How to improve passenger information?
Recent trips across Europe demonstrate a significant lack of up-to-date information in the event of traffic disruptions. Part of the reason is that railroads are somewhat sluggish companies that operate through compartmentalised departments, even when they label themselves ‘integrated’. This compartmentalisation of responsibilities often seems to have a negative impact on the information provided to passengers, even in times of normal traffic. Let’s take some time to analyse a few of the situations we have experienced, and to outline some solutions.
Arriving a little too early at a big station by chance recently salvaged my trip. A message on my cell phone warned me that “there is a problem with your train leaving at 10:46”. What is it about? No idea. My train is indeed cancelled, but to my surprise is replaced by another train leaving at 10:32, a full 14 minutes earlier. I’m lucky to be there, but how will the people who are not react?
On the platform, there is staff present to inform travellers. But when our long, 13-car-train arrives, the first class that is supposed to be at the front is not there. “Oh no, it’s on the rear,” the train manager says. So we had to dash across a 300-metre-long crowded platform to find our seats.
First observation: while we appreciate the quick replacement of a defective train, we can question the decision to make this train leave earlier. Second point: it seems that station staff, who work at the same company, was not informed of the exact composition of a train leaving a depot.
This hits at the fact that everyone works in his or her own corner, department by department. The depot, the passenger station and the traffic management centre seem to be three completely separate entities without much focus on the reality that passengers face.
Current technologies, even relatively simple ones, should be used to register the exact composition of a train, with a QR code system on each car, and read by the on-board staff (or depot in some cases). All of this should be sent to a cloud-based operating system for all concerned as well as to the customers’ mobile applications.
Knowing where the bicycle spaces are located or the first class (when it exists) is essential things that serves travellers.
Another issue is the structure of the mobile applications. They are built only to be soll, not to inform. On a mobile app, it is sometimes difficult to enter your train number and get credible information. Often, the delays indicated are not actually happing, or when they are, they are not even mentioned.
Of course, there are screens on board the trains that show where your train is located, which also show connecting trains. But we have already seen that in case of important disruptions, the screens are turned off or continue to display commercial promos unrelated to the problems encountered. Is that the way to reassure people?
With the QR Code ticketing, you should be able to click on a link that gives you all the information about your train, from its route, its possible delays and even the composition of the menus or the bar sales. These are things that reassure travellers and reflect well on the company as a result.
The reliability of the information is also crucial. On a chaotic Berlin-Cologne trip that was 40 minutes late, the train crew enumerated connecting trains as if there were no delays, announcing all trains that had already left Cologne since 20 or 30 minutes.
Staff smartphones should display a train’s route and schedule updates at all times, so that they can adjust the information and connecting trains more reliably.
Be it via staff, screens or mobile applications, reliable and up-to-date information is a crucial element for any transport operator, because a reassured customer, even in case of disruptions, is a customer who will come back. These elements are crucial both for the credibility of an an operator, but also to ensure modal shift and to make the train a reference transport.