With passenger numbers continuing to rise, BEN CLARK finds out how stations are being managed to keep up with essential capacity growth

In the year from 2015 to 2016, 1.69 billion passenger journeys were made on the UK’s franchised rail services – two per cent more than the year before. Seventy per cent of these were made in London and the South East alone where there is a similar story playing out below the surface. From April 2014 to March 2015, passenger journeys on the London Underground rose by 3.2 per cent to 1.3 billion, with daily figures regularly exceeding four million. Remarkably, 18 out of the underground’s 20 busiest ever days were recorded in 2015.

As population numbers in London are expected to reach 11 million by 2030, the number of people travelling on our trains is set only to grow. Whilst TfL and Network Rail are indeed investing vast sums into major track, station and rolling stock upgrades, there still remains the issue of how some of the busiest stations in Europe are supposed to keep up. Major station upgrades such as that currently taking place at London Bridge is one answer, but these require years of heavy investment and can’t solve the immediate problem. So what can be done to deliver effective capacity improvements to stations in shorter, and cheaper, timescales?

“Quite rightly, a lot of what is being done at the moment is focused on train capacity,” explains Paul Corney, passenger experience manager of Virgin Trains at London Euston, the UK’s sixth busiest station. “This is vitally important, but we’ve also got to make sure we can allow for that forecasted growth in the station and for many stations the key to this is about effectively managing the flow of customers.”

Virgin’s staggering concept
As a major terminal in the capital, Euston is a location prone to peak overcrowding on the main concourse and subsequent surges as passengers receive their platform numbers. As more trains are brought into the 18-platform station to cope with increased passenger numbers, this creates a dangerous and stressful environment for passengers and can contribute to poor satisfaction scores. “We know that when passengers are held on the concourse, they stand and look up at the departure board, then everyone moves at once,” says Paul. “Critically, this is because we’re telling them all at once.”

Keen to break up these surges, Virgin Trains has been working closely with Network Rail and its suppliers to change the way its customers use and move around the station. One part of this is its innovative Earlybird Boarding scheme, whereby those who book through Virgin’s website can receive a text notifying them of the platform number 75 seconds before the information is displayed on the departure boards. “On particularly busy trains we can stagger the messages to priority customers, such as those who have further to walk or those travelling on senior or family rail cards,” Paul continues. “The result is that we’re changing a single movement of people to multiple movements and allowing those travelling without the service to move with less people and in a smoother fashion.”

Introduced in March 2016, feedback on the new scheme has been positive but making more people aware of the service will be key to unlocking its greatest potential. “It’s about making it as clear and simple as possible and we’re hoping that as more and more people become aware of it, we can really revolutionise the way people move through the station towards their train,” Paul adds.

Taking information to the people
Also recently introduced by Virgin Trains to London Euston is a brand new Customer Information System (CIS), which has seen displays become more detailed showing unreserved seating pictograms, arrival times, and other key pieces of information. “We want to be able to reduce travel anxiety for our passengers and give them a much more comfortable experience,” Paul explains. “By finding out what questions customers commonly had regarding their journey, we have been able to tailor the information we can provide to them. Response has been great, and we are now working to find a balance between providing the right amount of information without overloading people with details.”

Paul also commented on the project’s exemplary display of the rail industry working in close collaboration to achieve positive results. Strong partnerships with both Network Rail and its suppliers, Worldline and Infotec, have been key to developing an effective bespoke solution aimed at improving the passenger experience within Euston station. However, the potential for improved CIS displays hasn’t stopped there and the screen’s suppliers, Infotec, have been active across the network in helping improve passenger management in other scenarios.

“People now expect to receive up-to-date information as they go about their daily life, and the railway is no exception,” says Tim Court, MD of Infotec. “Recent research carried out by Passenger Focus1 highlighted that CIS screens are regarded as the most trustworthy and most used source of information by passengers. This underlines the vital role they can play in determining passenger behaviour and movement.”

Every station is different
As well as Virgin Trains, Infotec has also been busy working closely with Paddington station and a number of Thameslink stations to tailor numerous PID (Passenger Information Display) solutions to the individual station needs. Major improvement work is currently taking place on The Lawn at Paddington, which involves the updating of PIDs. “Bespoke displays for mounting in totems have been designed and will be located to make passengers more comfortable to move widely throughout the station, enjoying the cafes and shops the terminal has to offer, whilst being kept informed about their journey without needing to continually check the main board,” Tim explains.

“We’re also working on the Thameslink programme to provide information at a number of points along platforms. Network Rail recognised that to help minimise how long it takes customers to get on trains, information about services needed to be presented along the length of platforms to encourage people to spread out, therefore reducing crowding and improving flow.”

Similar systems will be brought into use on nine central Crossrail stations, and Infotec is also designing displays that can be used within retail and food outlets. What the company’s work demonstrates is that each station works differently and therefore different solutions are required to get the best out of passenger management. Looking beneath London to see what is happening on the tube system reveals something very similar.Experimenting with behaviour

“Customer flow is also one of the key considerations when it comes to our own capacity work,” comments Peter McNaught, operations director at London Underground. “Of course, train and signal upgrades are central to increasing capacity, but as this happens we are finding some stations are becoming bottlenecks to and from street level. Whilst we have major upgrade works taking place at stations like Victoria, Tottenham Court Road, Bond Street and Bank, numerous smaller initiatives around the network are helping to improve the way our stations perform.”

On 18 April 2016, a six-month pilot began at Holborn station to operate two of the three 23 metre up escalators as standing only. Contrary to the underground’s standard ‘stand on the right, walk on the left’ policy, early trials found that by allowing customers to stand on both sides, escalators can carry 30 per cent more people up and out of the station. “Holborn is a unique station in that it is one of the busiest, it has two intersecting lines and one of the longest escalators,” Peter outlines. “This height puts people off walking, so you typically find only a couple of people walking up, whilst a crowd of people forms at the bottom.”

A variety of visual prompts have been deployed to encourage this change in behaviour and now, over a month in, results are positive. Where before, the morning peak would regularly require station control measures, flow is now much more efficient and no such procedure has had to be deployed since the trial began.

The wider picture underground
So can this be implemented in other stations around the network? Peter thinks not, due to the unique conditions at Holborn. However, he does point out that other stations are adopting their own ways of improving passenger flow. “Examples range from simple measures such as restricting the number of gates open to slow the flow into the station, to creating hatched areas on Northern Line platforms that allow our station staff to focus their messages,” he elaborates. “The Victoria Line is running one of the most frequent services at the moment with 34 trains per hour at peak times, and at Warren Street we were having difficulty clearing the platforms quick enough before the next train arrived. This can cause delays, so in the morning peak we make both escalators travel up to increase the outflow capacity. Other measures can be seen at Oxford Circus where, depending on what time of day you pass through, you can be directed along a different route to get to the platform.”

With around £1.3 billion annually being invested by TfL into capacity improvements, the number of people able to travel across London is improving all the time. Peter points out a number of major programmes designed to increase capacity on some lines as much as 60 per cent over the coming years. Ensuring each station is able to tailor itself to create as smooth a flow of travellers as possible is vital to facilitating this growth efficiently.

The journey towards creating a network across London and the UK that meets the demands of passengers in a reliable and comfortable way is not an easy one. Vast levels of investment and years of hard work from the industry are required to make it happen, but making it happen it is. Passenger management is central to allowing stations to keep up with the growth taking place on track and, as with many processes, sometimes the simplest solutions are the most effective and often involve influencing the smallest changes in how customers behave. Ultimately, the level of innovation that is being collectively driven by TOCs, network operators and the supply chain is remarkable in achieving this.

1‘Passenger information screens at railway stations – Understanding passengers’ experiences of current systems and their aspirations for the future.’ http://www.transportfocus.org.uk/research-publications/publications/passenger-information-screens-at-railway-stations/