137.Rail passengers want clear and accurate information about the best route to their destination, including on other modes before and after their train journey; and, during the journey, how their journey is progressing, the cause of any delay, how long a delay is likely to last, and alternative travel options in the event of severe disruption. While there have been enhancements to the information provided to passengers in recent years—since the advent of the internet and the availability of real-time data—there is evidently substantial scope for further improvement. In this chapter we consider how this might be achieved.
138.Before making a non-routine train journey, most rail passengers refer to the relevant train company’s website, National Rail Enquiries (NRE) and/or the websites of third party ticket retailers. Regular commuters also often refer to train companies’ websites, apps and Twitter feeds and/or NRE, principally to check if their train is likely to be on time and from which platform their return journey is departing.
139.Passengers were largely negative about train company websites. This comment from an individual passenger was typical:
The website for Southern trains is appalling. Badly designed, inefficient, difficult to use, slow—often to the point of being unusable—and difficult, if not impossible, to navigate.
140.Some passengers complained that online apps do not always provide reliable information about which platform a train is departing from. Several witnesses told us that externally produced websites and apps provided better and more reliable information; websites including Realtime Trains were making much better use of Network Rail’s open data about the location of trains on the network and the reasons for delays, for example. This was increasingly leading to situations in which some passengers had access to better information than train company staff (see “the wider benefits of Wi-Fi”, below).
141.Jacqueline Starr told us that ATOC/RDG was engaged in work to improve websites and apps, and broader “customer experience” issues, in “conjunction with the likes of Transport Focus, the DfT and the regulator [the ORR]”. There was unanimity across TOCs that improvements to online information were required. It was ATOC/RDG’s role to coordinate action across the sector, promoting a level of consistency without stifling individual innovations. Jacqueline Starr gave a commitment that ATOC/RDG would, as part of a current piece of work, “collaboratively agree what the minimum standard should be”.
142.While it is important to ensure that face-to-face help from railway staff is available to those passengers who require it, websites and apps are an increasingly important channel of information. A number of TOCs’ websites and apps are poorly designed and difficult for passengers to use. We therefore welcome ATOC/RDG’s commitment, as part of its ongoing work to improve the passenger experience, to promote a level of consistency and minimum set of standards across all TOCs’ websites and apps. We recommend that ATOC/RDG publish a detailed plan for how it intends to take this work forward, including clear timescales for action, to facilitate our continued scrutiny of this area.
143.National Rail Enquiries (NRE) is the central, GB network-wide portal for train information. Passengers’ experience of using its website and app was mixed. While some users described NRE as “pretty good and reliable”, others felt that enhancements were necessary. Key concerns included that it was not always possible to track the progress of journeys in real time; that the reasons given for delays and disruption were insufficiently wide-ranging and informative; and that it did not always provide reliable information about the platform from which services were departing. Some witnesses reported that alternative websites were often more reliable. Increasingly popular externally produced apps, such as Citymapper, provide information across a range of transport modes, enabling users to plan their end-to-end journey via a single source. NRE currently provides no information about onward travel on other modes.
144.The Rail Delivery Group, which has responsibility for NRE, insisted that a great deal of progress had been made in improving the service over the past few years, but acknowledged that more work was required. It expected further improvements “later this year”, including the introduction of additional features such as a “live chat” facility and an audit of NRE’s use of language, with the aim of removing confusing jargon. It was intended that NRE would become a best practice template for TOCs websites and apps.
145.Jacqueline Starr, whose direct responsibilities include improving NRE, acknowledged that it had become “a little outdated” and had not evolved over recent years to meet the needs of the contemporary rail passenger. She accepted that NRE had not yet fully embraced new technologies, and was therefore lagging behind other transport websites and apps, but confirmed that ATOC/RDG’s ongoing work on improving the customer experience was considering how this could now be achieved.
146.National Rail Enquiries (NRE) has lagged behind other transport information websites and apps in terms of its design, functionality and effective use of Network Rail’s open data. We recommend ATOC/RDG publish, before the end of 2016, a clear plan, with specific timescales for action, for improvements to NRE including: more reliable and informative information about delays and disruption; more consistent provision of platform numbers from which trains are due to depart; and information about onward travel on other modes, drawing on and replicating the functionality of externally produced, multi-modal transport apps.
147.Many individual passengers saw the more extensive provision of Wi-Fi on trains as a non-essential, though welcome, enhancement to train travel—allowing business travellers, for example, to work more easily on the train and leisure travellers to use the internet and social media during their journey. These benefits of productivity, or simply a more enjoyable travel experience, were broadly seen as less important than the primary objective of providing a more reliable service with more frequent and punctual trains.
148.Expert witnesses, however, noted that the two objectives were not mutually exclusive. They emphasised that Wi-Fi offered the potential to improve the flow of information via websites and online apps, not only to passengers but also to train company staff. Reliable Wi-Fi on the railway had the potential to ensure that on-board staff had access to real-time information, and could relay this to passengers. Railfuture reported that:
We still unfortunately have examples of staff having to hide away and lock themselves in their room because they do not have the information to give passengers. Someone waves a tablet in front of them and says, “Look, Realtime Trains tells me that the train is further down the track and will be here in 20 minutes,” but staff do not know that. [ … ] Getting the [Wi-Fi] infrastructure in place for staff and passengers will be a key thing to start thinking about now and building for the future.
149.Hull Trains recently became the first TOC in the UK to harness digital technology to provide on-board, real-time information screens. These show not only the real-time progress of the train, including “stopping patterns, expected arrival times, delays and delay reasons”, but also live departure board information at the next station, so that passengers can plan onward journeys.
150.Virgin Trains emphasised barriers to the wider provision of reliable Wi-Fi, which required substantial investment. It was investing in improving the speed and reliability of Wi-Fi on both its east and west coast services, but it was currently “limited by the total bandwidth we can provide.” It argued that the relatively short-term durations of franchise agreements made it “difficult to commercially justify” the substantial investment in trackside infrastructure necessary to substantially improve the situation. It argued that Network Rail, the DfT and the RDG ought to take joint responsibility and provide greater leadership in this area.
151.Martin Frobisher, Network’s Rail’s Route Managing Director, London and North West, told us that there were essentially two ways of delivering network-wide, or at least much broader, Wi-Fi coverage. One was to install a “specific railway phone system” compatible with a 4G or 5G signal; this would require a “massive investment”. The alternative would be for TOCs to work with mobile communications companies to “fill in the black spots”. His view was that, while it provided less of a guarantee of network-wide coverage, this option had the benefit of requiring far less taxpayer investment, and would better address future “obsolescence issues”. Chiltern Railways was pursuing this strategy.
152.The collective view of the rail industry, as expressed by RDG, was that “the best way to fund [the expansion of Wi-Fi coverage] is either through bilateral agreements and funding grants from DfT, or through specification in franchise agreements.” Martin Frobisher confirmed that the DfT was commissioning a number of trials, and working with TOCs to identify the best solutions.
153.The benefits of more extensive and reliable Wi-Fi on the railways are manifold, including: more enjoyable journeys for leisure passengers; more productive use of journey time by business passengers; and more reliable and up-to-date information for passengers and train company staff, with the potential to bring about a transformative improvement in the provision of information during disruption. We welcome the DfT’s commissioning of trials to identify the best solutions. The sector now needs a clear plan for investment in this area. We recommend that the DfT, Network Rail and ATOC/RDG work collaboratively to produce a strategic plan for the implementation of extensive and reliable Wi-Fi across the rail network. We recommend that the Department publish such a plan by summer 2017.
154 Nick Tigg ()
155 See, for example, Alison Carter () and Oliver Green ()
156 [Chris Fribbins]; Andrew Bodman (); Matthew Laidler ()
158 Crofton Park Transport Users Group ()
159 Andrew Bodman (); Matthew Laidler ()
160 See and
161 RDG ()
163 Sherborne Transport Action Group ()
164 [Chris Fribbins]
165 Hull Trains, ‘ ’, accessed 12 September 2016
166 Virgin Trains ()
167 [Dave Penney]
168 RDG ()
13 October 2016