The Challenges of Passenger Communication – Part 2

04 Mar

In Part 1 I covered my foundations for communicating transit information, the ‘Three ‘C’s’, which are Efficiency, Consistency and Relevancy. In this post I’ll look at how timetables, the reference guide to a transit network, are displayed, taking Amsterdam Centraal Station (CS) as an example.

You might think that there are some common-sense approaches to displaying timetables, or that only a few different formats would exist, but in reality nearly every transit operator, in each different mode of transport, displays timings in its own way.  Railway companies the world over have taken a myriad of different approaches, booklets and leaflets, encyclopaedia sized national guidebooks that cover each and every train in one tome, simple A-to-B alphabetical listings and route maps.

In the Netherlands this is how timetables are displayed at all train stations;

Presentation Philosophy

The title gives an overview of the destinations covered and divides the departures into hours. Where the format begins to break-down though is through its attempt to simplify the presentation. Here I reference feedback that I received on my first post,

“The problems you highlight are symptomatic of information provision in organisations where a) Employees stay in that company for a long time; and b) The organisation is nationalised or was until recent decades […] I believe the philosophy inherent in this is that these organisations have an information culture where they convey it in their own context with little thought as to how that relates to the scenario of the new or one time user.”

Taking this feedback, we notice that there appears to be a philosophy behind the display of information at Amsterdam CS that trusts that the passenger has prior experience of the system and that this would enable them to correctly ascertain the right travel information. Let’s zoom in on the top of the sheet and see where the efficiencies, consistencies and relevancies are challenged.

Clarity and Clearness Equal Speed and Security

The timetable covers services between Amsterdam and Utrecht and then beyond.  The presentation is exactly the same for all routes and destinations so in that respect there is consistency, but not all stations are shown beyond Utrecht Centraal.  Furthermore if you are going to a station that is not served directly by trains from Amsterdam Centraal (Venlo or Geldermalsen for example) no timetables are displayed at all in the station and you will have to ask at the information desks.

The diagram-map is used also to display information regarding which service types call at that station.  To reference this key an explanation is given under the diagram-map. This explains (I’ll provide the translation);

Intercity’s stop only at the stations with the IC detail.

Sprinters and stopping trains stop at all stations unless otherwise noted.

This is a good for denoting the possibility of faster services but the consistency is not carried through to the rest of the information. The map also carries other information which isn’t explained. Travelling to Driebergen-Zeist? Veenendaal-De Klomp? Or Woerden? These stations are denoted with an “S” however nowhere on the sheet is the relevancy of this explained.  This fails the relevancy test. If it isn’t relevant it shouldn’t be displayed as it could cause confusion.

The lack of a comprehensive ‘Key’ or ‘Legend’ to the symbols and codes is one of the main challenges facing the passenger and as I’ll explain, the exceptions to the services can quickly become the rule. Let’s take the first train on the list.

Located at the top left is the “4:17 Nachtnettrein (Night Service) to Utrecht Centraal.” Take a look and see what information you are given and what you aren’t.

We see the departure time, the days of operation and the departure platform, which on Wednesdays is different hence the double entry. We also see the NS logo (As certain routes in the Netherlands are operated  by private or foreign operators the column is used to denote this.) Finally we see the destination and the type of service.

What’s Missing?

First, what time does the train arrive? Second, what sort of train is a Nachtnettrein? The second point could cause confusion. As we are given an explanation of where InterCitys, Sprinters and Stop Trains call you are now presented with an unexplained service. Does this train stop en-route? Do I need to pay a supplement to use this service? Because the list of service types given is incomplete there is an inconsistent level of information.

Now we’re going to imagine that we’re travelling to Driebergen-Zeist and we’re going to consult the top right of the sheet.

What you’ve probably noticed is that nowhere on the sheet can you see Driebergen-Zeist. If you were a first time user of this network and you had read all the information on this  timetable you would not be mistaken for thinking that apart from the rush-hour sprinter services to Rhenen that there were no trains to Driebergen during the day. Perhaps you need to change trains? But where would you change? And because timings aren’t shown, when would we connect? What we learn by consulting the NS timetable online is that we change at Utrecht Centraal, but also that the train we catch from Utrecht is an Intercity. This then leads us to another inconsistency, the services.

Duivendrecht is a split level station serving two separate routes in the south of Amsterdam, the route from Schiphol to Almere or Hilversum, or the route we’re talking about here, the mainline to Utrecht. On the diagram-map it is denoted as “IC” but check the listings above and you’ll see the exception is the rule. Every Intercity service from Amsterdam Centraal listed here has, “Stopt niet in Duivendrecht” written after it.

Next we see the Heerlen and Maastricht services. We see from the diagram-map that these two cities are on separate branches. We see the services listed and that the one service calls at both stops. No problem. What is missing though is pretty vital. Instead of the one train serving both stops entirely, the train divides en-route and serves either one or the other.  What’s missing though is the stop at which the train divides, Sittard. This stop too is missing from the sheet completely.

The format of the sheet allows for a simplistic approach to what is a lot of information, but there can be no doubt that there are irrelevancies, inconsistencies and inefficiencies about the way the information is relayed and the result is an oversimplified approach which loses its objectivity.

My recommendations would be to consider one of two options;

Firstly, the routes need to be separated so that more information can be contained on the sheets.  Then include timings. This is vital to travellers, as now, in the age of real time information, passengers have a demand to know how long the journey will take and when they can expect to arrive. Maastricht is over 200km from Amsterdam, if the line was high-speed it would take only 1 hour to get there, but it isn’t. Instead the journey takes roughly 2 hours and 30 minutes but you wouldn’t know that from this timetable. Then, as the entries need to be consistent and relevant, all stops of the service should be shown. Finally indications regarding the changes needed to reach indirect destinations should be shown. All these steps would ensure greater efficiency and afford the passenger greater education in their decision making.

Alternatively, and in my opinion, preferentially, the format for these sheets should be redesigned. To recap, there are now 4 options on how to travel to Rotterdam from Amsterdam. The FYRA service via Schiphol, the route via Schiphol and Leiden, the route via Haarlem and Leiden, and the route via Woerden. If you were travelling to Rotterdam and saw this sheet you would look up the next service and wait. Without prior experience or perhaps because the arrival time at Rotterdam isn’t shown, you wouldn’t realise there were faster options. It would be more efficient to reformat the sheets to show an alphabetical destination listing with simplistic A-to-B timings, you would reference your destination and see the list of services for that day.

These points and the ‘Three C’s’ I talk about reflect what information passengers of today demand.  Transit organisations need to reflect this in their information systems and nowhere is more important to a passenger than when they consult a timetable. Without consistent, efficient and relevant information a passenger is in the dark and may choose an alternative, more familiar, mode of transport.

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