Posted by: Richard Lenthall | August 18, 2010

A Quick Comment on High Speed Rail Projects

A major challenge to transit development the world over is the political single view toward each mode. At the moment the US is concentrating on HSR with politicians, skeptics, and supporters all creating a great deal of noise about how it will work/fail, repay/cost etc; But my fear is that a lot of meetings in councils around the world start with a narrow agenda, such as “Right ladies and gentlemen, today we’re going to concentrate on railways and this new project for the South East region and how a new line will help.”

The approach I would advocate, especially considering the near blank canvas that the US have, is to plan your transit projects to be part of a much wider, fully integrated transport network, and that means stations at airports, harbours, Business Districts, motorway interchanges etc; Pro-politicians and supporters of HSR must avoid the trap of believing that headline grabbing journey times and centre-to-centre services alone will validate the objectives of such a scheme.

Concentrating on just one mode of transport (even to the extent that sub-sectors like High Speed Freight are also ignored) will result in almost all projects not realising their full potential. Yes there may be success and good ridership levels, but a carefully planned and integrated solution will deliver for years and years, beyond that of just a two dimensional high speed intercity link.

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Keen to grab market share from international hubs, regional airports have been expanded in haste. However flying from East Midlands Airport (Code: EMA) on Sunday was an education in how low cost airlines and regional airports are not always able to cope with their own market.

Checking in for my 19:10 BMI Baby flight to Amsterdam at 17:45 I was advised at the baggage drop counter that my flight had a delay of 1 hour. I then grabbed a coffee to talk with a friend. We then noticed that there was a very long queue for security. After starting to queue at 18:45 I started to experience a long list of service errors.

Before Security

First I realised that no real time information was being displayed for my flight on the info monitors. All that was noted was that Check-In was at desks 03-08, nothing about the delay. I then noticed the airport offers an “Express Lane” for passengers who wish to avoid queuing. I decided against this as I could see the security machines behind boarding pass control so assumed that I could judge how long it would take. I also noticed that at 19:10, the scheduled departure time, the monitors still had my flight displayed as “Check-In Open” which was not the case as could be seen by glancing at the empty BMI Baby check-in desks.

As I approached boarding pass control the time was 19:15, still plenty of time left even if the flight departed a little earlier than 1 hour late. Only at that point did I see the whole length of the queue between boarding pass control and the security scanners. The queue snaked around and doubled back 4 times revealing an extra 100 people. It was now too late to use the “Express Lane” and of further irritation was that only 4 of the 9 security scanners were manned. Finally at 19:45 I cleared the security procedure.

After Security

Looking at the monitors my flight was listed as “Final Call: Gate 5”. I ran through but found another long queue at an unmanned Police Check Point. This queue was for all of the flights leaving from gates 1 to 5, another of which to Belfast was also late, and at this length nobody at the back was getting any flight information at all. There was a screen in this section but again it only said “Final Call” with regards to my flight. Pushing past the queue and seeing no plane, a BMI Baby representative pointed me to Gate 2. There I was advised that my flight had already left! Ironically as my flight took off the monitors in the terminal were still showing the message “Final Call”.

Pressing the airline reps I was told a message was sent out over the PA system but I never showed, and as a result my bag had been taken off the plane and it had left without me.

Regular flyers of low cost airlines can now guess the rest. Despite asking why no one had gone to the queue to find me or why the monitors were giving false information, BMI Baby refused to accept responsibility and directed me to the airport management, as the queuing and information displays were under the airport’s control.

Buying a new ticket was the only choice, despite my protests, and at short notice that was a considerable expense. I was then pointed to the Terminal Duty Manager to complain.

Service Errors

I was glad to find the Terminal Duty Manager to be approachable and reasonable so a more informed chat about the airport’s service took place. The points I put across to him are below along with his answers and my solutions;

  • Landside Monitors: Why no accurate flight information? I was advised that the airport only relays information given to them by the airlines, but the airport does not relay flight delay information on the screens in that section.

    This is in itself a decision not to communicate information to passengers. The lack of accurate information on your flight makes it impossible to make informed choices, especially in the case of cancellations or long delays which would affect families, the elderly and the infirm.

  • No communication on length of queue, unable to decide whether to pay premium for express lane? The length of the queue was exceptionally long given the holiday period. The airport was monitoring the time it took for passengers to go through for their own procedures.

    Anyone who has been to a theme park recently knows has seen signs telling you how long the queue is in minutes from this point. If I realised how long the queue was between boarding pass control and security (which I was unable to judge by sight before going through) I would have paid 3 GBP and gone through out of necessity.

  • With such an exceptional queue for security why were 5 of the 9 security scanners unmanned? Security is contracted out to a 3rd party firm and the airport management will have to take a look at this.

    The obvious question is, how long does the queue have to be before a 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th or 9th machine is opened?

  • The airline said they tried to contact me but I heard nothing, why? There are no facilities at EMA for you to hear announcements in the security area. Nor are there any information monitors.

    Again this is a decision made by the airport not to communicate to passengers. I was in this section for 30 minutes which seems to be black-spot regarding communication. It was whilst I was here that BMI Baby made the announcement for me to “hurry up!” Unable to hear it, and without options, I stayed put.

  • The Airside monitors after security mentioned my flight as “Final Call” even after it had taken off, why? “Yes, they would do!” was the unfathomable reply, implying that was part of the system’s design.

    I have no idea why a system would be implemented which would deliberately convey false information. Again the 3 C’s of passenger communication which I wrote of here should be adhered to.

So that was the Airport’s story. Now let’s look at what you can expect from BMI Baby. Take a look at my boarding pass from my rebooked flight; What’s missing?


Further errors

The two things missing are Boarding Time and Gate Number. Both contribute greatly in increasing efficiency and reducing stress, both for passenger and airline! Boarding time is important so that you know when to be ready. Gate number is important so that you know in which section of the airport to wait, this latter missing piece of information contributed directly to there being 1 long queue into the area of EMA where there are 5 gates, with none of the passengers knowing what was going on as no airlines reps coming down the queue that far to communicate.

The Consequences of Poor Service Design

The design of the airport did not cope with the mixture of delayed flights, the holiday period and the lower responsibility threshold of low cost airlines. The result was confusion and frustration, both on the faces of passengers and airline employees.

With poor system design and large communication black spots, the airport does not serve the best intentions of its passengers.

In comparison at Schiphol airport Amsterdam, the information displays are far more enhanced and tell you what you need to know when you need to know it, for example;


You can see the Gate number, the time it takes to walk to the gate and the status of the boarding all in a clear and efficient presentation, including most notably the fact that the New Delhi flight has departed. As you would expect of a major international airport Schiphol Amsterdam (AMS) has a more developed channel of communication without black-spots. This is what passengers deserve and expect, and as working examples exist the world over they should not be difficult to provide.

As the established Customer Service attitude of Low Cost airlines is “revenue maximisation” instead of “human relations” it’s important to understand that getting one to refund or even replace a ticket when blame can be diverted is impossible. It appears through this example that regional airports, recently expanded or completely redeveloped, are not always able to cope with the mixture of high passenger volume and the associated popularity of the low-cost airline. Therefore it is now in the passenger’s domain to carefully select the service providers which must now include airports as part of the equation.

From the service providers point of view, low cost airlines and smaller regional airports must work together and deliver against simple passenger expectations. Failure to do so means travellers will take more established routes with more reliable connections because the low-cost business model exposes a risk in doing business with them at airports unable to cope with higher passenger numbers.


Posted by: Richard Lenthall | July 28, 2010

Getting Passenger Communication Right: Intermodal Changes

Scenario

Imagine you’ve just stepped off your train in a busy railway station. As a station is rarely the end of anyone’s journey you start searching for the next means of transport to continue. You could be looking for a connecting bus, tram or metro service or perhaps a taxi. As stations can be hectic and considerably large buildings, rather than look directly for the service what you really need right now is a signpost indicating where your connecting bus can be found. At Amsterdam Centraal you’ll find these signs at the top of each staircase.


Ok, great. These signs are very clear and tell you that buses, metros, taxis and trams can all be found by turning left, with ferries and high speed train services to your right. Feeling more confident, you march down the stairs and turn left. Good job. Now after another 50m you reach the ticket gates and, with sharp eyes looking for the next indication, you notice this next sign.


Excellent! You even have visual reassurance now because you can see a tram and possibly, because buses and trams generally cover shorter and more urban routes and can be occasionally found grouped together, you aren’t too far from finding your bus service. Encouraged by this development you stride confidentally and out in to the fresh Amsterdam air. Surely only 1 more sign and you’ll be set, ready to complete your journey! And here it is, right above the tram stop which faces the entrance and exit to the station.


Unfortunately for the many people to be found wandering aimlessly around the entrances to stations up and down Europe and especially to those outside Amsterdam Centraal, this final signpost epitomises the challenge and the potential failure of communicating to passengers. But why?

When Right is Wrong

In one of my first posts I explained my own laws on how passenger information should be conveyed, if you haven’t seen it The Three C’s can be found here.

Now regarding the information contained here we find a long list of factually correct but yet inefficiently displayed bus services. Whilst it undoubtedly would be a bingo callers dream, reading the entire sign at length would have you none the wiser if you were looking for a bus to the popular tourist town of Volendam.

Implied by the sign’s design is the faltering logic that you know what service you want and where that service goes. Following that logic however reaches the obvious conclusion that if you do know these things you’ve caught the bus before and know where to get it, so therefore no longer need to reference this information.

The result of this deficiency in immediate information is that large groups of travellers congregate outside the station looking forlorn and helpless, which then in turn becomes frustration. The middle section of the sign points you to an information bureau which is located behind the tram stops. The office itself is frequently busy and I have had to wait for over 20 minutes to get served on numerous occasions, a result no doubt due to the lack of information and the amount of befuddled travellers.

What this sign needs is a means of cross-referencing the bus service routes and numbers. But such information is not displayed prominently and when it is it can still be a task to decipher. Twenty metres away on the right hand side, mounted on a temporary wooden fence protecting the area of the station being renovated, is this information display.


In truth it’s hardly noticeable, parked as it is behind bikes (as you can see!). Without any accompanying large scale map or diagram you remain at a loss as to the general direction of any of the services and have to go hunting around (due to the lack of an A-Z index) for your destination. Even so large suburbs of Amsterdam, surrounding towns and industrial areas are completely missing despite receiving regular services. Not clear and not very revealing. To make matters worse, if you study this board closely you’ll realise that if you did want a Volendam bus, right at the very start when you got off your train, you should have actually have turned right at the bottom of the stairs and not followed the sign as Arriva services have been moved to the other side of the station.

Solutions and Conclusions

People might not always look in a hurry but that doesn’t mean they want to spend valuable minutes getting frustrated at not being able to find (and therefore miss!) their connecting service. Connecting information needs to be consistent and efficiently displayed. Bus numbers themselves are really secondary pieces of information, something to be referenced only towards the end of the journey planning process, displaying long lists of numbers in the way it has been here is little short of meaningless to travellers. The primary pieces of information are route and destination. It is therefore this information that should be prominently displayed, thus;

←SERVICES TO AMSTERDAM NOORD AND ZAANDAM

→SERVICES TO PURMEREND, VOLENDAM AND EDAM

↑SERVICES TO AMSTELVEEN

Upfront and clear information such as this quickly gets the foot fall moving. It doesn’t have to be specific this far from the target bus stop groups but it does need to be correct, informative and efficient so it can easily be interpreted. Large scale maps acting in a supporting role are always a good idea to give people a spatial indication of where they will be heading, a confirmation if you like that gives confidence in their direction.

In comparison I remember a journey 2 years ago to Paris. In one of the metro stations was a very clever interactive map. You simply located your station in the A-Z and pressed a corresponding button. Then on the map your route to your destination became illuminated with each required change of service given extra highlighting. An efficient and simplistic solution which transport planners the world over will do well to bear in mind when planning intermodal transport hubs and the communication of connecting service information.


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