Saturday 20th August 2022
Southern and Thameslink seem to be going through a bad patch lately with cancellations and delays for a whole variety of announced reasons including “due to more than the usual number of trains needing repair at the moment”; “due to a shortage of train crew”; “due to a problem under investigation” (my favourite); “due to signalling problems in the South Croydon area” and many more.
That latter issue caused mayhem on Friday last week with capacity at East Croydon more than halved with the fast lines out of action due to problems with the signalling.
Trains were taking more than an hour to travel between Victoria or London Bridge and Gatwick Airport rather than the usual half hour.
Inevitably this led to cancellations of journeys putting great strain on journeys still running on a busy hot and sunny Friday heatwave afternoon coupled with the inevitable station skipping ordered by ‘Control’ to try and recoup lost time.
I got caught up in it on a journey back from London on Friday afternoon and after suffering a ‘rammed’ journey down the Brighton Main Line ended up on Haywards Heath station platform as ‘Control’ had decided Victoria to Littlehampton trains would have stops at Burgess Hill and Hassocks (among many others) cancelled on at least three consecutive half hourly trains.
The problem was alternative stopping trains at those stations on Thameslink were also caught up in the same disruption with many similarly altered with station skipping.
The upshot was I had plenty of time during a long frustrating wait to listen to the announcements playing out on the PA system; and they were playing out continuously because that’s what happens when you have an automated system with defaults for how often and after what interval any individual train journey that’s delayed must be the subject of a broadcast. So, when everything is seriously delayed, the upshot is serious PA continuous verbiage.
And what a load of complete rubbish they all are too.
Does no one in GTR take any interest at times of disruption like this? Just when passengers want helpful updates and advice, the system is useless at best and down right misleading in reality.
The problem stems from what probably seemed like a good idea at the time of auto-announcing a journey delay or cancellation coupled with a tag line that goes something like …. “we are sorry that the 16:04 Southern service to Littlehampton has been delayed by approximately 37 minutes. This is due to a fault with the signalling system. Passengers for Littlehampton, your next fastest alternative service is the 16:34 Southern service to Littlehampton. Passengers for Burgess Hill and Hassocks, your next fastest alternative service is the 16:20 Thameslink service to Brighton. Passengers for …..” and so it continues with variations for Portslade and other stations along the coast by say, going via Brighton.
The concluding remarks are particularly galling … “Please make sure you have the correct ticket for your journey” implying you can’t use a Southern ticket on a Thameslink train and vice versa, which is not true anyway as you can, as well as any journey specific advanced purchase tickets not being valid. Any business putting passengers at “the heart of everything we do” would be only too pleased at the time of such disruption to immediately waiver any ticket restrictions to ease the difficulties being faced by passengers.
You know, something like “due to this disruption which we understand is hugely frustrating for you we are only too pleased to waive any ticket restrictions to help you on your way”. Can you imagine ever hearing an announcement of that ilk on the railway?
The current announcement then signs off with the false platitude: “we are sorry for the disruption this may cause to your journey”.
No you’re not. If you truly were “sorry” you’d ensure such unhelpful verbiage noise that these impersonal unhelpful auto announcements provide would be switched off at times of disruption and a member of staff at the station and on the spot would give out personalised updates as they become available from information feeds and give a heartfelt and sincere apology.
The issue is once trains become more than half an hour late and ‘Control’ is instituting station skipping the “your next fastest alternative train” part of the announcements is useless since that train (unbeknown to the auto announcement) is also significantly late and will almost certainly NOT be stopping according to the original pattern as assumed by the auto announcement. That train being similarly delayed won’t be arriving until after the delayed train that was the subject of the announcement, so it’s a totally irrelevant and misleading announcement.
It becomes even more annoying when it announces ‘your next fastest train ….” then not long after announces that train as being delayed so it’s NOT the “next fastest train” which we all knew anyway. The system being deployed only works if one train is out of sequence, not when there’s widespread disruption.
At a station like Haywards Heath where there’s a frequent service northbound to both Victoria and London Bridge (and beyond to Bedford and Cambridge) as well as three separate routes southbound to Brighton and Coastway west and east with at least eight trains an hour in each direction (north and south) the consequence is completely useless auto announcements playing out continuously for the whole duration of the disruption supplemented by manual intervention every time a train eventually pulls in with a frantic correction that contradicts the misinformation.
It all makes for a chaotic and confusing listen which adds to the sense of despair felt by both passengers and staff, rather than conveying the impression the disruption is being managed in a calm and efficient manner.
On Friday I witnessed quite a few passengers looking totally flummoxed by the whole experience.
I asked why the announcements can’t be switched off. One member of staff shared my frustration but explained such a decision is way beyond his pay grade, another delusionally advised such announcements were helpful for passengers.
No wonder research by Transport Focus regularly finds one of passengers’ top priorities is better information at times of disruption. With all the information now available in the public domain on Apps and online there really is no excuse why train companies can’t get this sorted once and for all.
For five minutes a few months ago it was the latest whimsy of our attention grabbing useless ‘four-trains-an-hour’ Secretary of State for Transport. Seeking a sycophantic supportive headline in the Daily Mail, he pledged a war on wasteful announcements but just like registration plates on bicycles, denouncing train drivers for not working voluntary overtime at the same time saying they should not be allowed to work overtime as well as inviting voting for our favourite town to banish employees of the fledgling Great British Railways it was just a one day wonder and another excuse to expose his uselessness on the media round, just like the announcements themselves. Useless.
Turn those auto announcements off and use a human being instead.
Shut it. Stop it. Sorted.
Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu
Hello Roger Many thanks for your brilliantly argued blog. I particularly enjoyed the final 6 words! Like all of Grant Shapps’ so called headline grabbing initiatives, nothing ever seems to happen, still I don’t suppose he will be Transport Secretary for much longer. I always feel sorry for people travelling to places with a basic hourly service, or less frequent, when “Control” intervene and wonder if they ever manage to get home. Kind Regards Ian
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Proper communications and proper dealing of incidents is something the railways are very poor at. They give out lots of information often false or inaccurate and basically leave their customers to sort it out themselves
In the past when all a station had was a phone and a train driver had to stop at a line side phone to get information from a signal box where the signal man would probably have to phone somewhere to get information to a degree it was understandable
But now train drivers have radios and there are central control rooms so information should flow quite quickly but does not
Another problem is signalling system are still poor and fail frequently. They are service critical and safety critical so should be highly robust and have built in redundancy and should fail safe. Another issue with lineside signally equipment is that is frequently not designed for the very harsh environment it operates in. It faces extremes of temperature rain dust and vibration
Another problem is most of he signally still uses a block system where track is divided into section. The sections being insulated from each other. This insulators go between sections of the track . Given the harsh weather and vibration etc the track faces these insulators can fail and when they fail the fault can be very difficult to find. Modern signalling does not use this system but very little if any on the lines use the latest signalling which also increase line capacity as trains are kept the minimum safe distance apart
Gerard Fiennes in “I tried to run a railway” tells of a period in the late 1940s when ECML trains were regularly arriving at Kings Cross 60 or 90 minutes late. The announcements, although “human”, weren’t helpful and did nothing for passenger morale.
One day he went up into the announcer’s booth, saw a train about to arrive very late, and told the announcer what to say. “Oh no sir, can’t do that, it’s more than my job’s worth”. “All right then, move over, I’ll say it”. So Fiennes went to the microphone and said, “We regret the late arrival … This is due to poor management”.
He raced down onto the platform, expecting to hear the passengers saying, “Well, the truth at last” etc. But no-one was saying anything!
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Of all the excuses, ‘Planning error’ is the most opaque.
What does it mean ? Whose error ? What Planning ?
And why wasn’t the planning error corrected – or the planner given the sack ?
By contrast, it makes a points failure, or sheep on the line at Vauxhall, seem positively reassuring.
My trains from Carshalton to Sutton are both Southern and Thameslink and if one is cancelled and the next train is the other TOC we still have the “please make sure your ticket” – yet all tickets are interchangeable. When I worked in a Southern ticket office more than a decade ago the auto announcements kept saying about trains being delayed. I could make announcements and might say “this is a live human voice from the ticket office and I can advise you that all trains are actually cancelled – there are no trains,” Nowadays of course we have the “see it say it sort it”. On a recent GWR journey from Par to Pad after leaving EVERY station “here is a security message.. (you’ve guessed it)”. Yet the following day on a train from London to Hastings (S Eastern) with many more stations not a single “see it say it” announcement. That WAS a leisurely journey, unlike GWR.
The confusion seems to indicate a lack of emergency planning. It should be possible to identify potential problems – signal failures, points failures, broken down trains etc,- and where they would cause most disruption. Then you need to have an emergency plan for those occasions – revised timetables, maybe fast trains past the problem and shuttles further down the line to take you to your final destination, or whatever. This would help ensure a regularised service so that you don’t have to wait 60 minutes without trains calling at your station. And you might even have some pre-recorded accurate announcements to match the energency plan and give helpful advice.
The control room should have all the latest information and no what trains are cancelled and what trains are missing out station but clearly this information is not flowing down properly
Train announcements appear to just assume one train is cancelled and platform staff seem to have little to no information
It should be possible for the information from the control room to automatically update on train announcement and to the train indicators on the platforms and to the station staff
I suspect the current software would not support the above but trying to convey up to dater information in a dynamic situation manually is never going to work
Another problem seems to be some information flows from the control rooms to the TOC’s but the TOC;s do not talk to each other where the track is shared between different TOC’s
Cost cutting in the past does not help when thing go wrong. Platforms may have been taken out of us and passing loops and sidings and even the signalling system is down to a basic one so when things go wrong they go wrong badly
Lack of proper and accurate information to passengers though is the biggest problem
There is a real problem when reasonable people, who understand the problems, become exasperated.
The gap between staff on the ground and those making decisions seems too great and automated announcements do not help when there are serious problems.
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Totally agree but sometimes they can be funny.. I once heard a station announcer ( not prerecorded) at Watford Junction announce the arrival of a train at several different platforms before saying ” Oh I don’t know, I give up!” . Cheered me up .
Luckily when I use the Abbey Flyer locally from St Albans Abbey to Watford the sound of the station PA’s have all been turned down to an almost inaudible babble.
This is due to complaints of ” noise” from local residents who live near the stations.
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I recently returned, by rail, from Germany. While announcements there weren’t perfect in the case of disruption, there is none of the ‘see it, say it’ twaddle or injunctions to read the safety notices (which of course would be very unsafe if everyone did it at once). But between St Pancras and Sheffield I was subjected to TEN safety anouncements. British railways are clearly very dangerous…….
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So glad you’ve highlighted this Roger. I use City Thameslink every day and with the current levels of delays on TL – combined with it being underground – the cacophony is unbearable. The announcements make no sense either – very often it announces ‘the next fastest service to Blackfriars’ or Farringdon or similar, a journey no one in their right mind would make, always followed by the mildly menacing bit about having the right ticket.
I really hope someone from GTR reads this but the whole management of the franchise seems a disaster right and so customer unfriendly now, the withdrawal of the 455s being another example with packed 5 car trains being the norm, and platforms expensively extended to 10 cars just a few years ago getting no Southern trains at all in some cases.
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Another excellent article, Roger.
My favourite excuse, pedalled out by London Underground on a regular basis, is “severe delays due to cancellations”. To me, that’s a symptom of the delay, not the cause.
They have the same automated announcement system that you have described on the Elizabeth Line’s western section, and it doesn’t even necessarily work if just a couple of trains are out of place. I remember being told one morning at 0712, that the 0716 was cancelled; the next fastest train was expected to be the 0728 service. Only it wasn’t; it was the 0711 which was just pulling in!
Keep up the brilliant work.
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Maybe much of the problem is the complication of services on the Brighton main-line – at least in a time of disruption. Might a solution be a plan B for such times, whereby all trains called at all main stations (which should include Hassocks – pop. 7700) south of where the four-track ends. Eight trains an hour with a standard stopping-pattern should be a piece of cake – the Piccadilly line runs 20 trains/hr! If the odd stopper can’t be fitted in, run a bus south of Three Bridges – Roger’s blog (22nd Feb) shows it can be done really well.
To keep up the service on the Eastbourne and Worthing lines, run 4-per-hr connecting trains from Haywards Heath and Preston Park. I’m sure most passengers would prefer that to waiting up to an hour (and probably having to change anyway). An extra staff member at those two stations wouldn’t go amiss either.
I know all this would play merry hell with driver/guard scheduling – but that will probably have gone to pot anyway, as will the reliable feeding-in of Thameslink trains to the ‘core’ London route.
“…a member of staff at the station…”. Where??
Many many many decades ago (oh, all right, the 1980s, if you must know) London Buses was suffering desperate problems with staff shortages and defective buses. Their solution was to have “primary” and “secondary” schedules . . . so a route would have one schedule providing a (say) 10 minute frequency, and another schedule providing another 10 minute frequency.
Garages were charged to ensure that ALL buses and duties on the primary schedule were resourced, and as many as possible on the secondary schedule were resourced.
This meant that, in theory, passengers could be sure of a basic schedule that WOULD run (barring accidents/marches/major disruptions, of course). Inspectors would know which buses to prioritise and which to curtail if necessary.
It was a huge amount of work, and not all routes had such schedules, but it did help in regularising service provision.
Now, I’m not suggesting that this would work on the railways per se . . . but if some diagrams and driver duties were prioritised in a similar way . . . at least controllers and station staff would know which trains were most likely to turn up close to time.
There is also the situation where a train diagram has “just in case” time at the outer terminals (at Alton and Basingstoke, for example, the Waterloo trains could almost step up to the previous departure), but this is no good unless driver duties also have the same provisions . . . and my understanding is that many driver duties still have minimum breaks between trains / relief breaks . . . so the train might be on time, but the driver isn’t!!
Yes, there’s a cost involved . . . but it must be better than the current anarchy. Still, GBR will sort all this out overnight, won’t it??
A huge amount could probably be achieved in terms of greater reliability by doing the kinds of thing you suggest. The problem is any separation of rosters is nearly always more expensive. The saving from minimum turn rounds and a tight roster are easy to measure, the loss of custom from running an unreliable service less so…
I once walked from Winchester to Shawford and had about an hour to wait for my train so I thought I’d sit at a traditional English station and read my magazine, Fortean Times as it turns out,but I hadn’t factored in the traditional droning automatic announcements!One after the other;slips and falls,not smoking,one from a railway policeman about,you guessed it car park crime,but significantly none about actual train departures!
As an Ex-driver I can confirm the passenger information system is totally useless….
When trains are on time nobody looks at it because they know where their train is going from etc, and when the service is in a mess it should be switched off because it is mostly total Twaddle and causes more passenger confusion than it solves!
Station staff at most locations are NOT ABLE to switch it off and roll their eyes as much as the passengers.
Who ever would assume that a train is “on time” if you have no information about it’s whereabouts (or the whereabouts of the train crew, or both) at all?! Only a Mickey Mouse system! “no info” would be a better description for all such trains that the system is not sure about, only that would be… most of them!
The problem with CONTROL is similar to the info system too… there’s only a couple of people supposed running things in control, so the only time they can cope is when they don’t need to do anything because it’s all running ok. As soon as there is any problem the muppets are quickly overwhelmed and cannot cope/don’t answer the phone/don’t make decisions that need making etc etc and it all goes bad very quickly. Why do you think at least one control is/was called “fraggle rock”!!
Planning: most of the experienced planners have gone, and you are left with a lot of “know-it-all”s who haven’t a clue. You can tell them til you’re blue in the face that this train can’t get from here to there in the time they’ve allowed, or that this train gets in the way of that one and then causes a problem to the first one again, but the following day or week it’s just the same again!
…It’s the network rail way – incompetence isn’t frowned upon and management dont seem to care that everything just stays crap!
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“You can tell them til you’re blue in the face that this train can’t get from here to there in the time they’ve allowed”
On the TOC I used to work for, there’s been an ongoing argument between drivers’ side (reps and management) and the planning idiots at both the TOC and Network Fail about a stretch of single-track which the planners refuse to accept isn’t double track and repeatedly schedule head-on collisions on.
The planners flat refuse to believe their own maps, for crying out loud!
There isn’t a chance of mundane things like allowing sufficient time between stops or between one train leaving a platform and the next one arriving.
And people wonder why the entire railway today is one cock-up after another….
A possible reason for this:
* managers are judged on performance, so they have a financial incentive to meet their targets
* train operators have asked passengers what they want and one thing they say they want is to be kept informed, so it is reasonable to set managers targets for this
* someone then has to work out how to measure ‘passengers are being informed’ so that managers can be judged on their performance
* to be objective (and therefore fair to the managers) ‘mystery shoppers’ are sent out to measure what actually happens on the railway
* but ‘being kept informed’ turns out to be rather difficult to measure objectively and consistently without employing an army of shoppers, because you need a reasonably sized-sample of measures to trust the results but disruption is (usually!) quite a rare event
* so a ‘proxy measure’ is ‘did you hear an announcement?’ – doesn’t matter what announcement – which is measurable as ‘yes/no’
* hence managers make sure there are lots of announcements (regardless of content) so that they get their end of year pay rise
* hence there is no (financial) incentive for the manager to worry about information in times of disruption, so it falls down the ‘to do’ list
* hence what happens on the railway (and on the buses I dare say), as described frequently in this blog and elsewhere
I blame HR 🙂
All sounds nice but it’s not true.
The only thing that Train Operating Companies care about is what the DfT wants, and the DfT say that certain announcements – such as see it, say it, sod it – have to be made at fixed intervals (usually every 20 minutes).
However, idiot middle managers who don’t understand that simple compliance with the DfT diktats is all that’s needed to tick the boxes decide to show how clever they are and increase the frequency of the auto-announcements, which then get pushed aside by ‘higher-priority’ train announcements so stack up with the end result that the damn announcements never stop as the system tries to catch up. It gets worse when the delay announcements kick in, especially when a train hovers between (say) 4 and 5 minutes late so the announcements are constantly updating the delay as the train passes a reporting point.
It’s not malice or even incompetence which produces the stupidity which happens on a daily basis on today’s railway; it’s usually unconsidered interference by managers who don’t actually have any understanding of the things they’re interfering with.
When you see it from the inside it really is quite demoralising.
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Back in the 1990s I was travelling on a WCML train when the conductor made an announcement. “We are now approaching Carnforth station, approximately ten minutes behind time. This is entirely due to delays incurred before reaching Carnforth”.
We weren’t stopping there anyway, of course!
You might say that you had a Brief Encounter with Carnforth station!
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Disruption is a pain on all TOCs generally. London Midland had a habit (possibly LNWR still do) of curtailing the inbound Trent Valley stopper at Milton Keynes if running late, then starting the return from there. Unfortunately if you’re in Euston it just claimed it was cancelled , not that if you were early enough to catch a train a few mins earlier then you could still get it from MKC. The station staff were regularly clueless too. Contingency plans known to all staff should be created so sensible info can de disseminated.
Another reason why the “please ensure you have the correct ticket” announcement is a complete nonsense is because at times of disruption, cancellations and the inevitable overcrowding on the trains actually running, there is no way any staff are going to go through the train checking for those “rogue” tickets anyway.
And what about “this train has been delayed due to following a late-running train in front of it”?
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The current customer information systems were a huge step forward from what existed before, which was generally fragmented locally driven systems at large stations and nothing at all at the majority of smaller stations. They work really well at dealing with small scale or isolated disruption, so one train cancelled or minor late running but as you’ve highlighted are pretty useless during large scale disruption.
Ultimately it’s a dumb system in as much as it can only predict what’s going to happen based on a series of inputs which are mostly automated. So for example it can see a train has left its origin 5 minutes late but doesn’t know it’s going to get stuck behind another train and get even later. I suspect that designing a software based solution which can cope with all the possible variations would be pretty much impossible.
The situation is compounded by a desire to remove costs by cutting staff. So control functions are mostly hugely understaffed for anything other than very minor disruption. When the automated CIS systems were introduced South West Trains removed most of the local station ‘control points’ which had previously provided a dedicated individual for information at that station (and often passed it on to neighbouring stations). They also merged local area information offices into one central function, this both reduced the total number of staff available to deal with disruption and lost a lot of local knowledge.
I’m fairly convinced that when some managers see someone with nothing to do while the service is running well they automatically assume there’s no point to that job in any circumstances!
Spot on. The TOC I used to work for (before taking early retirement) reduced their Control function to one person responsible for everything happening on the long-distance routes and one person responsible for the local routes, plus one person for company-wide control of the station information systems (screens and announcements) and a control manager with oversight, while at the same time removing all authority from local managers and teams to do even such minor things as change platform displays. Maintenance control was of course also outsourced at the same time.
Net result? Whenever anything happens the staff can’t get through to control who are utterly overloaded, yet no longer have the authority to make decisions locally.
Anyone hoping that GBR will be any better should be warned that this was a TOC held up as an example for the rest of the industry to follow.
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I forgot the fleet controller, responsible for rolling stock allocation, and retail controller, who dealt (unsurprisingly) with ticket office and on-train ticketing issues but who wasn’t someone I ever dealt with.
And I should probably clarify that all roles had two shift cover (0600-2200) with all roles covered on nights by two or at most three people multi-tasking.
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Unfortunately all your comments have elements I’m familiar with. There are still a lot of people that care about doing a good job but we have a structure which too often just doesn’t allow it.
Surfblue . . . spot on!! I used to be a Service Controller for Metroline in London, and when asked what my job was, I’d say “I manage the company on a minute-by-minute basis . . . when it’s all running well, I sit with my feet up . . . when it all goes wrong, I sort it out.”
I used to talk to the drivers as well . . . if they knew about the background to problems, they’d often help me out when I needed them to.
It all depends on how much the “company” care about “providing a service” . . . and my feeling about railway management in general is that they no longer do care . . . if they can save a buck, then they will do, and hang the consequences.
“railway management in general is that they no longer do care”
My experience of modern railway management was on my last TOC, before I finally had enough and took early retirement to get out. Most weren’t intending on a career with the railway; they were intent on doing the management-merry-go-round: a few years in retail, a few years in finance, a few years in transport/logistics, a few years in the third sector and so on.
All were basically incompetent as they were thrown at their roles with little or no training, but that didn’t matter because they had no interest in becoming competent or learning how the railway works; anything they didn’t understand at a glance was “bad, irrelevant, old-fashioned BR” and automatically had to be changed, even if there was a damn good reason for it (those things included the Rule Book, usually described to new starters as 200 years worth of blood-soaked lessons, for example).
None had any real interest in the financial success of the business, let alone in the needs of the customers (or staff!), but they all without exception felt threatened by any staff, supervisors or managers with industry experience and did their level best to stab those people in the back. Turnover of competent supervisors and managers in the passenger railway industry is *horrendous*, with many staff who took promotion to management roles rapidly resigning when they discovered just how toxic the management levels are and (if lucky) returning to their previous jobs or moving to other TOCs in lower grade jobs just to get away.
I was told by new starters that such toxicity is the norm in management in many sectors, but it’s only appeared in the railway industry in the past ten years or so, and it’s the passengers – the customers who are paying good money – who are suffering as a result.
It seems to me that people will have to die before the loss of skilled management is taken seriously, and even then it’ll likely be the low-level staff who are scapegoated long before any action is taken to reintroduce management competence.
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Great to hear an industry heavyweight ‘call out’ Shapps for the hapless and hopeless charlatan that he is.
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Hi Roger, a very insightful blog, especially given that we use the same functionality to manage delays as you’ve covered in your blog.
You raise some very interesting (and valid) points so I shared this with our CIS supplier back in September and we’re making some changes to our system as a result – which should be in place from the end of the year.
I won’t bore you with the full details but some highlights on what we are doing:
1) If a train is delayed that would normally result in a late running announcement being made, but the previous train with the same calling pattern has not yet departed – and is expected to depart first – the late running announcement won’t be made.
For example, at 10:15 the 10:20 from Tonbridge to Tunbridge Wells is running late, but the 09:50 hasn’t yet departed either, the delay to the 10:20 won’t be announced.
2) Where the “next fastest train” to a group of calling points is also delayed, we’ll make it clearer in the announcement
eg “Passengers for Charing Cross, your next fastest direct service is now expected to be the delayed 08:17 to Charing Cross departing from platform 3”
3) Where the next fastest train is a delayed service, we’ll include the estimated time of departure in the announcement for that train.
Whilst this won’t stop announcements during disruption, these changes will help us ensure that each announcement adds value – I’m a big fan of the maxim “less is more”
Thanks again for the insightful blog, certainly for us it’s been really useful.
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