diamond geezer

 Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Are timetables dumbing down, or are they becoming more accessible?

They used to look like this (which, for the London Overground, they still do).

Proper timetables, one column per train - a format you have to understand to be able to read. It's great for those of us who "get it", but beyond the complexity some can cope with. A tabular structure is useful when when routes are linear and departure times are fixed, allowing savvy customers to plan ahead via different options, and replan if circumstances change.

But the way timetables are going is like this.

London's transport network is complex, so best not trouble the passenger with unnecessary detail. Provide a start and finish time, then click to discover the route the computer has carefully selected. "Journey planning" doesn't allow you to think outside the box, merely to pick one of the travel options provided for you. Online this is the default option, for National Rail as well as TfL, even for routes with infrequent very simple timetables. We've become transport sheep, because it's simpler to spoonfeed us this way.

Or there's this.

This is the Saturday daytime timetable for number 96 buses leaving Bluewater. All buses are scheduled to leave at specific times, because this is the start of the route, and the bus company knows precisely when these departure times are. But this timing information is no longer passed on to the public, as it would have been in the old days. Instead we're told the approximate intervals between buses, and roughly how long it takes to get to places en route, because that'll do. Indeed this is no longer a timetable, merely a "don't worry, you won't have to wait long".

Which brings us to the DLR. Someone, somewhere, somehow, has allowed DLR timetables to become extraordinarily unnecessarily complex. A giant poster that's mostly white space. A map showing how long it takes to reach various stations in ridiculously tiny type. And various panels for different days of the week in different directions, if you can work out what's what. Go and look at Greenwich's DLR timetable if you want a typical example, or Blackwall for something with bifurcation complications. Instead let me offer you a slightly simplified version of Saturday's timetable for Bow Church southbound, which is fairly typical of much of the network.

The official DLR timetable template subdivides the day into three different timed categories (more on weekdays). On certain days at certain stations in certain directions this is relevant, but here it's not. The three-period structure is used simply "because that's how we do it", ensuring that DLR timetable layout isn't either easy to use or fully informative. Indeed, with services running precisely every ten minutes all day, Bow Church's timetable could be as simple as

0529 then every ten minutes until 0039

or even

All trains to Canary Wharf run at something-ty nine

There is good news for those who think DLR timetables have jumped the shark, which is that they're about to change.
"Following customer feedback a new timetable design poster has been developed. From 30 January these posters will provide information in a simpler, easy to read format."
That sounds very promising, maybe, unless simpler means "dumbed down", and easy to read means "devoid of all underlying information". The way timetables are going, aimed at mobile-friendly lowest common denominator, I have my doubts. But let's see what appears on the new DLR posters before passing judgement. And so long as the updated design directs me to Bow Church at "something-ty-nine", rather than "turn up and wait", I hope I'll be happy.

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