Where’s my train: update 13 Jan

Funny how the return of the snow brings back interest in this topic. And worrying how easily it gets dropped from view the rest of the time.

To recap: wheresmytrain focuses on one particular type of information:

the dataset describing where trains in operation are, precisely, and where they are planning to stop

– with the objective of making that information freely available for reuse.

It’s not about timetables, nor passenger information, nor fares – well, not yet anyway.

As Christopher Osborne has wisely pointed out, to make a comprehensive train information system requires a whole lot more than this. Are the trains full? How many carriages do they have? Are they running a shorter service than normal? Are the platforms busy? Do the platform lifts work at the station? And so on and so forth.

All highly valid questions, and the subject of a far more comprehensive exercise than this one.

Traditional public information programmes (and I’ve worked on plenty of those) undertaken detailed requirement gathering, and gather additional functions, stakeholders (forgive me for that word) and complications like so much moss. And often they bog down in the mud, and don’t actually deliver anything close to their original aspirations.

Which led me to think that there might be a better approach in this case. To keep scope ridiculously small – to a single line, in fact. An approach which wholly disregards much of the existing information infrastructure. That infrastructure seems to be bound up with innumerable contracts, rules and obligations to say nothing of the actual technical complexity of exchanged and aggregated datasets.

Hence the focus just on this one aspect of rail operations. I’ve done some asking around, from industry experts, to developers with track record in this area, to train staff themselves. One conclusion emerges again and again: in times of extreme disruption, the most accurate source of information on a particular service is to be found on the train itself – driven by the onboard GPS and the stopping station information input by the driver. (I accept that may not be true for every operator, but I welcome the conversation with more of them.)

I want this to be freely available for reuse. In fact I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t. They are our trains. Their positions and plans are no type of secret.

Once available – well, you probably know the rest – innovative use is made of the information. Scenario: you may not know (or care) what the late-running, reinstated 0805 to East Grinstead may be called now, but you do know that it is, right now, 3.2 miles up the track, stopping at your station, and your destination. And though prediction may break down, at least you can track its painful progress in real-time. You get the idea.

You never know, the train operators may even start using it to drive those hopelessly inaccurate platform signs we’ve all seen recently. I’m sure there are countless projects going on within the rail industry to do this sort of thing better. I really am. But, with something of a smile, I believe that the heavyweight information projects have failed to deliver to public expectation, and will continue to do so, run as they are.

Train and infrastructure operators lost the right to hang onto this information internally at the point at which they fed inaccurate information through their existing systems, to their passengers.

Even if such a feed does become available there will still be problems, of course. As soon as more than one organisation (and sometimes division) have to work together, disjoints happen. Where infrastructure is shared – problems. When decisions such as re-routing are made (and unmade) at very short notice – problems. No system on earth will keep up with every in-service failure, or last-minute crewing difficulty.

But, by keeping it simple, we can make things a hell of a lot better than they are now. If you want to help (in the next phase, by contacting and chasing up TOCs for more operational information and open discussion of the issues as they see them – ammunition supplied!) do get in touch.

Category: Other


12 Responses

  1. cyberdoyle says:

    If you KIS it will work. Kudos. The key word remains ‘Simple’.

  2. Paul Hadley says:

    Hi Paul,
    Hopefully this info helps, maybe you know about this already, I’m not sure.

    Matthew Sommerville (@dracos) has developed this for fun- http://traintimes.org.uk/map/

    Plus, he’s done http://traintimes.org.uk/

    Hopefully both of these help contribute towards the end results you’re looking for.

  3. Gabrielle L-P says:

    Just thinking of icon & colour coding eg: info on horses & riders in sports sections get a lot of info over in little space once one learns the key its easy to read. So each can be covered:

    Are the trains full? – Red Train Icon empty,half full, full maybe
    How many carriages do they have? – Number in above icon
    Are they running a shorter service than normal? – Letter ie R for reduced
    Are the platforms busy – New Icon , colour coded for busy/normal
    Do the platform lifts work at the station? – Access Icon
    and so on. Any thoughts?

  4. Very interesting post. I became very bemused by the lack of accurate info that even station staff had when I was doing long-distance commutes on East Coast Mainline.
    I am very curious as to why it is so difficult for them to transmit accurate information about trains’ whereabouts. I suspect that the problem lies in the informations systems and the train whereabouts systems being incompatible/data formats incompatible.
    How should the trains be identified in your solution? A train must be individually identified in the data to know where that specific train is at any time…

  5. Just re-reading Gabrielle’s suggestion of icons & colour-coded info, wonder whether would be too problematic for some to see or understand?
    For example, people with visual impairments could find symbols difficult to read.

  6. Gabrielle L-P says:

    Janet if the icons were more like the iPhone app. icons – Also simple shapes or already in use ie Wheelchair access. The idea comes from using universal icons on building plans, which have to be easy to read & use across many disciplines & countries.
    Also button to zoom screen or colour blind contrast can be built in options or add on/plug ins.

Leave a Reply

Flickr Photos

Kitchen fox

Garden fox

Garden fox

Greenwich 21 Jan

Greenwich 21 Jan

Greenwich 21 Jan





More Photos