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Railwatch 087 - March 2001

Railwatch - Information breakdown

One of the biggest failures of the fragmented rail system we now have is information. In the age of information technology, the railway has failed on many counts.

The system was put to critical test in the disruption which followed the Hatfield crash. Instead of making sure that passengers were kept properly informed of what services were running and what was really happening, we were treated to lots of public relations "spin".

But the reality for too many passengers was waiting in ignorance - well and truly out in the cold. Even many station information screens were out of use or giving inadequate information.

The journey planner on the Railtrack website was next to useless with a blanket warning that all services were subject to disruption. There seemed to be little, if any, real attempt to load details of the revised services, even though many were running well. A whole host of web-based information services appeared but they often gave wrong, contradictory or no information.

The National Rail website made enormous efforts to get to grips with the situation but was let down by the train operators which seemed unable to provide the correct information. The 09457 484950 telephone service was overwhelmed and the staff were obviously overstressed.

On one occasion, your editor asked for details of the service from London King's Cross to Bedford, only to be told that I would have to go to London Victoria, travel 25 miles south to Gatwick and then back 75 miles north via Thameslink to Bedford. In fact there was a service from King's Cross.

South Wales had its share of disruptions but what has become acutely clear is the inability of the various information systems to cope with significant out-of-course running - a situation probably parallelled in other areas. The First Great Western system at Cardiff Central was especially poor in this regard.

The Wales and West Project Inform system appeared, on the whole, to fare better.

Another contentious issue was the lack of on-the-ground management of bus substitutions where these had to be made because of flooding, resulting sometimes in long delays and with no staff presence to reassure and inform. This whole area is one demanding urgent attention by the industry.

Even in normal times, it is very difficult to find out the price of different kinds of tickets. It is now quite common to be given incorrect information. It is certainly time for fares information to be made available in both public libraries and on the world wide web.

Even on-board train staff seem to be unable to keep up to date, particularly with fare offers promoted by other train operators. Virgin's excellent half-price promotion was undermined by staff on other companies' trains. On one GNER train two young women were each wrongly charged an excess fare of over £30 because the train conductor refused to accept that their Virgin tickets were valid on his train.

Amazingly many stations - even unstaffed ones - do not have screens giving details of when the next train is expected.

Many stations do not have timetables pasted outside for prospective passengers to check train times. This is becoming increasingly important as train operators lose interest in staffing their stations properly.

Even on big stations, new technology is chosen which is not as good as the old. London's Waterloo is getting train departure screens which are badly sited and difficult to see because of light reflection.

The type (white on blue) is much smaller and less clear than the old departure boards (white on black).

Britain's busiest station - Clapham Junction - is one of the network's most valuable assets. But its information services are fragmented and confusing. There seems to be little recognition that enormous numbers of people are getting off one train and need information about from where and when other trains leave.

Departure screens are often out of order, facing the wrong way or give information about only one company's trains.

Regular travellers learn how to get around in spite of the confusion. Newcomers are baffled. On days when platforms are closed because of engineering works there are often no notices to redirect passengers. The only hope is to find a member of the ever-dwindling station staff.

The same applies at Gatwick where everything is geared to air travellers. If you need to change trains, rather than transfer from plane to train, there is no information at platform level about departures on other platforms. It is necessary to go up by the escalator and cross the airport ticket hall to see the departure board.

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