Hacking through the problems of rail passenger congestion

Jason Ford - News Editor, The EngineerJason Ford,
News Editor

This week IMechE hosts an event likely to resonate will many rail commuters and train travellers alike.

In July 1992, the then-transport secretary John MacGregor published the government’s white paper on rail privatisation and by November 1993 the Bill had passed through Parliament, passing what had been British Rail over to the private sector and spawning the plethora of train companies that now operate on the UK’s railways.

Since then, passenger numbers have doubled and the upward trend in rail use is set to continue, which isn’t what you want to hear when dreading the arrival of your overcrowded train on a workday morning.

Engineering the Railway Passenger Journey is a one-day event that will look at the role engineers play in shaping movement through railway trains, stations and ticket barriers.

The seminar will ask:

  • How can we meet passenger expectations of easier, more reliable and comfortable journeys as our network and trains become more crowded?
  • How can we keep train services running when there’s disruption caused by engineering work or by extreme weather events?
  • How can we communicate better with our passengers to give them the information they need when they need it?

As a rail commuter, it’s very easy to criticise when one little thing goes wrong and overlook the hundreds of other things going right. My commute, for example, takes me into London Charing Cross in an eight-car train operated by Southeastern Railways.

Their trains – more often than not – are punctual and exiting Charing Cross is made easier and quicker by the green arrows – or red crosses – above multiple ticket barriers to help direct the flow of passengers through the station. It doesn’t sound like much, but it beats being delayed in an undignified scrum to get through ticket barriers.

And when things go wrong, as they invariably do? For this, look back a couple of weeks and the train that was delayed after it struck a beer barrel on the line. The event, while unfortunate, caused delays that would be have been made bearable with even something as simple as regular tannoy announcements. After all, we’re not all bewitched by our smartphones and therefore not necessarily abreast of what’s happening on social media, if said event was communicated that way. Such announcements, plus the placement of electronic information displays along the entire length of platforms, are the very least that can be done for the commuter whose journey is blighted by problems, and whose frustration is compounded by ignorance of their cause.

Such delays lead to claims for compensation, which is an exercise in form filling that could be made simpler with automatic delay repay; the subject of one seminar strand to be delivered by Anand Sampat, head of customer experience, and Kishan Vaja, digital marketing manager, both at c2c.

River Tamoor Baig, the co-founder of technology services specialist Hack Partners, will be on hand to explain how its railways IT accelerator HackTrain is working with train operators to introduce ways to improve the passenger experience and increase operational efficiency, and so-called Quick Fire presentations on Hacktrain innovations will include: how passengers move about during delays and disruptions to the network, and how this movement affects platform congestion, retail purchases and train loading; using mobile technology to reduce congestion on passenger services, drawing on evidence from applying this approach on the c2c line between Fenchurch Street and Southend; and improving the multi-modal experience, drawing on technology used by the likes of Zoopla and Rightmove to help people decide where to purchase a home, based on transportation links.

Engineering the Railway Passenger Journey takes place on May 18, 2016 in London. Speakers include Anthony Smith, chief executive, Transport Focus; Peter Wilkinson, managing director, passenger services, Department for Transport; and Mike Stubbs, ‎director London Overground, Transport for London.