AS RAILWAY operators come under more pressure to increase ridership, both for commercial purposes and because governments are seeking modal transfer for environmental reasons, there is a clear need for passenger information systems to extend their scope. In this new market, the potential traveller is the new focus of PI.
Computer-based ticket issuing equipment at station booking offices and travel agencies is now in widespread use. Much of this uses software which allows journey planning, fare selection, seat reservation and ticket issuing to be combined in a single transaction.
Such systems depend on the traveller having time to make the enquiry away from his home or place of work, plus access to a local station or travel agent with ticketing facilities and sufficient trained staff. This may not be the case with new travellers, so in an expanding market both passenger and operator stand to benefit if journeys can be planned at home or at work.
An early example was the timetable and journey planning software for PCs pioneered by Netherlands Railways and now offered by a number of railways. Timetable software continues to be popular, but it has the drawback that unless on-line upgrades can be downloaded to the user, the data does not include day-to-day variations in service, for example, if trains are diverted or cancelled because of track maintenance work.
In Britain, Railtrack is responsible for timetabling. In January 1997 the company opened an internet website with a journey planning facility. This was linked to the Time Table Database and was thus always up to date.
During 1997 the site had 14 million visits to the Railtrack which also accessed the journey planner. Usage has now stabilised at just under 500000 enquiries a week. In comparison, the National Rail Enquiry Service operated by the Association of Train Operating Companies is handling just under 1 million telephone timetable enquiries a week.
According to Railtrack, analysis of journey planner use shows strong bias towards business - the number of people accessing the TTDB starts to build up after 09.00 and declines after 17.00. Railtrack is now seeking to add fares information to the facility.
However, the number of people with access to the internet, though increasing, is still limited to an estimated 1 million homes in Britain. This means that the telephone is likely to remain the dominant source of remote passenger information for some time to come.
Here the main challenge to passenger railways is the cost and quality of service when using human operators. As enquiry bureaux now use computer-based journey planners, the expensive operator is effectively acting as an interface for the telephone caller.
This is recognised by the European Arise (Automatic Railway Inquiry Systems in Europe) project to develop an automated voice railway timetable which will allow travellers to obtain telephone information by answering questions in their own languages. The project is being implemented by railway authorities in France, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany.
Arise follows the Railtel (Railway Telephone) and MAIS (Multilingual Automatic Inquiry System) projects. Its aim is to develop and test prototype commercial systems covering enquiries in English, French, Dutch and Italian.
Field trials to test the technology in everyday situations are due to start in the Netherlands this year. However, an automated telephone enquiry system is already live in Switzerland. Swiss Federal Railways began tests with its ’Talking Timetable’ system, which covers the top 1500 stations, in 1996. A German speaking version is operational on 00411570222.
Information is requested in the From (station name) To (station name) format, followed by day and time of travel. A trial by Railway Gazette International staff showed that the system’s Artificial Intelligence is quite resilient, but it did not cope so well with lesser-known station names.
If a station name is not understood, the caller is asked to repeat the information; our test found that good pronunciation paid benefits. More impressive was the response one afternoon when we asked for trains leaving at ’08.00 today’ rather than ’tomorrow’. The response was to give details for trains at that time for the next day.
In Germany, the Eva electronic timetable and information system can be accessed through the internet or digital telephone. In addition to journey planning, Eva also handles ticket purchase by credit card and makes seat reservations. ’Eva Plus’, now under consideration, would extend the service through interfaces to local, regional and international transport data sources.
Thanks to the close links between public transport operators and German Railway, detailed on-line planning of through journeys is already possible. Door-to-door itineraries can be called up at will on DB’s Hafas on-line timetable, which includes urban transport operators. This surely starts to make public transport a more credible alternative to the private car.
A member of staff was able to call up a station just 3min walk from his front door in south London, and on requesting a destination village in Germany, was presented with a bus stop a stone’s throw from the back garden fence of a friend living near Darmstadt (left). Were this facility properly marketed, and with the software available to libraries and local authorities, many more Europeans could soon be travelling by public transport door-to-door using a sheet of A4 paper, not litres of petrol.
Apart from journey planning, the internet is being used to provide real time train service information. In Britain, the North Western Trains franchise provides arrivals and departures displays for its 304 stations on its website (http://nwt.rail.co.uk). Information is updated at 2min intervals from the Railtrack Trust train running database.
In the first five months after its launch the NWT web site recorded 200000 hits and is currently averaging 40000 per week. Use peaks between 15.00 and 17.00 as people check the running of return journeys. As with other internet information sites, a fares inquiry facility is likely to be the first expansion. o
This site gives users access to one of the most detailed on-line planning tools. Through journeys giving door-to-door itineraries can be called up on a Europe-wide basis. The system has been built up using DB’s HAFAS on-line timetable
Buy your ticket by Internet
Renfe has announced that it will offer a reservation and ticketing service by internet, starting in 1999. Tiknet is being developed with information technology specialist Indra, and will allow users to make bookings on Regional services using PCs linked to the Net. Tiknet will use new methods of payment, such as an electronic purse.