people. Stagecoach and Virgin are currently working in partnership to operate the East Coast and West Coast inter-city routes under the Virgin Trains brand. "Together, they are on track to revolutionise rail travel across the UK," Virgin says. "The combined network connects some of the nation’s most iconic destinations including Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Leeds, York and London. Virgin Trains is committed to delivering a high speed, high frequency service, offering shorter journey times, more comfortable travel and excellent customer service. Customers consistently rate Virgin Trains as one of the top long-distance rail franchise operators in the National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS) commissioned by industry watchdog, Transport Focus. On the East Coast route, £140m is being invested to create a more personalised travel experience. We have already invested over £40m in our existing fleet, including £21m refurbishing the interiors and £16m towards improving the engines of our trains. Customers can now benefit from 42 additional services between Edinburgh and London every week, and an extra 22 Saturday services between Leeds and London – a total of 1.74 million additional seats since May 2016. 2018 will see the introduction of completely new Azuma trains being built in the UK by Hitachi. The West Coast route has a proud record of challenging the status quo - from introducing tilting Pendolino trains, to a pioneering automated delay repay scheme and becoming the first franchised rail operator to offer m-Tickets for all ticket types."
  • An Upgrade App: Virgin Trains in September 2017 said its customers can now bid on last minute upgrades for First Class tickets on east coast services via innovative upgrade app Seatfrog. The partnership is a world first for rail passengers and will enable more people than ever to enjoy the perks of First Class. Virgin Trains’ customers will be able to upgrade right up to 30 minutes before departure from the palm of their hand with just a few taps of their smartphone. Completely seamless and easy-to-use, there’s no hassle of extra paperwork, printing tickets or additional fees. Virgin Trains is the first travel company to bring the technology to its customers, who will compete against each other in an open and honest auction where upgrades to First Class can cost from as little as £5. The free app works by creating a live, dynamic bidding system for First Class seats that would otherwise travel empty. Upgrades can be won up to 30 minutes before departure, with each auction opening approximately 2.5 hours before a train departs from its originating station. Customers who successfully bid on a First Class ticket will be able to enjoy all the luxury benefits of Virgin Trains’ First Class experience, including complimentary food and drink from a menu curated by James Martin, reclining leather seats, additional legroom, mood lighting, free Wi-Fi and, in selected stations, First Class lounges with free Wi-Fi, relaxation areas and refreshments. According to the press release, Virgin Trains has been leading the way in tackling fare complexity and ensuring a better deal for customers; partnering with Seatfrog is part of the train operator’s commitment to making train travel accessible and affordable. Earlier this year, Virgin Trains confirmed that it is participating in a single-leg pricing trial with the government which will consider alternative ways to guarantee customers simpler fares. Suzanne Donnelly, Commercial Director at Virgin Trains on the east coast, said: “We have a strong record of innovating for the benefit of our customers and we are really excited to be partnering with Seatfrog to offer customers more opportunities to experience First Class. Our innovative partnership with Seatfrog means passengers can get last minute upgrades to First Class seats from as little as £5 and there are real deals to be had. Plus, the live bidding element means you can decide at the last minute if you fancy treating yourself and, if you do, bidding to bag a bargain is great way to go about it.”
  • Chooses Box for Cloud Content Management: Box Inc., a leader in cloud content management, announced in May 2017 that Virgin Trains is moving its workforce to Box. In 2016, the company chose Box to power internal and external collaboration, mobile access to content and document security. It has now deployed Box to more than 1,500 employees. “We like our technology to run as smoothly as our trains so that our staff can do their best work behind the scenes: making customer journeys amazing,” said Sullivan. “With Box, all of our content is in one place, available anywhere, anytime and on any device which is useful when you’re travelling at 125mph around the country. Box has helped to transform the way we work internally so that we’re all using our time effectively!” “Virgin Trains is harnessing the power of cloud to improve its workforce,” said David Benjamin, Box SVP and GM of EMEA. “We’re delighted to be part of its west coast digital transformation by powering their cloud content management strategy.” Virgin Trains has chosen Box to:
    • Enable employees to access information from any device so they can work from multiple offices, as well as on Virgin Trains using Virgin’s on-train Wi-Fi
    • Provide extra levels of security and encryption through Box’s Governance offering
    • Streamline processes and collaboration, using Box’s Workflow capability, to launch the new Virgin Trains Onboard Entertainment System
    • Improve team collaboration which empowers employees to work in smarter more efficient ways
    • Finally, by using Box Zones, Virgin Trains is able to store its data in Europe making it fully compliant with EU regulations.
  • Jumps on Apple Wallet Bandwagon: Virgin Train has teamed up with Trainline to become the first operator to give customers the option to add train tickets straight to their Apple Wallet on its west coast route, Net Imperative reported in November 2017. iPhone users purchasing tickets for Virgin Trains west coast services through the Virgin Trains and Trainline websites can choose to download the bar-coded ticket straight to their Apple Wallet. This latest development means Virgin Trains and Trainline customers will get a similar ticketing experience to that offered by most airlines – removing the need for customers to print off their ticket, download a separate app or collect at the station. Additional benefits of the web to wallet offering include the ticket automatically popping-up as the departure time approaches and in the near future customers will also be greeted with a pop-up on their phone as they get closer to the departure station. Sullivan commented, “We’re always looking at ways we can innovate for our customers to make their experience with us the best it can be. Our Apple Wallet m-ticket offering makes it easy for customers to store their tickets in one place without the need to print them out or open different applications on their phone.” The move by Virgin Trains supports the plan to move away from paper tickets completely in the future. To date, Virgin Trains on the west coast has already enabled all tickets for its services purchased via Virgin Trains mobile app and website to be fulfilled as m-tickets*. In August, the launch of the e-ticket now offers customers even more choice in how they receive their ticket. John Davies, Retail Director at Trainline, added, “Trainline is proud to lead digital innovation in the rail industry. By placing customers at the heart of everything we do, we are helping train operators transform the way train tickets are both purchased and delivered, giving a much better customer experience and in turn, encouraging more people to choose train travel, more often.”
  • Digital Innovation a Priority: "Virgin Trains is on track with a digital innovation strategy to improve the passenger experience before and after journeys, as well as on-board," CIO Weekly reported in October 2016. Sullivan was hired 18 months ago to lead the change agenda with a focus on innovation, which includes projects around digital entertainment, services related to fares and ticketing, and on-board Wi-Fi, the article said. Sullivan, who previously held senior IT positions at firms such as Pizza Express and Byron Burger owner Gondola, Laura Ashley, and Disney Store, also aims to get the IT function to run in a "professional and mature way". “My experience in introducing and managing change is relevant, and colleague engagement is needed, but also customer education about the business processes,” Sullivan told Computer Weekly. Since joining Virgin Trains, Sullivan has overseen an increase in innovation spend at the company “that has been justified, as changes are mostly customer-focused”. “I think that’s one of the main reasons why we’ve been able to make this level of change – it’s because there’s a lot we can do for our customers, and there’s a lot of creativity within the business to take these ideas forward,” he says.
    • On-board connectivity. Rolling out Wi-Fi inside Virgin’s carriages has been discussed for a few years, and Sullivan calls it an area of “real focus and importance”. On-board connectivity is part of the company’s vision for the “digital train of the future”, a project that looks at improving train infrastructure as well as the mobile technology trains use as part of its Wi-Fi offering. “We are looking to soon do a deal with a mobile operator to improve the signal significantly from where it is today. It is also key to resolve the situation of losing signal going through tunnels. The consistency of an internet connection [on-board] is really important,” says Sullivan.  “There are a number of ways we can get the ticket to you on your mobile. It’s all about choice and convenience for the customer". He says there is no specific date for the start of the Wi-Fi project, as “things aren’t signed off”, but Sullivan implied the process of choosing suppliers could be advanced in the next couple of months. The cost benefit analysis the team is carrying out has been one of the most crucial aspects of the Wi-Fi project so far, he says. But there are also technology challenges. “The technical challenge will be making sure the fitment of the train infrastructure is done properly, in terms of the cables, access point changing, switches and the communications gateway being updated in the right way, which I’m sure we could do,” says Sullivan. “The equipment we’re looking to put on the train is 21st century equipment.”
    • Developing in-train entertainment. Another initiative introduced since Sullivan joined the company is the Beam app, which streams films, TV, games and magazines to users’ devices. “I think we have superseded the airline entertainment centre because we’ve focused on the ‘bring your own device’ model. Passengers don’t buy magazines because they are all free of charge on our entertainment centre, as well as a whole bunch of films, catch-up TV and about 12 games to play while you’re on our trains,” he says. “This is the most awesome piece of kit you’ll have, and the resolution on [smartphones] is much better than what the airline uses in terms of the screen on the back of a person’s seat. We’re delighted to launch something like this in an industry that hasn’t got a great reputation in terms of innovation.” Beam was launched in May 2016, and designed by the IT team at Virgin Trains. Partner GoMedia did the software development, and two content servers were rolled out on the trains. The service is not Wi-Fi based, so passengers are connected to these servers. “If the train is in a tunnel, or if or you haven’t got any Wi-Fi, it doesn’t matter. It still works because the service uses the local area network,” Sullivan explains. Now Beam has been introduced, Virgin wants to evolve the service by improving IT infrastructure on trains. Use of the current infrastructure has already been maximised, but to offer the service to 700 customers, the maximum number of passengers on a train, the set-up needs to be bolstered. “We’re taking out the cable switches, access points and gateway, and putting in the latest technology. That will allow us to do a number of good things. For example, the train could achieve what we call ‘self-healing’, so it understands if there’s a problem such as the server needing to be rebooted. It could learn what action it would need to take,” says Sullivan. “[With the improvements] we could offer the Beam application to everybody, because we currently have a restriction of 200 people. We want to make a big impact on the industry with a focus on customer entertainment,” he says. “If you’re on a two-hour journey from London to Manchester, it’s going to feel far shorter if you’re watching one of the latest films,” adds Sullivan.  The blueprint for how Beam is going to evolve has been defined, and Sullivan’s team is in talks with a number of technology companies to develop the infrastructure, which also partly relates to the groundwork required for the Wi-Fi project. “But that’s more of a basic infrastructure project in terms of replacing the cable. While we need technology companies to help us, we also need the companies that maintain the trains to help us, and they are being very helpful,” he says, referring to manufacturers such as Bombardier and Alstom.
    • Improving digital ticketing. Another project that has been a priority for the IT team at Virgin Trains is the evolution of customer-facing services around digital ticketing. Mobile currently accounts for 10% of all tickets sold digitally, and the intention is to offer more customer-focused tools to boost uptake. “There are a number of ways we can get the ticket to you on your mobile. It’s all about choice and convenience for the customer, but the train industry is behind in terms of mobile tickets,” says Sullivan. “Ticketing in the train industry is far too complex, at least in the UK, but our digital ticketing has grown from 0.5% to 10% in a year. We’ve got a number of plans to improve that even further.” Another online service, offered as part of a bid to get more customers to interact directly with Virgin Trains that has been in place for a year, is Automatic Delay Repay. This is a compensation service based on artificial intelligence (AI) technology, aimed at passengers that have been delayed for 30 minutes or more. “We put the compensation through the customer’s bank account without them having to lift a finger, and what we’ve seen is a significant increase in customers’ positive feedback on Virgin Trains,” says Sullivan.  “[Building the tool] cost us quite a bit of money, but it’s been extremely well received by our customers, as well as the UK government.”
    • Analytics to enhance service and operations. Sullivan’s team is also working on data analytics to enhance service and operations. “When I first joined 18 months ago, the customer probably had more information on our trains than our staff in terms of digital information,” he says. To work around the issue, more mobile phones were rolled out to the frontline workforce to give them up-to-the-minute information about where trains were. “If, say, a train coming to the station has 12 carriages, [the mobile app] will inform them how busy the carriages are. This provides us with the information to direct the customer to a quiet carriage, for example, or inform them where they can put their bicycle,” says Sullivan. Over the last few months, the IT team has also worked on consolidating data sources for better internal decision-making, across areas such as operations, marketing and IT. “We can get up-to-the-minute revenue figures, information on which routes are performing best, and so on. There are a number of questions the business can now ask the database,” he says. “Putting all the data into one place was one of our most important projects. It’s something we started in 2015, and it’s well underway. We’re just finishing off the bits and pieces of data that aren’t in the database yet. It’s now a mature project, and it’s running very well.” Further initiatives for the next few months include a possible roll-out of Salesforce’s ServiceNow product, which improves customer data and messaging with information such as maintenance work alerts and offers. As Sullivan emphasises the digital transformation aspect of change, a shift has also taken place in terms of how IT is perceived within the business as an enabler of more interesting, creative projects that have a direct impact on the bottom line. “When I first joined IT, we could implement a PC or upgrade a finance system. Now we’ve got creativity, and a focus on the customer as well as what we can do for our colleagues,” he says. “It’s a far more exciting place to be. We’re front line, and not a back-office function any more,” concludes Sullivan.

Biographical Highlights

  • Sullivan served as a Manager for Information Technology at HMV Retail Ltd from 1990 to 1997.
  • He was named as Head of Information Technology for the Disney Store at the Walt Disney Company in 1997.
  • Between 2002 and 2007, he served as Head of Information Technology at Laura Ashley Holdings Plc.
  • He then moved on to Gondola Holdings Limited in 2006 as Director of Group Information Technology.
  • Sullivan in January 2015 was appointed Chief Information Officer at Virgin Trains, a division of Virgin Rail Group Limited, a subsidiary of Virgin Group Ltd.