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Let the good times roll

Travel

Integrated transport only works if there is integrated transport data.

Andrew Mylius looks ahead at the next generation of real time passenger information.

Scenario one: 12 minutes into your quarter hour meeting an agreement is close at hand. But there is a train that must be caught. You glance anxiously at your watch and start prematurely to wind up the discussion.

Then your mobile phone strikes up with The Entertainer.

Harassed, you peer at its screen:

your train is delayed 25 minutes due to signal problems. With time now on your side, you press on with your conversation.

Scenario two: 6.30am, you are gulping down breakfast and flipping through the menu of early morning TV. Sated with rolling news and The Hoobs, you turn over to the interactive transport channel and weigh up whether to drive or use the Metro. A crash has resulted in 50 minute tailbacks on the main road into town. Trains, on the other hand, are running smoothly.

Scenario three: Coming off the motorway, your in-car driver information system tells you that roadworks have produced major congestion ahead. Designated bus lanes and priority at traffic lights and junctions mean public transport is moving relatively unimpeded. Park and ride is a far faster option for reaching the city centre. You swoop into the car park, and call up data on the frequency of shuttle-bus services. The next leaves in just over five minutes.

Sound a bit fantastic? In three to five years, predicts WS Atkins principal consultant Neil Perks, these three scenarios will be somewhere close to reality.

Real time transport information technology is advancing apace. Perks is working with five local authorities - Glasgow, Tamworth, Essex, Poole and South Yorkshire - on real time bus information systems which will allow councils and bus operators to monitor where each vehicle is at any time.

The latest vehicle tracking systems use GPS technology, which enables two way communication between drivers and a transport control centre. As a result, centres can collect information about road conditions affecting vehicles' progress. It is possible to predict buses' rates of advance and likely arrival times.

Poole Council aims to have real time bus information systems covering six routes, totalling 150km of road and 160 buses, in place by summer 2002, at a cost of £1.25M. It is looking to integrate with neighbouring districts, ultimately creating a super-regional information network.

Getting digital information used within a discrete bus operator/local authority 'intranet' into an internet environment, where it can be accessed publicly, is a relatively small technological step, says Colin Peris, project manager for the Poole bus scheme.

At the same time, information is already being produced on national rail services by Railtrack, and on local commuter and light rail operations by firms like Connex in the south east and Docklands Light Railway in London. As well as providing simple, scheduled running times, travel data delivered to the public will increasingly include details of changes and give reasons for delays.

It is the ability of next generation, broad band digital communications technology to navigate between and co-ordinate different timetable information that is particularly exciting Perks, Peris and chief executive of mobile telecoms travel information provider Kizoom, Damian Bown.

Kizoom already has a quarter of a million users, mainly in south east England, who can plan journeys using a WAP phone - a mobile giving access to the internet. 'Key issues are navigability and usability, ' comments Bown. 'If selecting an optimum route takes two to three minutes, using a mobile is little more than a party trick. Real time passenger information must be something people will use in their daily lives.'

The next generation of mobile phones, dubbed 3G, will provide far faster internet access than WAP. Combined with increased speed, advances in phones' 'computing' power makes it possible for Kizoom to design a system that 'knows something about you, ' says Bown. 'The system needs to learn what kinds of information you are likely to use, or what journeys you regularly make.'

Once the phone knows where you are going, it can be used to 'push' information as well, says Bown. Permanently connected to the web - mobile phone use is shortly to be charged at a flat rate, as for the internet, rather than on a per call or minute by minute basis - it can monitor the planned route of travel, alerting you to glitches and enabling you to re-plan before running into delays.

www. kizoom. com

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