For many, passenger information is still screens and announcements at stations. However, much more is now happening; 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? Writes Clive Kessell
In June (issue 116), The Rail Engineer reported on a recent London conference and looked at progress towards integrating passenger information in the UK. This month it is time to turn the spotlight on what is happening in other parts of the world.
Unsurprisingly, other railways face problems similar to the UK. In Sweden, rail services are also deregulated and there can be up to 50 applicants for train paths. Competition between companies is considerable leading to missing links in the information flow. During the bad winters of 2010/11 many trains were left stranded with little information provision.
The public demand for co-ordination of services and a new business unit has been set up to improve co-operation between train operators and Trafikverket (the infrastructure company). Information will be available on the Trafikverket website with automatic feeds to station message boards and announcements.
Reliance on local staff to direct people during disruption remains important but no personalised smartphone message service is planned. It will be left to the market to provide this.
Next door, in Finland, they struggle with data accuracy but targeted and personalised messages are planned. To achieve this, a development programme using a sequence of customer workshop > internal workshop > quantitative questionnaire > prototyping > prototype validation with customers > technical road mapping is underway. The result will be a journey map to include many elements including social media information.
In Germany, Deutsche Bahn (DB) is experiencing an increasing demand for personalised information. This includes guiding travellers at stations, giving on board information, integrated smart ticketing and multi mode travel opportunities. The solution is ‘Touch and Travel’, with the vision of needing only two clicks to get across Europe. Smartphones will become the tickets and conductors will be equipped with readers to verify journey integrity. Users will be billed monthly.
The Amtrak service in the USA, although small compared to Europe, still managed to carry over 30 million passengers in 2013 and relies on smartphones to provide current train running information. 50% of train status requests come via an app and 10% of people use a smartphone for boarding information. Live phone support, particularly for the elderly, has to remain – as do station and on-train displays. Developing online systems has not been a trouble-free exercise and a total rethink on journey planning experiences is taking place.
Technical developments and vision
Achieving these objectives will not happen unless investment and technology keep pace. A key factor is the transmission capability between track and train.
Ken Cowley from Nomad Digital predicted that IP-based communication will become standard and this will lead to the mixing of media and travel info. An ‘on train portal’ should become possible to give real time journey information on late running and implications for connections, plus details of train facilities, for example the number of spare seats available in coach 4.
All will depend on near-constant communication to the train, implying that the public 3G and 4G networks coverage must be improved. Network Rail is already seeking options from the mobile industry as to how this might be done.
Getting reliable WiFi coverage to all parts of a train is never easy, different solutions having been tried for some time. Peter Hausken from Norway NSB described the experiences of a railway with 70% of traffic centred on Oslo suburbia and the remainder in widespread remote areas. A hub train server with wired connections to other coaches is the preferred option as a radio alternative may need expensive repeaters since modern carriages tend to block radio signals.
Cellular connectivity is ok for voice but WiFi does not support 3G and 4G speech, so both GSM and WiFi is needed via the mobile operators. Coverage in remote areas is a problem as is handover of devices at high speed.
Capacity of the link means that bandwidth has to be restricted to passengers. Whilst 80Mbit is possible, a more likely limit is 1.5Mbit up to 100MByte, then 384kbit thereafter.
Staff usage for such as credit card validation, passenger counting and CIS updates must not be forgotten. The investment case is difficult to justify and must ultimately require increased ridership.
The possibilities for the total directing of travellers was examined by Alexander Gran from IVU Traffic Technologies AG, a company specialising in journey planning across all modes which is based in Berlin with a UK Birmingham office. A combination of live signs (2,500 existing already in London) and smartphone messaging may be the only way to communicate information to individuals in the right timescale.
Disturbance alerts are fine but what the passenger really needs is travel advice. IVU’s URA system aims to provide predictions using real time running inputs to work out the best routing options if a journey is disrupted. The validity of the prediction is crucial and begs the question whether no information is better than wrong information.
Technology to simplify and create flexible ticketing is available now and Mohamed Bhanji from Via Rail in Canada set out the concept for Europe. A starting point has to be agreement between interested operators who would then progress to:
- Network compatibility (schedules / minimum connection times);
- Co-operation (affiliate / interworking / code share);
- System compatibility (booking / ticketing / settlement procedures);
- Legal and other factors (missed connections / baggage / special needs);
- Business case (cost / benefit).
The ticket would include details of the itinerary, passenger receipt and boarding pass, the latter being customised for each mode. System experience in Canada has shown that travel fraud will significantly reduce.The use of social media will increase and East Coast Trains are looking at the implications. Foremost must be the protection of the train operator’s reputation, thus impacting on the type and quality of information given out. A single source of truth is needed that could mean having professional social media advisors working alongside information controllers. The term ‘coversocial’ could become a tool of the future.
A more forward looking view on technology was given by Riccardo Santoro from FS Italiane. Open Data for On Train Operating was the theme. Interoperability of data internationally will be the requirement to foster a competitive, open-ended suppliers’ market to create smart ‘instrumented’ cities and regions.
Current offerings from multiple providers give only a partial view of mobility. The ultimate vision is a ‘Web of Transportation Elements’ with a single integrated domain using distributed data sources. In the short term, however, an integrated multi-domain with contractually combined major players may have to suffice, using a shared reference model and guidelines. Part of this might be a language translation service.
A similar vision was put forward by Niels van Oort from Delft University of Technology with the use of ‘Big Data’ to improve public transport in general. A paradigm shift from passenger to traveller, trip to journey and evaluation to prediction will result. GSM data, Crowd data and Passenger data need to combine for the required customer experience.
Modelling of people flows in Holland has shown potential savings of €50 million across five cities if the prediction of passenger preferences for speed, fares, times of operation, routes and frequency are combined to optimise the transport service.
The way forward
It is worth repeating the earlier article. 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-in ‘cleverness’ 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 conference provided a fascinating insight into what might become possible and it remains to be seen how it all pans out in the fullness of time.