See the signs

Hugh Pearman laments the state of public transport’s slow, inflexible and all-too-often inaccurate information systems, and wonders why we don’t take a leaf out of our motorways

Hugh Pearman

So here we are, at Swindon railway station. We don’t want to be here. We are going to Bath. But we have been turfed off the train, which was taking us to Bath, but is no longer doing so. For reasons which only a railway person could possibly understand, the fact that a train ahead of us has broken down between Bath and Bristol means that our train will no longer be stopping at Bath, but will proceed direct to Bristol.

There are five of us in our group. We have a tight schedule involving meetings, photography, and a non-negotiable ticket on a given train back to London. What we need is information. We don’t get it. Instead, we get a central-casting representative of the railway company. He does not know what is going on. He gets heated and rude when he is quizzed by the passengers. It becomes clear that, when it comes to planning our rejigged journey, we are on our own. A familiar enough tale.

A few days earlier, at King’s Cross Tube station, I got caught up in an emergency evacuation, being herded rapidly to the exits. Or not so rapidly, given that the new layout of the station seems designed to keep you below ground for as long as possible. On the surface, thousands of swarming evacuees like me needed rapid information. What to do next? How to proceed? What means of transport was safe to take? How best to get the hell out of what could have been a dangerous area? No guidance was available, from anyone, or any device. Information systems need to get much smarter.

Conventional signage is no use because that is designed for normal working. Back in Swindon, we had found two parallel systems of train indicator boards. One type (fuzzy, obsolete CRT screens, in the minority) told you where a given train was meant to stop along its journey, the vital information we needed, but could no longer trust. The other type – modern, clear, given precedence – told you only the final destination of the various trains, which is pretty useless if you happen not to be going there.

Both of these incidents – minor inconveniences of the kind endured by countless people every day, leading at worst to journeys extended by an hour or so, and truncated or cancelled business – got me thinking about how a well-designed information system could help.

It would instantly present dislocated travellers with the options available. For example: these are the buses you can take, this is the nearest functioning Tube station, surface rail services are still running from these platforms… for those passengers who are waiting for the next train to Bath, it will arrive at 10.35. None of these useful things happen now, because the public transport information systems are too slow or too inflexible or too inaccurate for sudden urgent messages to get to you.

But hang on. If you drive along motorways, they have a great system, which I am much impressed by. It rains, they warn you of spray. It’s foggy, they tell you to slow down. There’s a queue or an accident up ahead, they know and they tell you about it in good time. Such information used to suffer from chronic time-lag, but now it is pretty much real-time. It is transmitted to satnavs and smartphones. Sure, they can overdo the messaging sometimes, but it works. I have no idea how automated or how labour-intensive this system is and I don’t care.

Could some tech-savvy designer please adapt this right away for use on public transport? Thanks.

Hugh Pearman is an architecture and design critic whose house is full of Arne Jacobsen door handles, most of them on doors

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