National Rail Enquiries

New Year / New Blog

First of all – let me start by explaining the change in format in the blog.  We got a number of responses to the first blog saying that you wanted to know who was writing it.  So here you are, it’s me – that’s why it’s now a chief exec’s blog and you get to see my picture in the top right!  Another request that we got was to have comments enabled: I want to continue receiving your feedback through as email comments for now, whilst I get a feel for what sort and volume of response I can expect.  But, fear not, I shall respond to the feedback we receive from this blog next time.

I hope that you had a good Christmas and New Year, although that may seem a distant memory.  For National Rail Enquiries, much of the last few weeks have been spent on the new website’s implementation.

New Website Feedback

There’s been a variety of feedback, both positive and negative regarding the look and feel of the new website, and I want to take the opportunity to share some of what we’ve received with you, and also respond to some of the criticism.

The team is really pleased with the feedback from various sources within the web industry, including Andy Kinsey, who singled out our redesign for special mention in his feature Top 10 Redesigns of 2009.  We’re still working through some teething problems with the site – there have been a number of comments, both direct to us, and on various websites highlighting problems with the placement of adverts and live departure board arrivals functionality.  The team has already made a number of changes to resolve some of these issues and will continue to do so.  I’m really proud of the new website, and want it to be a success, so please let me know what problems you’re having so I can direct my team to get them resolved.

Recent Bad Weather

Our services have experienced extreme levels of demand on most days since the snow affected the southern part of the country on 18th December, up until 13th January, and I want to let you know about how NRE performed during this time.

The information we provided

Our Information Team and the National Rail Communication Centre were in constant dialogue with the Train Operating Companies and Network Rail Control Centres throughout the period of bad weather. Having direct communication enables us to provide up-to-date information to passengers very quickly.

I feel the quality of information overall was better than in previous bad weather incidents, but I realise there were some periods when the information in some areas was simply not good enough.  The Passenger Information Strategy Group (a cross-industry group with a focus on improving passenger information) is conducting its review of the industry-wide provision of information to passengers during this incident.  This will result in recommendations for the rail industry to adopt to improve information in the future.

Our contact centres

Calls to our contact centres were significantly higher than normal: at times we were experiencing demand of 450% above forecasted call volumes.  In order to provide information more quickly, and to save people waiting in a queue, my team put live an information “hotline” at 0600 on 6th January. This played recorded information describing the situation for each Train Operating Company. The messages were kept up to date 24/7 by our National Rail Communication Centre. The hotline answered around 60,000 calls per day on 6th, 7th and 8th January and enabled the contact centres to concentrate on specific journey enquiries as opposed to generic disruption information requests.

The website

Our website recorded its highest ever usage in terms of requests per hour (113,000), live departure board enquiries (349,000 per day) and journey plans returned (2.4 million per day).

In accordance with our internal procedures we made the decision to use a ‘lite’ page throughout the period of bad weather to ensure optimum performance.  All our information was available, however we removed the adverts in order to maximise the website’s efficiency. However, I’ll admit – we did experience some issues with the site between 13:00 – 15:30 on 5th January.  This was disappointing, as we’ve spent a lot of time and effort to make the website resilient following last year’s heavy snowfall.  However – a change to the site caused an error, which resulted in brief periods of the service not being available and some slow running.  On 6th January the site ran slowly at times because of configuration issues; tuning was applied and performance has been good since. On 7th January a road works team caused us a bit of a headache when they accidentally cut through a telecommunications cable to our data centre! This resulted in some of our real time services (Live Departure Boards / Real Time Journey Planner) being unavailable for a few hours.

Fingers crossed, the worst of the weather is behind us, so we have moved back to the full version of our website and I’m looking forward to the rest of the challenges this New Year can throw us.  As before, please email in your comments to nreblog@atoc.org.