Whenever passenger satisfaction surveys are conducted, the results always highlight the importance of timely, reliable and accurate information. A recent two-day London conference looked at the technology and management of several initiatives in the UK and overseas, and asked the question: “Are public expectations being met and do the current offerings meet these expectations?” Writes Clive Kessell
Just obtaining a better understanding of what is possible is itself quite difficult but it is also clear that not all technological advancements pull in the same direction. For many, passenger information is still screens and announcements at stations, but much more is now happening as the advent of the internet and smart phones has made information available to a much wider audience. How many people are aware of this or even capable of understanding it?
It’s a big question. This month, The Rail Engineer will look at what is happening in the UK. Overseas experiences will be examined next month.
The London experience
Like it or not, London dominates UK thinking and is the natural hub for overseas visitors. Vernon Everitt, the managing director for customer experience in Transport for London (TfL), set the scene. Transport is there to keep cities and countries moving, a role made ever more challenging by growing populations and ridership. The 2012 Olympics were critical for London and the actions taken plus lessons learned will hold good for many years. However innovation must continue to happen in line with both technology and lifestyle changes.
The internet and websites were a big step change but the introduction of smartphones has revolutionised communication. The statistics are mind blowing: 1.5 billion worldwide, 87% of UK users have downloaded apps and 63% use these every day, 77% of Londoners use the TfL website of which 44% access it via a mobile and 55% use the mobile internet each day.
One outcome of all this is that passengers are often being better informed than staff, which can be embarrassing. Much better integration is required and achieving this needs an update to the website plus better data repositioning of operational real time systems, meaning the equipping of employees with the right digital tools.
It is recognised that a diminishing sector of the population – the ‘grey haired’ brigade – will not use smartphones and traditional measures for communicating service provision must continue. Full tunnel coverage of mobile networks is needed otherwise the full impact of smartphone usage will not be achieved. Crossrail is leading the way on this.
The Tube is getting better but more needs to be done at times of disruption, particularly integrating alternative means of transport. The decision- making process and subsequent advice will revolve around modelling routes for dependencies of traffic, nature of disruption, weather and timetable. Advice to passengers will be progressive: stay put » continue as planned » modify route » change mode.
Kuldeep Gharatya is the head of railway systems in LU but also engineering director for the government ‘Catapult’ initiative for transport systems, a project launched in 2013 with a £150 million budget up to 2019. In his opinion, some of the emerging challenges are:
» Different technical standards between transport modes; » Differentiating between ‘must have’ and ‘nice to have’;
» Getting data owners to be more open with information; » Reluctance to appreciate wider commercial interests.
The ultimate objective is a ‘vision by video’ from getting out of bed, receiving a travel update, considering alternative travel modes (including hired bicycle!) through to the eventual arrival at work or meeting. One might be cynical and ask what would be left for the human brain to do?
The right sort of information
Determining the ongoing appetite for personalised information must be treated with caution; nanny knows best might be wrong. Mark Evers, the director of customer strategy in TfL explained how this is being researched.
Balancing ease of use with cost of implementation has to be a factor. Only producing relevant information and not bombarding people with irrelevant data is important. Misinformation is a big source of criticism; having “there is a good service” information on the concourse but delay announcements on the platform is not good publicity.
The use of apps to drill down into journey details is starting to happen but prime information needs are:
» Making real-time information available so passengers can re-plan journeys during disruption;
» Meeting the needs of unfamiliar users;
» Easing the process of Oyster Card top up. Far too many people run Oysters too low and then can’t travel, causing delay and queues at barriers. Apps to alert people to a low Oyster will shortly occur.
Using social media for important information is going to grow and Twitter appears the best means of achieving this. Cost comparisons are interesting: £1 for a Twitter message, £7 for a phone call, £15 to write a letter. A third of Londoners used the Olympics travel information service to change travel plans, and that is a continuing trend.
The TfL website is used by 37% of visitors for journey planning but 45% of overseas visitors do not get beyond the first page. It is only available in English but with pop up guidance in other languages. Why do we always assume the whole world speaks English?
The wider UK scene
Considerable improvements have been made to the dissemination of passenger information across all forms of public transport in the UK. The generalised use of computers has made this possible but some of the initiatives pull in opposite directions. The main thrust has come from the National Rail Enquiries team and Jason Durk, head of passenger information, explained some of the challenges.
In the recent past, there were 66 disparate systems across the rail network – 17 stand-alone systems on Virgin WCML alone. CIS (customer information system) displays showed meaningless information such as trains expected at a time long past or simple but uninformative comments that a skeletal service is in operation due to bad weather but without giving details.
A questionnaire produced jointly with Passenger Focus revealed that train times and platforming had an 80% success rate, information during the journey yielded 70% but, during delay conditions, it dropped to 40%.
The strategy to resolve this is a better flow from Planned Timetable » Operational Timetable » Customer Timetable. These are represented by the Integrated Train Planning Systems (ITPS) » the future Traffic Management Systems (TMS) » Project Darwin.
To achieve all this, a CIS Delivery Board is established supported by an Information Development Group. Darwin was described in issue 83 of The Rail Engineer (September 2011) and is key to getting a consistent set of information across all systems. It is uploaded with timetable details every 24 hours and also takes in live train movement data from signalling centres. Real time information is then sent out to all other systems including stations, on-train, internet services and the future TMS (traffic management systems).
To date, 17 Virgin stations were connected in July 2011, 32 stations on Chiltern Railways in Sep 2012 and 23 stations on Northern Rail in April 2014, the latter to test the train operating company (TOC) deployment plan. A national roll out is progressing with 1508 stations due on in late 2014 and the rest by March 2015.
Darwin will need to develop train-centric data for on-train systems and the development of this will take until mid 2016. Better train location awareness is also needed and GPS will be the means of achieving this. Network Rail, TOCs and ROSCOs are working together to get fleet fitment, many trains already having GPS for other purposes such as selective door opening. Interaction with TMS data will be vital including train maintenance scheduling, with the data development tasks likely to take until mid 2017.
Smartphones and announcements
The information experience is nowadays much more than train operations. Peter Williams from East Coast Trains looked at associated cultural changes. A recent questionnaire as to what passengers require revealed that WiFi provision, catering options and dealing with intolerant behaviour were top of the list. Training of staff has the aim of ‘getting inside the customers’ heads’. This leads to some selectivity on the recruitment of on-train staff so as to get people with the right mind-set. Using agency staff to cover shortages often has a negative effect.
Equipping staff with the right information tools is equally important and Matthew Bromley from Chiltern Railways revealed that, in 2011, customers with iPhones were better informed than their own people. Since then, trials to establish the best smartphone for staff led initially to Android devices being adopted but, more recently, a change to the Samsung S3 has been made, this being capable of doing ticket validation and providing moving maps.
Experience at the ‘coal face’ was described by Emma Toms, head of marketing and customer experience at Southern and Gatwick Express. Surveys have shown that on-train information is as important as pre journey planning. Passengers prefer live to pre-recorded announcements and with many Southern trains being DOO (driver-only operation), a cultural change exists to get drivers making announcements. Too many repetitive train announcements is an irritant to regular travellers and Southern knows that an acceptable balance is needed, perhaps by providing more visual and less audio info.
Using social media is recognised as increasingly valuable and message gathering at control centres for onward transmission is happening. Twitter restricts message length to 140 characters so information has to be consistent and devoid of railway jargon. Take up is accelerating with 70,000 followers already. Humour in the right style is welcome, an example being ‘please mind the gap between timetable and reality’!
Getting live information to trains is the big challenge, but many Southern Trains are already equipped with GPS.
Rural lines represent a challenge for information updates and Adam Cousins from Northern Rail explained their Train Running Information Project (TRIP) on the Esk Valley line in North Yorkshire. A sparse train service and remote stations are a problem when things go wrong. GPS is fine to determine the position of trains but it needs a transmission medium to relay this to a control centre. Public cellular networks are used to feed such data into Google maps and the York control office, in part using the experience of Nomad Digital in WiFi provision. A feed is sent to a smart phone app used by both public and the train conductors. 14 Class 156 DMUs are fitted including CIS screens.
One downside is the patchy coverage of the cellular networks whereby trains are timed through ‘dead’ sections so as to pick up missed info in due course. The forthcoming provision of GSM-R may overcome this.
Dealing with disruption
Disruption takes many forms: a failed train, problems with signalling, track defects, power supply problems, severe adverse weather or even major civil engineering failures causing long-term line closures. Most result in delays of an hour or so, but this can mean missed connections and the risk of not getting home. Journey Planner websites are already capable of showing alternative train services and some can give options for different modes of transport.
Whilst potentially useful, this approach needs to be matched to ticketing such that the traveller does not have to purchase a new fare. With the privatised railway that exists in the UK and many other countries, this creates a dilemma and only during the most severe disruption will existing tickets be accepted for use on other services.
Getting accurate and timely info when train services are disrupted remains a challenge. Nick Wood from East Coast and Richard Shilton from Virgin Trains gave their versions on how this is managed. Keeping messages consistent and simple is essential. The amount of data to be absorbed and distributed is considerable and often there is insufficient time to deliver this to individuals. Therefore broadcast messages become the norm and people are pointed to TOC websites and particularly National Rail Enquiries. These need to be integrated across all communication channels. Using hashtags e.g. #UK Storm is useful.
Equipping trains with WiFi is an ongoing commitment, with the service becoming free if trains are stranded. Displaying photos of any major infrastructure problem – flooding, overhead wires down – can convince passengers that the situation is real. Decisions are needed when to derestrict ticket types or class of travel. Requests for information jump from around 300 per normal day to well over 2,000 during disruption.
Technical faults have a potentially big impact on train services and the infrastructure provider needs to provide reliable data on how recovery will be managed. Peter Collins from Network Rail explained the process whereby controllers from both the train operator and Network Rail (ideally located in the same building) have responsibility for devising a plan and communicating this to stations sites and trains.
Deploying the required resources is part of this, including the estimate of time to site, setting up the communications links, analysing the fault, devising the fix and restoration of normal working. Regular reviews between Network Rail and the TOCs take place to reflect on past incidents and learn lessons.
Even planned disruption for engineering work is not exempt from needing meticulous information handling. Copenhagen Metro offers a 24-hour service so maintenance work will always have some impact. Broadcasts on local TV and radio give advance information on what will be affected. The website shows graphic displays on alternative modes at stations. Roving stewards are employed to look for passengers who seem confused and proactively enquire and help.
So how is all this regarded by passengers? Guy Dangerfield from Passenger Focus told of the feedback they receive. Five key messages emerged:
» Treat me with respect;
» Recognise my plight;
» Help me avoid the problem in the first place; » You got me into this, help get me out
» Act joined-up.
Please avoid obscure and misleading messages; comments such as “leaves on the line” or “poor rail conditions” are meaningless to most travellers. If a problem is going to last all day, don’t say until further notice.
Displays showing expected time of arrival 17.12 when it is already 17.15 give an impression of incompetence. Trust drops off quickly and the need for honesty is paramount although the impact of suicides does need to be handled sensitively.
Information dissemination preferences showed text 24%, information at stations 22%, website 8%, Twitter only 2% with the rest as don’t know. The need to improve estimates of delay and incident duration is important.
Co-ordinating ticket sales with cancellations and amendments needs to happen to warn a traveller who is booked on a train that is cancelled. Giving TOC control offices the ability to speak directly to passengers on a train, a facility that is technically available on GSM-R, should be enabled.
The way forward
Opportunities for improving and widening the current offerings are clearly there to be exploited but with this comes a massive increase in data handling and the risk that yet more embarrassing deficiencies will emerge. Empathy extends to those who deal daily with the challenge of giving out timely and accurate information, as anyone who travels regularly will see at first hand the problems being faced.
The proposers of innovation and new technology tend to start from an academic or research background and probably do not understand the realities of running an everyday railway. Getting it wrong and ‘fail safe’ are not scenarios that apply to information systems.
Aligning information with disruption is inherently difficult; often too many unknowns are there for accurate data to be processed. Building ‘cleverness’ into facilities such as journey planning is an admirable goal but will get nowhere unless ticket availability matches the options for changed routes and modes.
Overall, the two days provided a fascinating insight into what might become possible, but it remains to be seen how it all pans out in the fullness of time.