This new pilot screen at Shoreditch High Street station shows you how busy each of the carriages are before you board your train. Green means It's quiet in here, amber means It's getting a bit busy and red means This is rammed (or words to that effect). Something similar happens on the new Thameslink trains, although on Thameslink the displays are inside the carriages, not in the stations.
Shoreditch's new animated display appears at the far end of the ticket hall, at the point where the staircase splits towards the two platforms. At the start of the animation it looks like any other digital Next Train Indicator, listing the next three departures in each direction, but then several train graphics rush in from the right revealing the colours carriage by carriage.
During most of the day everything's green. But as the afternoon peak approaches some of the carriages go amber, occasionally covering most of the train, and at the busiest times there might be some red.
Use this information wisely and you could wander down the platform to the appropriate place to board the carriage with the most available space. That's assuming you can make your way to the right point before the next train arrives, of course, and can push past all the other people waiting in less optimal locations.
This might all seem a bit pointless on a walk-through train, but there is a potential benefit, namely a more efficient service. Encourage passengers to board emptier carriages rather than squeezing into full ones and departures can become more punctual. One display in Shoreditch isn't going to make a lot of difference, but imagine if this were rolled out more widely elsewhere - the cumulative effect on dwell times could be significant.
Another first is that you don't have to be standing in front of the display to see it, it's also available online. Surf to shoreditch.opencapacity.co and you can view the crammedness of Shoreditch's Overground trains from home, from the office or from outside in the street, exactly as the display appears within the station. Again imagine this kind of functionality rolled out for Overground stations elsewhere, or how this data could be employed within the usual transport apps.
Now let's stop and wonder what the hell is going on here.
For a start, how do they know where all the people are on a particular train?
Well, it's not all guesswork, it's down to a specially-installed electronic system called Orinoco. Every single one of the Overground's fleet of 57 Class 378 trains has been fitted with sensors and special software which monitor the weight of each carriage, specifically the pressure inside the air suspension bags under each carriage. These rise and fall to help keep the train's doors at platform height, and this allows the onboard computer to calculate how many people are in each carriage.
This "loadweigh" data is transmitted via 4G to Bombardier in Derby, then onward to a German company called Hacon who specialise in transport software systems, and it's they who generate the information on the display. Initially Orinoco was provided exclusively for Overground staff, who by using apps and tablets could direct waiting passengers to the least crowded carriages. But the release of the Shoreditch High Street data into the public domain is the first sign of spreading the information benefits more widely. [more info]
It's all damned clever but obviously it's not accurate. The software doesn't know precisely how many people are in each carriage, only how much they weigh, so (for example) an infant school outing or a rugby team with suitcases could seriously skew the readings. To counter this Hacon also cross-reference their data with other sources including "CCTV cameras, door sensors and ticketing information", with the expectation that if it was busy at six fifteen last Friday it probably will be again this week. Not perfect, but more likely to be correct.
But hang on, are we watching actual loadings now or a prediction for the future?
I'm willing to believe that a train arriving in 1 minute might actually be loaded as the display shows, but for those further away, how can they possibly know? Any train heading north and more than 2 minutes away has yet to pass through Whitechapel, ditto 10 minutes for Canada Water. Loads of people are going to alight and board at the intermediate stations, upsetting the pattern of which carriage is the busiest, so by the time the train arrives the current information will be badly out of date. A display you can only read on the stairs won't be much help if the train you intend to catch is several minutes away.
What's more, some of these southbound trains haven't even left yet. Trains to New Cross and Clapham Junction start from Dalston Junction, which is only 6 minutes up the line, which means the display frequently shows loadings on trains which haven't yet set out. Look for example at the Clapham Junction train at the bottom of the display above. It's 10 minutes away from arriving at Shoreditch, so must be waiting at Dalston Junction and still four minutes from departure. That means there's no way it can already be amber-busy in its front two carriages, away from the ticket hall, while the rear three carriages remain green.
I can only conclude that the display isn't showing genuine real time information, only computer predictions for what might be turning up later, in an attempt to manipulate passengers into the optimal position.
So don't necessarily believe everything you see on these displays, you're being toyed with, and who's to say what the borderline between a green carriage and an amber carriage is anyway. But the future is increased public data, the future is informed passenger choice, and the future is being nudged into position to speed up the service.