July 25, 2006

Improve Information And Win New Business!

By Roden, Andrew

Information systems can win-or lose-business before passengers get anywhere near a train. Airlines have established a near-global information format that works well, so why can't rail?

THE way humans process and interpret information is a complicated process that varies enormously depending on cultural, economic, and geographical factors. But when it comes to telling people the times and status of train services, why is it so often hard to understand?

It's certainly not a problem at most airports around the globe: the times of flights are indicated, the departure point, and the status. And the information is designed in such a way as to be clear to passengers from all over the world speaking any number of languages. Why is there so much variation on the railways?

The approach taken by designers seems to mean designing for people who already know the network they are travelling on. This immediately places people unfamiliar with a system at a disadvantage. Surely, one would think, it would make far more sense to design information systems for occasional and first-time users? These are the people networks want to attract in the first place.

Take metros, for example. In Paris, the lines and trains are known by the start and end points of the route-but if you don't know that, deciding which line to take from a busy station can be a hugely frustrating process. One positive advance some metros have introduced is platform displays telling passengers the time until the next train arrives. As well as being useful information, it also removes uncertainty: and it's often that which causes most stress for passengers.

Travelling around the world, it's striking just how much variation there is between different countries. In many northern European countries, an ordered approach to providing information means that even where a language barrier exists, it is often possible to work out where to go.

A Mixed Picture

Travel further south in Europe, and that picture becomes much more variable. In some stations in Italy, provision of information is good: in others, practically non-existent. If you have connecting services or flights, that can be the cause of considerable stress. How often have you been on a train and been asked whether it's really going where another passenger hopes it is? Destinations should be clearly displayed inside and outside the train-something which is beginning to happen as new stock is introduced.

And this leads to another problem for passengers-the vast and confusing array of tickets, often with local branding that, frankly, means absolutely nothing. It seems to be particularly bad at airports, where travellers from all over the world find themselves confronted with masses of choices at the railway station, and little or no indication of which the correct one might be. It should be simpler. In Britain, the rail link between London Heathrow airport and the city centre has a straightforward system that is, by comparison with many, easy to use. Until, that is, it comes to ticket price. Standard class is known as 'express', and first as 'business'. The names tell you nothing about the product, and the result, predictably, is confused passengers who spend more than they need to on travel.

For those lucky first-time passengers who get the correct ticket, the next challenge is to get on the right train. Modern platform- level information systems are generally very good at this, particularly where they tell passengers each station the train calls at. But before the platforms, information is needed to tell people where to go. The rule of thumb should be: the bigger the station, the more time people need to find the correct place. It's staggering how often last-minute platform changes are made, leading to unnecessary stress, confusion, and anger. Platform changes really are a disruption which should be eliminated, even at the cost of a few minutes' delay.

There is a wide range of technologies available or on the horizon that has the potential to make travel easier and more convenient. From mobile messaging services, to the increasing impact of the internet, passengers no longer have to go to a railway station to obtain information. And once they're at the station, new and flexible display technologies such as electronic ink make providing large, highcontrast screens more cost-effective and easier than ever.

It's time a unified, rational, study-based approach to information provision was rolled out across the world. The International Union of Railways (UIC) must take a lead here, because if airlines and airports can achieve it so consistently around the world, rail has no excuse whatsoever.

Andrew Roden

Associate Editor

Copyright Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corporation Jul 2006

(c) 2006 International Railway Journal. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.