Delays in train departures from stations are a nuisance to many, such as train travelers and staff working in trains and stations, but also others stuck in traffic waiting needlessly at a nearby crossing. Train operators are keen to explore solutions that help to avoid delays in dispatch times, and one such solution is a count down service. A digital sign at the platform showing the minutes and seconds left before a train is due to depart helps staff and travelers effectively anticipate train departure times.
Pilot testing a working prototype
The best way to find out if and how such a count down service may smoothen the precarious moments just before a train is due to depart is to test it out in real life. ProRail had recently developed a working prototype of the service and installed it in a busy station. Conductors and train drivers were using the service for a while, and STBY was asked to collect feedback on their experiences with it. In addition to gathering insights on how the count down service could be further improved, we also investigated other related experiences as well as the needs of conductors and train travelers, exploring other potential solutions that could help shorten the dispatch time of trains.
Contextual evaluation with a wide scope
During the test period we traveled and talked with conductors about the departure procedures they experienced with and without the countdown service, and evaluated the impact it had on their way of working. We also observed and interviewed train travelers on the platform, to ascertain if the count down service had any effect on their experience and behaviour. Based on this fieldwork we made an analysis of the various departure procedures, including the key issues and opportunities for improvement, both from the perspective of the conductors and passengers.
Conflicting interests despite a common goal
There proved to be a few crucial moments in departure procedures that could use improvements. For example, when a conductor needs to start closing the doors while the platform is still busy and passengers keep getting in is a moment of frequent conflict. The conductor and other travelers want the train to leave on time, but the last-minute passenger wants to get in the train even when he is already late. Even though the count down service works well on the whole and supports the mutual aim of having trains depart on time, conductors are still in a tricky position when it is very busy because they don’t manage to close the doors when the count down is finished. In the interviews, conductors gave several suggestions to improve not only the count down service, but also other related devices like the department light and clock, as they tend to use all of these in combination.
Information is key
Travelers noted that they often find the process of getting in the train quite stressful, mostly because they are anxious about finding a seat. They have little or no information or help in finding empty seats, and many have their own strategy to have the best chance of succeeding. Many mentioned that they are unaware of the departure procedure a conductor follows, and therefore have no clue about how this could be affected by their behaviour on the platform. Nevertheless they do appreciate trains departing on time and would like to know how much time is left before the doors close.
Successful solutions involve all stakeholders
In a co-creation workshop with both conductors and train travelers we deepened the insights on train departure procedures, and jointly addressed their two different perspectives of that experience. It became clear that a quick and smooth departure procedure is co-dependent on the involvement of the train traveler. A count down service aimed for staff will not solve the situation sufficiently on its own. We identified the key challenges and pain points of current departure procedures and related this to the evaluation of the countdown service, in order to suggest some improvements. We also jointly came up with ideas for additional solutions that could further improve train dispatch times.