The Challenges of Passenger Communication – Part 1

23 Feb

In this series of posts I’m going to look at how train service information is conveyed to passengers and, taking Amsterdam Centraal Station as an example, explain the different areas involved in relaying that information and what the human and technical system considerations are when looking to improve such a service.

The ‘Three C’s’of Passenger Communication’

These points are my own building blocks to the way passenger information should be given.

  1. EFFICIENCY – Information needs to be given efficiently. It should be immediately clear without the need for prior experience of the service and, where possible, given in ‘Real-Time’.
  2. CONSISTENCY – The presentation needs to be in the same format, using consistent symbols, formatting and coding. Inconsistency results in confusion and disgruntled (read late) passengers.
  3. RELEVANCY – Passengers, often in a hurry, don’t always think logically when time is short. Therefore a “Need to Know” basis should be adhered to. Irrelevant, too much or too little information again risks confusion

I’ve already touched on Real-Time information. Technology has given us the ability to check delays, book tickets on-line and even check-in for our flights anywhere we choose.  Real-Time information has become something we all expect but the ‘Three C’s’ I have outlined do not always walk hand-in-hand with its presentation. Again this is an extensive subject so here’s my context. When I discuss Real-Time information I refer not just to the information itself but to any platform in which it is available, be that huge destination boards, video screens, Internet or closed private network, and even human.

Taking the ‘Three C’s’ let’s look at how departing train information is presented. Below is a picture of one of the video screens used throughout the underpasses between the entrances and the platforms.

Take a look and think about what you can and can’t see.

The first point is, “What is the current time?” Look at your watch, ask a passer-by, an NS employee, look at a station clock and you’ll find out, however displaying the time right there on the screen, and therefore the context that this system is running to, is hugely important. This is because watches are set arbitrarily by the wearer, sometimes habitually ahead of time; sometimes they will just be wrong. Displaying what is considered ‘Railway Time’ will reassure and educate passengers on their decision making.

Next, as platforms at the station are very long some can take minutes to reach.  Having the current time displayed on the screen enables passengers to work out whether they will get to a train or not. If the time of this picture was 11:56 and I was standing underneath platform 2a, I have, in all practicality, missed the 11:57 Amersfoort Schothorst train as it takes 2 or 3 minutes to get to Platform 10B. Yet without the current time I wouldn’t know that.

Via – Information That Doesn’t Educate

Amsterdam and Rotterdam are well connected and there are 4 different routes you can take between them.  This choice represents a critical decision and the information needs to be consistent, efficient and relevant, which it isn’t.

A question, “You will notice the 11:59 Dordrecht train goes via Rotterdam C (Centraal), if you miss this train, when is the next train to Rotterdam?”

Look down the list and you don’t see Rotterdam displayed again until the 12:17 service which goes via Woerden.  But what the screen doesn’t tell you is that the 12:10 Breda train goes to Rotterdam as well and will save you 30 minutes compared to the Woerden service.

This highlights an inconsistency with the ‘Via’ column.  There doesn’t appear to be a consistent rule.  Again it crops up on the Amersfoort route.

There are two trains to Amersfoort on the display, an Intercity at 11:57 and a Sprinter at 12:05. The display tells us the 11:57 goes via Hilversum, and the 12:05 goes via Weesp, Naarden and Hilversum. What is the difference? In reality they both go the exact same route over the same tracks, Amersfoort Vathorst being one station further than Amersfoort Schothorst. The inefficiency in the information is caused by the use of the word ‘Via’. Here the ‘Via’ column is used to give only a general indication of the major calling points along the way, but as we have seen the list is by no means inclusive, so to bolster your intelligence NS use the ‘Trein’ column. This column denotes the type of service. Intercity means the service only calls at central and main stations, while Sprinter is a service that calls at (usually)every station.

Then we have the train at the top of list, the 11:57 to Alkmaar. Again the presentation of this train’s information is inconsistent as no ‘Via’ route or stops are mentioned and you may be given to understand that IC is another type of service (it isn’t, it’s still Intercity), and that Alkmaar is the only stop (again it isn’t). Passengers for Zaandam, Castricum and Heiloo could be none the wiser that this service calls at their stations.


My recommendation is to introduce consistency and efficiency. By introducing a system that displays all the calling points of a service so that the passenger knows where the train stops. At stations in the UK, such as Clapham Junction, this is achieved by using simple scrolling displays which list the stops across the screen every few seconds. By doing this you vastly improve the systems relevancy and provide more of the information the passenger needs.

Now we have some ‘Real-Time’ challenges and to do this I took another shot of the same display a few moments later.

First of all the display does relay some important ‘Real-Time’ information reasonably efficiently. The ‘Blued-out’ 12:11 to Den Haag Centraal is easily spotted as not running, the 12:08 to Maastricht will not be going further than Eindhoven and the 12:17 to Rotterdam Centraal will leave from a alternative platform. There are also two delayed services, the 11:57 to Alkmaar and the 12:17 to Uitgeest and the period of the delay is noted.

However due to the fact the current time is not displayed you don’t know how long you have left to make the Alkmaar service. While you have some indication to make the decision (in the fact that trains scheduled around the same time are still displayed, re: 11:57 to Amersfoort), you have to rely on guesswork and when those trains depart you will have very little indication at all. The result here is that despite ‘Real-Time’ information being made available it is still inefficient because it is not immediately clear.


Finally a brief comparison with flight departure information at Schiphol airport. Below is a photograph from the departures hall.

Here on the departures display you can see two pieces of information that would be valuable at Amsterdam CS. First, the current time (very top left hand corner, 16:06) and the time it takes to walk to the gate. While I admit that not all major stations would need to display walking times to the platforms, at Amsterdam CS, given the length of the platforms and the distance between the display screens and the platforms themselves, it would improve efficiency in the decision making of passengers.

In the next part I’ll cover how timetables are displayed and what problems there are with the information that they present.

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  1. The Challenges of Passenger Communication – A Study at Amsterdam CS Part 2 « The Sight of the Navigator - March 4, 2010

    […] today’s entry deals with timetables and more static media. You’ll recall that in Part 1 I covered the foundations for transit information and the ‘Three ‘C’s’ […]

  2. The Challenges of Passenger Communication – A Study at Amsterdam CS Part 3 « The Sight of the Navigator - March 10, 2010

    […] program has exposed challenges regarding passenger communication. You’ll remember that in Part 1 I covered the issues with ‘Real-Time’ passenger information and the displays currently […]

  3. Getting Passenger Communication Right: Intermodal Changes « The Sight of the Navigator - July 29, 2010

    […] In one of my first posts I explained my own laws on how passenger information should be conveyed, if you haven’t seen it The Three C’s can be found here. […]

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