…is no good if you’re travelling today. Hard lessons have been learned about managing passenger flows during infrastructure redevelopment programmes, and a clear best practice is emerging. DAVID WATTS explains
‘You’ve never had it so good,’ might be the call out to UK rail passengers. With a few noticeable exceptions, innovation and upgrading has led to a significant improvement in the passenger experience with better rolling stock, redesigned stations, revived track leading to a better, more comfortable and reliable journey. And if it hasn’t yet happened, it is on the way. And therein lies the rub. Because for many the reality of our quest for continual service innovation and improvement is the disruption and inconvenience that construction work necessarily entails. Sometimes it can even hit the headlines – the major works at London Bridge being a case in point.
People do understand that services are never 100 per cent perfect and as such are always ripe for improvement and refinement, however when major redevelopments can take years to complete, the user experience is often lost long before the intended design is finished. In an industry now driven by passenger experience, rail operators have to consider the lasting damage to their reputation that can be caused by disruptive transformations, however excellent the end result. Looking at how redevelopment will impact on the travelling public before it begins, and plan the right temporary measures to minimise the impact will go a good way to maintaining the experience.
The first step – easing the stress
Re-development by its nature means a station, and the routes to, through and out of it are likely to regularly change. It is with this in mind that rail operators can make the greatest difference to the passenger experience by developing a planned approach to temporary wayfinding which will reduce stresses caused by the changing station environment. Adopting the same passengercentric principles for temporary signage requires an understanding of how works will develop, and an appreciation of how that will impact on passengers – hence it needs to be part of the planning process.
Passengers need to find their way through what is often a giant building site, without increased tension or worry that they may get lost or delayed. This means negotiating temporary and possibly counter-intuitive passenger flows, unexpected pinch-points which restrict flow, the close proximity of construction site workers and equipment, temporary facilities, signage and hoardings all whilst carrying on our daily business. Regular passengers get used to their normal route, so operators need to change the mental model of the temporary station layout for the passengers – something that is tricky when it changes frequently. This can be overcome with information in advance giving a clear indication of what will be changing and when by the use of social media, or existing databases with regular updates, and there is usually plenty of space on hoardings for key information (although too often, this is given over to glossy images of the finished development). Temporary wayfinding should not just be additional signs, but should also incorporate maps, or illustrations that can convey the information clearly, all assisted by additional staff when necessary.
Understand the passenger is key
The wayfinding should evolve as the development works continue…but the key to solving that is flexibility, and understanding how passengers will react in the new environment. Having a full understanding of passenger flows before works begins helps significantly. This should not be too problematic as wayfinding systems are now being developed as part of the master planning, so the final objective is known, and operators should map-out the stages in between – creating appropriate wayfinding at each stage can, therefore, be more easily achieved. There are specific challenges that need to be overcome, but an early investment will make a significant difference as works progress.
Temporary signage does face some particular challenges – normal sightlines become disrupted by building works, and finding good sightlines when there is scaffolding and hoardings can be difficult. Too high and people miss the signs, too low and people stand in front of them. It is standard practice to have suspended signs for permanent wayfinding systems, but in temporary situations, this is rarely practical, although the principal of understanding sightlines remains.
Where works are long-term, temporary signage should mimic permanent signage, but where works are short-term there is a real value in having signs that are clearly different – this can emphasise that this is a short-term solution, and communicates to travellers that they should be aware of further changes. Using low cost but hard wearing products such as Dibond, gives the wayfinding the look and feel of fixed signs, helps maintain the rail company’s reputation and brand whilst inspiring confidence. An alternative often used is Correx, but this is easily damaged and ages quickly in a heavy duty environment.
Deploying the lessons learned
Wayfinding embraces more than just signs, and at certain times the planned deployment of extra front line staff can be highly effective. One example was during the early days of the re-opening of the refurbished Kings Cross when staff were deployed to interact with passengers and help them – this was a lesson learnt from the London Olympics, and it serves well. The same is happening at London Bridge, where there increased levels of staff, and this is all the more important given that even though the new concourse is now open, access points change throughout the day. What is interesting about the London Bridge experience is that overnight it went from cowering staff and glum passengers to a sea of smiling faces…if only that could have been achieved throughout.
A different approach has been taken at Abbey Wood, part of the Crossrail development, where an interim station is being used as the main station. It looks permanent, and builds confidence of the travelling public because of that. This means that the wayfinding has been developed to meet the specific needs of that station. Of course, this is an approach that can work only on a smaller scale, and not where major interchanges are being redeveloped.
Rail companies need to apply a different but related set of design principles to these short-term experiences beginning with taking a passenger-centred view when planning the project and its phases. Temporary but highly flexible wayfinding which can evolve with the scheme, alongside additional information provision across all passenger touchpoints will reduce confusion and improve overall efficiencies. In other words a toolkit of strategic and tactical solutions needs to be developed to help ensure that the smooth running of our systems is maintained and that the passenger experience of the service provided during these works in progress is as good as it can be. Stations are complex environments and wayfinding often requires complex solutions…more so in temporary situations where the wayfinding has to work much harder.
Greater passenger satisfaction, a reduction in complaints and improved station operations can be achieved during works providing the service provider and its front line staff deliver increased levels of passenger information and generally staying one step ahead until works are complete.
David Watts is managing director, CCD Design and Ergonomics