diamond geezer

 Thursday, January 18, 2018

If you make a one-off journey in London, and aren't sure of the best route, the most useful page on the TfL website is undoubtedly the Journey Planner. But if you're a regular traveller, and know where you're going, then the Status updates page is more likely where you look. Is the Hammersmith & City line working, quick check, yes it is, great, let's go.

But I wonder, have you ever checked out all the other tabs on the Status updates page? In what follows, I'm going to suggest that TfL's team of agile webcoders probably haven't recently.

The main Status updates page displays a rainbow board of services, most-disrupted first, plus a zoomable map to show where these disruptions are. If you're on a mobile, or any device with a narrow screen, the map only appears if you click on a special button. The map doesn't always get things right, as that illogical gap in next weekend's Overground disruptions demonstrates. But on the whole it provides a good snapshot of what is or isn't running right now, even if more localised niggles can get hidden.

What I bet almost everyone overlooks is the Stations tab. This kicks off with any stations which are actually closed, which is a big improvement on the early days of the redesign when these were simply buried within the list below. But then follows a list of all the other stations with issues TfL think you might want to know about. Ridiculously, there are over 100 of them, from Acton Central all the way down to Woodside Park.

The issues don't all pop up at once, you have to click on the station you're interested in, assuming you can be bothered to whizz all the way down the list to find it. But I have gone the extra mile to drill down to see what's there (at time of checking, 112 stations), and I can confirm that someone has been inconsistently over-zealous.

15 of the 112 messages concern step-free access or escalators, generally temporary reductions or closures. 4 of the messages concern out of service lifts, which could make or break some travellers' journeys. 3 of the messages point out there's no access to the station at certain times, which might be really important. 2 of the messages are to say that ticket offices are closing permanently (at Stonebridge Park and South Kenton) at the end of this week. So far, so good. But then there are the superfluous messages.

65 (sixty-five!) of the messages state that a ramp is available for boarding trains if you ask staff in the ticket hall. That's damned useful to some, but total information overload for the rest of us, and (because these stations are all over the place) probably better suited for display on a map. 3 of the messages state that certain doors in certain carriages won't open at certain Overground stations, even though dozens of other stations have similar issues which aren't mentioned, and it would be utter overkill if they were. And 21 of the messages are simply to tell you to hold the handrail! It looks like the most accident prone stations are being targeted, but once a list of statuses reaches this level of nannying, the provision of "important" information has clearly gone too far.

The next tab is Buses. I wonder how few people ever click on this before they take a bus journey, on the off chance, given the palaver of checking. To find out what's going on you have to enter a location or give a route number, and if a box appears you then have to click on that to see what the issue is. It probably works better on a mobile than on a laptop. Entering a route number allows you to pick which direction you're interested in, but the list which appears is only ever for one of the directions and not the other. There's also always some text which says "Clear route", which seems to be indicating all is well, but is actually a link to go back and search again. As you can see from the example below, the juxtaposition is somewhat ambiguous.

If you're a regular bus user and want to know if your route has been suddenly affected by something, much better to be following @TfLBusAlerts on Twitter than forever digging into this digital brantub.

The next tab is Traffic, which looks like it works pretty well, although I'm not a driver so I never use it. Disruptions are shown on a map, colour-coded for severity, and also grouped by road corridor. I live near the A12 and the Blackwall Tunnel Approach, so I can check for roadworks, accidents and blockages near me with relative ease. Your experience of the the information's practicality would be interesting to hear, assuming you've ever used it.

The next tab is River Bus. Few Londoners ever need this one, but for those who do it's all here, and the presentation seems a model of simplicity.

The penultimate tab is for the Dangleway. If you're ever planning a swing across the Thames, how great to know that an entire page has been devoted to displaying whether it's open or not. Actually it's not quite that straightforward, because the status update still says Good service long after the close of operations in the evening, and the map continues to report "no major line disruptions" even when the service is closed due to high winds! It's not clear why the map is even necessary, given that there are only two terminals and if one's closed then so must the other be. Still, at least this sponsored trinket isn't clogging up the proper list in the first tab, so mustn't grumble.

The final tab is for National Rail, i.e all the trains in London which aren't TfL's responsibility, and this is where I'd suggest their webcoders have given up entirely.

It would be game-changing to have a digital overview of all the commuter lines in Greater London and be able to see which sections have delays or closures. It would be utterly brilliant to have a map showing where all the planned closures are this weekend, rather than them being hidden away on the individual operators websites, and would help avoid that annoying occurrence where you turn up somewhere in the suburbs only to find that the train you want's not running. Alas creating such a map would also be very difficult, certainly too difficult for whatever resources TfL threw at the problem, hence the webpage simply says "Status maps coming soon". It's been saying that for four years. It's not coming any time soon, they've walked away.

All that this page includes is a list of train companies and whether or not they currently have delays. Brilliantly, or ridiculously, this list includes every rail operator across the country, so even if services are disrupted in Scotland or the Isle of Wight, you'll see that here. But the list won't tell you what the problem actually is, only provide a link to a website where you can find out more. And that won't be the website of the operator concerned, because the TfL's coders couldn't be bothered to include anything so useful, instead it's always a link to the National Rail website. And it's not even the disruptions page on the National Rail website, it's the homepage, because this tab is a forgotten backwater and a total waste of space.

In summary, there is a reason why most people only ever look at the main summary on TfL's Status updates webpage, and that's because the other tabs are either over-complicated, somewhat obscure or entirely undeveloped. TfL know you don't normally look at them, so they're in no hurry to fix things or make them easier to use. Best stick to that app you like instead, I guess.

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