Víkend DNES magazine writes about Passengera
The original text was published in the Czech magazine Víkend DNES and written by Petr Čermák, its editor. You can find the original in Czech at: https://www.idnes.cz/cestovani/kolem-sveta/passengera-informacni-system-vlak-doprava-jan-kolar-internet.A230428_142917_vlaky-na-kolejich_javu.
Next stop: Machu Picchu
The skilled developers from the Prague company Passengera have conquered trains, buses and ships on every continent with on-board information systems. From a classic Czech improvisation arose a highly successful product that is bought by customers from all over the world.
In the 1990s, Jan Kolář, a young man in his early forties and a successful businessman worldwide, was a boy playing with trains at home like many of his peers. But even then, he played a little differently.
„I wasn't just interested in putting a TT-scale train on the rails and driving it around, I was interested in the technical background of it all,“ says the head of the Prague-based company Passengera, which will soon be entertaining passengers on the rails of every continent with the exception of Antarctica, of course.
That's when Kolář's father gave his son a soldering iron and tin, explained the basic procedures and the little train driver set about the technical development of his home track. „I wanted to digitize it a bit,“ he jokes years later.
30 years later, instead of model trains, he is developing real railways not only at home in the Czech Republic, but also in Switzerland, Peru and even New Zealand. It was in the Pacific that he just won an exotic contract with KiwiRail.
The magic of an adventure train
We don't know it in the Czech Republic (yet), but it's a popular pastime in the world: experiential rail travel. In Switzerland, modern sightseeing trains go through mountain passes and around glaciers, in Peru they take you to Machu Picchu, in New Zealand around volcanoes and over the local Alps. To make the train experience as immersive as possible, a group of Prague-based train engineers are contributing to it all over the planet.
„Onboard WiFi is now standard on the railways in many places, but our comprehensive solution adds a significant extra for both passengers and carriers,“ says Mr Kolář. „We give passengers much more than just the internet while they ride, our onboard infotainment provides information, entertainment and service, while also benefiting the railways, for whom onboard WiFi operations are a small expense.“
How does it work specifically? Passengers can find all sorts of information about the route they're on, all sorts of interesting things to watch outside the window and, in case of bad weather when there's nothing to see outside, a serving of entertainment when they connect to the onboard infotainment portal by Passengera via WiFi. And the operators? They get an additional communication platform for information and business, on top of valuable information.
„Before Passengera we knew next to nothing about our clients, now we know their interests and demographics. And that helps us attract new passengers,“ says Michael Kistler of the Swiss Rhône Railway, which operates the world-famous Bernina Express and Glacier Express sightseeing trains on the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Alpine lines.
It was Switzerland, where Passengera first ventured beyond the borders of the Czech republic. It happened quite spicily. „Some of the RhB management are big hockey fans. Some ten years ago, they travelled by a Pendolino train from Prague to Ostrava for hockey, saw our onboard portal there, got interested, wrote to Czech Railways for a contact and contacted us themselves.“
The Swiss were bothered by the tons of paper on which they printed interesting facts about their trains, but nobody read it much. „They also tried onboard radio, but because of the announcements in many languages, they found it distracted passengers on the experience trains. And that's when they came across us. Today, every passenger can (but doesn't have to) listen to the narration or even the video as they wish. The announcements are triggered automatically by location using GPS.“
From Pendolino to Polynesia
Today's great success story was born in 2012 aboard a Czech Pendolino, actually, out of a bit of necessity. „The railways issued a tender for onboard internet for Pendolinos, but nobody knew at the time what the real internet coverage was on the railway corridor, so we – then still at Simac Technik – came up with the idea to make the content available, which could be interesting for passengers, directly on board the train, so that people would not go to the Internet so much,“ laughs Jan Kolář, then head of Simac's technical division and today head of the Passengera brand, which has developed the clever Czech improvisation into a global business.
Last year alone, the company's annual sales, which are calculated in millions of dollars, shot up by 90%. “I like the family feel in the company, and I don't want to overshoot development. The proof that it works is not only our business success, but also our low turnover. In eleven years, we've had few people leave. The team is working and the business is working," says Kolář.
Remarkably, clients from all corners of the globe are still calling in, mostly on their own. All it took, he says, was one long-ago appearance at a conference in London and then a strong reference from Switzerland, the mecca of scenic railways. „That's how the operators of the train under Machu Picchu in Peru, for example, found us – they took a ride on the Swiss Glacier Express with our on-board wi-fi infotainment solution and approached us saying they wanted it too.“
The pride of Passengera is a digital map of the world dotted with blue dots, which show where the work of 23 skilled IT people from Prague is already being done. Soon, a new Orient Express, which a hotel company is planning, should be coming out with their solution. And it's not just trains anymore. „We are also supplying our onboard systems – infotainment with connectivity – for buses in Europe or in Cameroon, Africa, and even for a new fast boat in French Polynesia. Now we are also going into river cruise ships.“
Does this make for interesting business trips to all corners of the world? „Every time you have to prepare a tailored solution, you have to see everything in person. For example, we had a case where the internet went down when the toilet flushed on a train because of old wiring, so sometimes we have to deal with these hiccups too. For some destinations there is even a queue at the company. But unfortunately no one could've flown to Polynesia to see the new boat being built, as it's being built in Vietnam.“
Window to the future
Passengera is not the only Czech brand that is successfully making its way on the world's rails; luxury seats for premium trains are supplied by the Frýdek-based company Borcad. According to Kolář, they help each other as much as possible.
Next stop? North Africa, perhaps. „We are very interested in that region, along with the Middle East, which is why we have an office in Dubai, it's the gateway to those markets. In Riyadh we are doing an autonomous metro, Egypt is planning a massive rail development, and in Morocco they are starting high-speed trains. Train manufacturers are not keeping up, there are plenty of opportunities.“
Kolář sees the future of Prague Passenger in autonomous transport. “Be it on rail or roads, that's where on-board information and communication systems will play a major role."
Jan Kolář, CEO Passengera