Telecommunications giant Telefónica is inviting the passenger transport sector to make use of travel behaviour data gathered via mobile phones

Have you ever sat on a bus or a train and wondered where your fellow passengers have all come from, and where they are going to? Telefónica, the telecommunications giant, can now answer this question. As owner of O2, the UK mobile network, it is able to track the movements of more than one in three UK citizens – and it can now distinguish whether they are travelling on a bus or train.

Of course, this information isn’t only of interest to curious travellers, idling the time away during journeys, it has the potential to be of use to anyone involved in planning and providing passenger transport services. And Telefónica is now asking the transport sector for ideas about how this data – once it has been anonymised – can be harnessed to enhance the passenger experience.

During a bus or train journey, the mobile phone in your pocket continually communicates its location to the network. Telefónica’s analysis of O2 mobile phone data identified clusters of mobiles communicating the same location at the same time – on closer inspection, these were identified as passengers travelling on bus, coach and train services.

“It’s a nice invention. It’s a by-product of something else,” Alex Petrie of Telefónica Dynamic Insights told an audience of transport professionals in London earlier this week. “We discovered it a couple of years ago when looking for something else. We thought ‘that’s got to be useful, surely’.”

Intercity operator East Coast agrees. Petrie explained how the state-run company is already making use of Telefónica’s data insights. For example, East Coast has used the data to consider how it can win a bigger share of the market for travel between Edinburgh and London.

Telefónica and East Coast studied the ultimate origin and ultimate destination of journeys between the two cities, and their surrounding areas, and there were some interesting discoveries. For example, more people than might have been expected were choosing to travel with East Coast’s intercity rival, Virgin West Coast. Many opted to drive 90 miles to Carlisle to pick up Virgin services on the West Coast Main Line, especially if they already lived south of the Scottish capital.

Meanwhile, the data also showed that a large number of Edinburgh city centre residents are choosing to travel by air rather than train, eschewing the nearby railway station in favour of the airport on the outskirts of the city. This information has made the company think about what it needs to do to compete more effectively with the airlines.

Petrie explained how the data could be used to discover why passengers stop using a particular service. It will be possible to identify whether former users now travel to the same location by different means, to a different location or don’t travel at all.

The data covers O2’s 23 million UK customers – a number that Petrie says is vast when compared to volumes covered in traditional travel surveys.