The Next Train Indicators at Bow Road station have long been, well, not very good. I have blogged about this far too frequently, sorry.
But this week... and I can hardly believe it... a long-awaited electronic upgrade has taken place, and we now have more information than ever before. Sounds excellent, eh? Alas what won't surprise you is that it's simultaneously brilliant and a complete fiasco, depending on which platform you're on.
Up until 2005 the Next Train Indicators at Bow Road were old-fashioned lightboxes. They showed the destination of the next train but not how long until it arrived. Westbound, they gave just under a minute's notice of an approaching train.
In 2005 new electronic Next Train Indicators were installed, with space for three next trains instead of one. However, the level of information provided didn't change - still just one next train, with less than one minute's notice.
This week, twelve years on, the electronic displays finally show the information originally intended. Suddenly they show the next three trains instead of just one. Suddenly they give over 10 minutes notice rather than just one. It should be everything we've always dreamed of. Instead, in one direction at least, it's an embarrassing mess.
Let's start eastbound, because eastbound works.
Earlier this year I blogged about how the eastbound Next Train Indicator at Bow Road was completely out of sync, announcing destinations seemingly at random, hence completely useless to waiting passengers. It might say Barking and mean Upminster, it might say Upminster and mean Barking, it might say Upminster and mean Upminster, there really was no way to tell.
This week, not only is the eastbound display showing the next three trains, it's getting them correct. If it says the next three trains are to Upminster, Barking and Upminster then they are... at least based on a couple of occasions I've spent watching to check.
Upminster 1 min; Barking 2 mins; Upminster 8 mins
Even better, the display now reveals how many minutes until those next three trains arrive, and this too seems correct (to within the usual London Underground margin of error). And this is actually a more useful improvement than getting the destination right. What most eastbound travellers at Bow Road care about is when their next train's arriving, not where it's going, so this is truly fantastic. Well done project upgrade team, well done.
But on the westbound platform, wtf.
On the westbound platform, yes, the next three destinations are shown, plus how far away they supposedly are. But those times and destinations seemingly bear no relation to reality, none whatsoever. It's as if someone is sitting in the control room operating a fruit machine, spinning the names and numbers round for a bit of fun.
Here's the kind of thing I mean.
The following action played out on the electronic display over the course of 10 minutes, inbetween one Hammersmith & City line train departing and the next arriving. I swear I am not making this up.
Ealing Broadway 2 mins; Wimbledon 3 mins; Richmond 7 mins
That's a good start. After an H&C train has departed Bow Road, that's pretty much exactly what the timetable says.
Wimbledon 3 mins; Richmond 7 mins; Hammersmith 9 mins
Hang on what? The first train to Ealing just vanished, even though it never arrived at the platform.
Check front of train 3 mins; Richmond 4 mins, Ealing Broadway 11 mins
Hang on what? The destination of the first train has blipped out, the Richmond train has suddenly jumped 3 minutes closer, and the Hammersmith train has disappeared.
Check front of train 2 mins; Richmond 3 mins; Hammersmith 8 mins
A train now pulls into the platform. It is not 2 minutes away. It is going to Ealing Broadway.
Even as the doors open the display suddenly changes again, to something differently incorrect.
Richmond 3 mins; Hammersmith 6 mins; Richmond 12 mins
At least the order of the trains is still consistent, potentially.
Check front of train 2 mins; Hammersmith 6 mins; Richmond 12 mins
And again. That Hammersmith train we're waiting for does appear to be six minutes distant.
Check front of train 2 mins; Hammersmith 5 mins; Richmond 12 mins
And edging closer. Unannounced, a Wimbledon train suddenly arrives.
Check front of train 1 mins; Hammersmith 3 mins; Ealing Broadway 9 mins
The display refuses to acknowledge that a train is here. Also, that promised Richmond train has evaporated.
Check front of train; Hammersmith 2 mins; Ealing Broadway 9 mins
Only after the doors close do we finally have recognition that a train is in the station. This display of 'zero minutes' never occurs again.
Check front of train 2 mins; Ealing Broadway 8 mins; Hammersmith 12 mins
Hang on what? Maybe that 'Check front of train' train is the long-promised H&C, but all anyone walking onto the platform right now would know is that an H&C is due in 12 minutes.
Check front of train 2 mins; Ealing Broadway 8 mins; Richmond 11 mins
No, it's vanished. Instead the train now 11 minutes away is going to Richmond instead.
It's at this precise moment that a Richmond train rumbles into the platform. The display continues not to have noticed.
Check front of train 1 mins; Ealing Broadway 7 mins; Richmond 11 mins
Let's hope the train 1 minute away is to Hammersmith.
Check front of train 1 mins; Ealing Broadway 5 mins; Richmond 10 mins
That closest train doesn't appear to be getting any closer.
Ealing Broadway 3 mins, Richmond 10 mins, Hammersmith 12 mins
Hey presto the closest train has disappeared without ever arriving.
Ealing Broadway 3 mins; Hammersmith 11 mins
Now the Richmond train has disappeared.
Check front of train 3 mins; Hammersmith 11 mins
Now the display no longer knows where the first train is going.
Check front of train 3 mins; Hammersmith 11 mins; Ealing Broadway 14 mins
I'm going to be waiting forever for a Hammersmith train, aren't I?
...and of course this is the moment that the Hammersmith & City train finally arrives.
The display takes this opportunity to tell more lies.
Check front of train 3 mins; Richmond 9 minutes; Hammersmith 10 mins
And if all that was far too complicated to follow, here's the next three-minutes-worth, before an Ealing Broadway train arrives.
Check front of train 2 mins; Hammersmith 9 mins; Richmond 10 mins
Check front of train 2 mins; Richmond 8 mins; Hammersmith 9 mins
Ealing Broadway 2 mins; Richmond 8 mins; Ealing Broadway 12 mins
Richmond 8 mins; Wimbledon 11 mins; Ealing Broadway 12 mins
Check front of train 7 mins; Wimbledon 10 mins; Ealing Broadway 11 mins
Check front of train 7 mins; Hammersmith 8 mins; Wimbledon 9 mins
Check front of train 5 mins; Hammersmith 8 mins; Wimbledon 9 mins
That isn't just wrong, that's insane.
I've tried to work out what might be going on, and failed.
I wondered if it might be 'the Barking problem'. At Barking trains are added to the line sort-of unpredictably, so Next Train Indicators there are notoriously unreliable. But Barking is 13 minutes before Bow Road, so all the trains are already in the correct sequence during the time periods shown on the display, so it can't be that.
I wondered if the display might be roughly right if you followed a particular train's progress. For example, try following the Hammersmith trains through the lists above and you can see them approach, approximately, with occasional disappearances. But only approximately. If you were standing on the platform, watching the churning tombola on the display, it would reveal little.
I wondered if the display might be sort of right but with trains intermittently missing. The timetabled order of westbound trains arriving at Bow Road is supposed to be ← EB ← W ← R ← H&C ← EB ← W ← R ← H&C ← There are certainly several echoes of this sequence in the displays above, but not quite consistently enough.
I wondered if the display might be correct in a location somewhere other than here. These virtual trains approach but hardly ever arrive, hanging around a couple of minutes away and then disappearing, as if this isn't the correct list for Bow Road at all. But that didn't explain it either, as the constant reordering proved.
So all I can assume is that the electronic information behind the scenes is incorrect. Either what's feeding in is wrong, or the software's interpretation of it is wrong, or the display isn't able to interpret what it's receiving. If I'm feeling charitable, perhaps we're in a testing phase. But I'm still left wondering, if it now works perfectly fine eastbound, what the hell is going on for trains heading west?
I saw similar rubbish up the line at Plaistow a few weeks ago, so perhaps this is simply the best the system can currently manage. What disturbs me is that somebody official somewhere has agreed to switch on the new system and leave it spouting utter nonsense, without even a single apologetic announcement over the loudspeakers in its defence.
Until last week, at least when you arrived on the westbound platform at Bow Road you knew where the next train was going. Now you have no idea at all, as a series of random and vague destinations jump erratically around the display. As customer experiences go, it's humiliatingly inept.
The lightbox on the platform 50 years ago was actually better than the 'improved' experience we have today. I look forward, one day, to being able to say the opposite.