Transport User Voice January 2024 – Explaining digital signalling

20 December 2023

Our insights for the rail industry

How should disruption and the long-term benefits from engineering works be communicated to passengers?

Working with Network Rail, Transport Focus has been asking those using the rail network how passenger communications can hit the mark in the run up to major engineering works on the East Coast Main Line.

Our latest report Digital signalling: how to communicate the upgrade programme to rail passengers, will help to inform how the East Coast Digital Programme (ECDP) is communicated in the months and years ahead – by Network Rail and train operators. The programme will introduce in cab digital signalling on the southern part of the East Coast Main Line to boost reliability, capacity and more punctual services for passengers.

What have passengers told us?

Passengers in the research told us they know little about how the railway operates, but most have seen conventional signals during a journey – but that is about as far as their knowledge goes. Digital signalling provides information directly to the driver through a screen in their cab. This enables the removal of large amounts of lineside equipment and conventional ‘traffic light’ signals.

Using interviews and focus groups the report found:

  1. There is limited awareness and understanding of the programme.
    Once explained, digital signalling is generally seen as a ‘no-brainer’. There is a degree of surprise that the railway isn’t already using digital technologies as these are an everyday part of people’s lives.
  2. Disruption is seen as inevitable.
    Passengers see the scale of the programme as implying disruption for a considerable period of time. There is a degree of surprise at just how long the programme is expected to take.
  3. Passengers are keen to understand the benefits.
    Reliability and punctuality are easy for passengers to relate to and are very important for them. However, just how digital signalling improves reliability and punctuality is not immediately obvious to passengers.
  4. The immediate concern for passengers is whether they will be disrupted.
    Passengers expect to be told well in advance that something is happening, when, whether it will affect them and what their alternatives are. Only then do they show any real interest in why the work is happening.

Commenting on the report, Ed Akers, Principal Programme Sponsor for Network Rail’s East Coast Digital Programme, said: “Digital signalling will provide long term and lasting improvements to journeys, making them more reliable with less disruption.

“It has been really useful to work with Transport Focus to understand how best we communicate that to passengers whose journeys will be affected by work taking place to deliver ECDP.”

We trust our research will continue to result in effective communications that inform passengers about disruptions to their journeys while explaining the need for the work – and how they will benefit – in a way they can easily understand.


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