Feeling Lost? Helping Passengers Find Their Way by Rail

18 January, 2023
Feeling Lost? Helping Passengers Find Their Way by Rail

Anyone who travels regularly by rail has probably found themselves, at some point, feeling a little lost. In fact, even our own Minister for Transport knew the hurried stress of navigating a train connection in an unfamiliar station:

‘From Aberdeen it was south to Edinburgh, with 15 minutes to find my way with difficulty through cramped and poorly signed Waverly station, via three staircases and two footbridges, to a distant platform for the 10am express to London…’

Lord Adonis, Minister for Transport, April 2009

So, what can this account tell us about the average customer’s experience of rail travel?

An unfamiliar train station is often a confusing environment that’s hard to navigate
Passengers often have short connection times that heighten stress and panic
Obstacles like bridges and underpasses make changing trains even more complex
There is the additional difficulty for those with children, heavy luggage, or anyone less able-bodied

Whilst none of this is rocket science to fix, rail travel continues to be a stressful experience for many passengers. The problem is, we often fail to look at station design from the user’s perspective. To do this, we need to put on our ‘customer shoes’ – to understand how it feels for the average person, perhaps weighed down with bags and rushing to make a connection, arriving at a train station for the first time.

Only then can we understand how seemingly simple things like wayfinding can make an enormous difference to their experience. Ineffective wayfinding is often the result of:

Poorly positioned signs
No continuity of appearance from network to network
Contradictory messaging
Information provided at the wrong stage of the journey
User-unfriendly signage due to terminology, poor colour combinations or confusing organisation

As someone who prefers to choose rail travel for more and more of my journeys – both business and leisure – I increasingly find myself in unfamiliar stations making (or not making!) new connections. As well as using station departure boards and timetables, I often find myself asking station staff for advice. Whilst I’ve found staff unfailingly pleasant and helpful, often there simply isn’t time to seek out someone to talk to as I rush between platforms.

The impact of all this stress is that, unfortunately, rail journeys become less enjoyable. After all, it’s difficult to sit back and relax with a good book if you know you have a tight connection to make later in your itinerary.

It’s not just passengers who are affected by difficulty navigating train stations. Staff find themselves being asked more questions, and the high-stress environment can lead to them suffering verbal abuse from agitated passengers.

So, how do we overcome these issues? The good news is, it doesn’t take millions of pounds or station re-builds. It simply requires better strategic thinking in the conception and design of wayfinding signage.

Firstly, we must define and walk the routes involved in making the most common foot journeys and connections. This is when we literally put our customer shoes on – to take the perspective of a slightly disoriented, time-pressed passenger making their way through a station.

Next, we need to understand the differing user groups. In some circumstances, we might even need to carry out detailed scientific analyses such as passenger flow and crowd behaviour to manage bottlenecks at station entrances and exits and passenger bunching at platform access points.

By understanding these real needs and behaviours of rail customers, we take the first steps in providing a less stressful and more enjoyable experience for everyone. It’s something we have in mind here at Merson Group as we help passengers find their way across some of the biggest rail stations in the UK.

Over the last couple of years, we have proudly designed, manufactured and installed bespoke wayfinding signage in multiple stations of the Elizabeth Line in London.  During an initial project on Abbey Wood and underground stations, Canary Wharf, Farringdon and Woolwich, we set out on delivering a wide variety of rail signs ranging from simple wayfinding and platform signs to illuminated totems and digital signage. After the success of this initial project and with ongoing relationships and careful strategic planning, we continue to transform passenger journeys across the capital.

2023 is set to be a year of rail revival as factors such as convenience, cost and carbon footprint reignite a passion for train travel for longer journeys. As passenger numbers increase and new lines open up, it’ll be more important than ever to ensure that rail stations are designed to help passengers find their way safely and smoothly.

The Merson Group team has a wealth of experience in the rail industry. Not only are we experts in signage design and manufacturing, but we’re also experienced in dealing with the complexities of installing signage in a live rail environment.

Sounds like we could help your organisation? Get in touch to speak to our experts and discover how Merson Group can work with you on your next project.