In November last year Storm Angus caused havoc on the railways. NICK HAWKINS examines how modern critical communications systems could not only improve passenger experience during disruption but also boost the speed, efficiency and safety of industry’s response

In November 2016, large parts of the UK were subject to the extreme weather of Storm Angus. Billed as the first of many storms predicted to strike the UK through the winter months, Angus brought with it gale force winds and heavy rainfall, resulting in flash flooding and large-scale travel disruption.

The UK’s rail networks across the South of England especially, were badly affected, with line closures and delayed services meaning thousands of passengers were left stranded and many more frustrated at the chaos that awaited them at stations. Some of the UK’s busiest train stations, including London Waterloo, Paddington and Kings Cross saw passengers waiting up to two hours for a train, with some services being cancelled altogether. Bristol Temple Meads station was temporarily closed following flash flooding that led to severe overcrowding and fears for passenger safety, with Great Western Railway (GWR) advising passengers not to travel.

Every winter the UK is subject to bouts of extreme weather that seriously impact public transport services, but the same issues continue to bring the UK’s rail network to a standstill. With British passengers spending six times more on rail fares compared to other European countries, the pressure is growing on operators to do more. The technology to ensure that both the passengers and the rail operators are better prepared in an emergency is available, now all it needs is a rail operator to invest in implementing it.

The solution is critical communications technology and the benefits for operators in adopting it into their crisis response and business continuity procedures are twofold: the technology can help ensure passengers are kept up to date with fast-changing situations and it enables operators to deploy resources to protect infrastructure more effectively — limiting the impact of a storm.

Prioritising passenger safety
In the event of extreme weather, the first priority is ensuring passengers remain safe. The second priority is enabling them to complete their journey. For station staff on the front-line, having a means of communicating with passengers en masse, even in advance of them arriving at an already overcrowded station, is extremely beneficial.

Critical communications platforms can be used to send out emergency notifications to all passengers informing them of delayed or cancelled services, the latest information regarding weather warnings and any announcements of temporary station queuing measures put in place as a result. These critical alerts can be sent out instantly via more than 100 communication channels and devices — including SMS, email, text-to-speech, social media alerts and push notifications — providing a mechanism for effective and reliable communication between rail staff and passengers.

By having passengers sign-up to be contacted at the point of purchasing their ticket, operators are able to send out emergency alerts via the available communication channels and these notifications will continue to be sent until a response has been acknowledged. For rail operators these responses are vital as they help provide a clear overview of an incident, the areas and people most affected, and how best to deploy resources to resolve it. Therefore, effective two-way communication plays a vital part in reducing uncertainty during an incident and ensuring passenger safety is prioritised. For example, if a passenger finds themselves on a platform as it begins to flood, they can instantly alert rail staff who can then deploy resources to get the passenger to safety.

A further benefit to travellers during incidents of extreme weather is that these communication systems are capable of notifying them of alternative routes of travel. So should a train from London Waterloo to Reading be cancelled due to flooding on the line, passengers are instantly made aware of the cancellation and notified of potential alternative valid routes of travel, often before they arrive at the station.

The most effective critical communications platforms are cloud-based and therefore operate independently from a rail operator’s internal network. The advantage of this is that should extreme weather disable the mobile network or an IT outage knock out an operator’s computer systems, the platform is still able to get messages out to the right people at the right time.

Operators back in control
Aside from the benefits this type of technology offers rail passengers, it can also significantly improve the way the UK’s rail networks operate in an emergency. For instance, rail staff can use the platform’s geo-location data to have a precise understanding of where on-duty engineering staff are at all times. Should an emergency situation like Storm Angus develop, rail officials are able to use live weather data to predict which lines will be most affected and the most effective place to deploy resources.

During the most extreme incidents, operators can send out a critical alert to relevant employees (or if it is a localised emergency, employees in a specific geographic location) asking who is available to help. Using the same two-way communications process as before, operators will have a clear understanding of its available staffing resources within minutes. Once an emergency engineering team has been deployed, they can use the technology to update management on their progress, who can then in turn inform the passengers of expected delays to any services or alternative routes of travel.

Aside from its duty of care to passengers, rail companies also have a duty of care to staff working in extreme conditions to keep services running. Again, critical communications technology can be used to locate and communicate with employees, automating the time-intensive process of manual emergency cascades and recalling staff to duty. Modern critical communications providers offer smartphone applications which staff can use in the event of an emergency. Everbridge, one of the leading providers of critical communications technology, has a panic button built into its app which users can press to alert management that they are in urgent need of assistance.

Critical communications platforms have proven to be vital for organisations around the world. For instance, in 2016 this technology was used by emergency services, local government agencies and transport authorities in the State of Florida to help keep more than 20 million citizens safe from harm during Hurricane Matthew. By funnelling all communication through one unified platform, these organisations were able to reduce emergency notification response times, ensure residents remained safe and provide updates on danger zones and emergency evacuation protocol.

This direct citizen engagement is heavily used in the US, however, it is yet to be adopted in the UK. The island of Guernsey has seen the first roll out of opt-in critical communications services. In November 2016, it sent notifications to the island’s registered dog owners to share information regarding upcoming firework displays. In 2017, Guernsey plans to evolve its citizen communication to incorporate weather warnings and traffic disruptions.

In times of crisis, such as a derailed train, speed of response is key and a critical communications platform can mean the difference between life and death. By facilitating an efficient and reliable flow of information, rail passengers and staff can be informed at all stages of an incident meaning that safety can be prioritised and the UK’s rail infrastructure can manage crises in a timely fashion with little disruption. Only by learning from the lessons of the past and investing in proactive methods of improving the UK’s rail system operations, can rail companies hope to change the outcomes of the future.

Nick HawkinsNick Hawkins is managing director of critical communications specialist Everbridge