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Internet will drive next generation of PIS

01 Aug 2000

INTRO: On-board passenger information systems are becoming an essential rather than an optional extra, but design needs to be driven by customer expectations, rather than an operator's wish list. Advanced technology is helping to lower running costs and drive up revenues, making the equipment self-financing

INTER-CITY passengers could be benefiting from a wide range of on-board information and entertainment systems within five years, thanks to the rapid emergence of internet and mobile phone technologies. Real-time news and advertising, videos on demand, and even on-train internet surfing will be possible as component prices fall and bandwidth limitations disappear.

This is the vision of Marshall Moreyne, founder and President of Montreal-based passenger information specialist Telecite Inc, acquired last October by Alstom through a strategic development agreement. Founded in 1986, the company has developed its current PIS range for the urban market, but Alstom's global reach and resources will allow expansion into inter-city operations.

Telecite's information systems are designed to be self-financing, with commercial advertising contributing to the cost of installing the hardware and supplying news, travel information and emergency messages. 'Only 20 years ago, information systems were seen as an optional extra', suggests Moreyne. 'Following the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, and similar legislation elsewhere, they are becoming a necessity. But some operators still need convincing that adding PIS can be cost-effective.'

Most on-train information systems are what Moreyne describes as 'entry level', with only a few basic functions. To demonstrate 'high end' technology, in 1993 Telecite negotiated a 20-year concession to install and operate its Visual Communications Network on the Montreal metro. The company has fitted LED displays in 846 cars, and provides a mix of route information, news and advertising. In return, operator STCUM now has the ability to reach its riders with real-time travel information and emergency announcements when required.

Following the success of the Montreal pilot, Telecite won contracts for other demonstration schemes, including New York, Hong Kong and Paris RER Line C. These led to orders for installing PIS in over 100 NYCT subway stations and on 212 R143 cars, and 175 platform displays for Amtrak's New York Penn station. VCN equipment will also be fitted on stations and vehicles for the JFKairport rail link.

In Hong Kong Telecite is supplying a complete package and over 3000 display screens to MTR Corp, equipping 762 refurbished EMU cars and the new stock to serve the Tseung Kwan O extension. Paris is currently tendering for between 2000 and 4000 displays to equip all stations on RER Lines C and D.

VCN in operation

The Montreal network provides two displays in each car positioned longitudinally across diagonally-opposite windows. Because of the comparatively early installation, each display uses 32 x 160 dot displays with 5 mm three-colour LEDs (red/green/amber). These offer a continuous rolling programme of news bulletins, next station announcements and advertisements.

The standard package of information is prepared by a dedicated Telecite team, and downloaded by wireless to the trains over a wide-area network. It will typically be updated four times a day to keep the news elements current. Within the package is a master schedule, setting times of day and locations for information to be broadcast. For example, a specific advert or message relating to some event at one station could be configured to appear only on trains arriving at that location, or on all trains currently operating within a given section of route.

The whole package is downloaded to a 4MB on-board controller, which then sends the current requirements to a 2MB memory chip in each display unit. Location data can be collected from the signalling, odometers, lineside beacons or GPS.

As well as programme messages, VCN allows for 'transient messages' to be generated in an emergency. With pre-formatted options available for 99% of likely events, boxes for the operator to complete, and a menu of click-on zones for dispatch, it takes around 7 sec to compile a message and 10 sec to send it anywhere on the network. Digitised voice announcements can also be sent the same way.

The mix of news, information and advertising varies from city to city, and Telecite has been conducting market surveys to assess whether passengers absorb the material and what they like to see. In Table I, (a) compares the mix of customer preferences for three cities, while (b) shows the level of customer recall for different forms of content.

Technology-driven future

One factor influencing the scope of information systems is the choice of display technology. LEDs provide an economical approach for essentially text messages with limited animated graphics. LCD screens offer higher quality resolution, but at present they only have a five-year life, making the cost eight times higher than LEDs.

Both approaches are set to see major improvements in the next few years. The advent of blue LEDs - hitherto very expensive but now being demanded by the medical industry - will permit full colour LED displays. And the adoption of a 15 inch LCD as the standard screen for laptop computers will drive economies of scale, making them more accessible for the rail market.

Ultra-slim LEDs and a purpose-designed power module have allowed the development of 256-colour display screens no more than 29mm thick. These can be wall-mounted within a vehicle, rather than set into the interior panelling which was essential for earlier four-colour units up to 125mm thick.

Telecite has recently launched its VCN2000 system, which offers bi-directional interactive services using LCD or plasma displays. This is driven via the internet, using a TCPIP open architecture. As well as moving on-train advertising to a seamless multimedia display, VCN2000 will have higher bandwidths to allow inter-city users to download videos on demand, for example. Passengers could also surf the internet with real-time connectivity.

These options are most likely to be available via seat-back or pop-up personal displays, but Moreyne sees the potential for a few wall-mounted screens in metro trains for passengers to access real-time information. One proposal recently submitted to an Asian metro operator combines on-train LED displays for text messaging with touch screen LCD screens allowing passengers to request information on specific topics.

TABLE: Table I: Survey of information use

a) Preference for type of content

City Montreal Paris Hong Kong

International news 1 3 3

Local news 3 1 3

Weather 3 1 2

Sports 3 3 1

Advertising 2 1 2

Particularities Lottery Books Stock Market

b) Message recall (40% adverts, 60% information)

City Montreal Paris Hong Kong

Weather - - 68

News - 67 52

Adverts - 48 51

Next stop - 53 41

Finance - - 27

Sports - 18 14

Other - 50 -

TABLE: Table II. Montreal metro passenger survey

Principal on-train activity

Watch information panels 40%

Read 38%

Watch people 26%

Ride with others / talk 16%

Read static adverts 14%

Close eyes 8%

Don't know 4%

Frequency of watching info panels

1998 1999

Always 24% 33%

Most times 31% 29%

Time to time 29% 31%

Rarely 16% 7%

CAPTION: Above: Telecite LED-based platform display screens at New York's Pennsylvania station

Top right: Telecite President Marshall Moreyne demonstrates an NYCT LED module to Chris Jackson in Montreal

Below right: LCD-based information displays are being fitted to the refurbished MTR fleet in Hong Kong

CAPTION: Lottery advertising has proved one of the most widely-read messages on the Montreal metro information system

Reader Enquiry Numbers:

Télécité 111

TNCi UK 112