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Real-time information arrives on trains

Real-time information became available on Metro trains on Thursday. Can we say hallelujah!

Of course it’s been on stations for years, via Passenger Information Displays (known in the biz as PIDs) and the green buttons providing audio.

But now departure data can be seen in the PTV app (and others) and PTV Next 5 web site; it shows as minutes to departure when real-time is available, otherwise it shows as the scheduled time.

This completes the trilogy for metropolitan Melbourne: trams (via TramTracker, which is driven off decades-old tracking technology with some clever maths over the top), buses (implemented in the last couple of years) and trains. V/Line services aren’t using this yet, but apparently they’re working on it.

PTV has released a new version of their API which includes this real-time information, and apparently some apps have already started integrating it.

Real-time information: station screen vs phone

Caveats

A few stations only have the scheduled times available, apparently due to not all the equipment being in place. Some of those appear to be due to level crossing works; Flinders Street is the other one, because it’s a terminus station and I guess the algorithms can’t cope with the fact that train X arriving from Y should then go to Z, but sometimes gets transposed to a completely different destination. Sigh.

So if I look at Frankston-bound trains from Flinders Street, it can only tell me times. And yet, if I look at Richmond for the same trains, it tells me the next trains to Frankston are in 3, 17, and 30 minutes. Hmmmm.

Tram Tracker data is known not to be fully real-time; as I understand it, it’s done by interpolating (estimating) tram positions between fixed points. The train information seems to be linked to the signalling system, so is likely to be more accurate.

Of course, the algorithms can only use the information available. Sudden delays or bypasses may not be factored in. Departure countdowns at stations or stops near the start of a run may not as reliable as those further along.

This is not to say the information isn’t useful; one just needs to be wary of its limitations.

Quirks with the apps

The Android app currently has a bug that prevents you changing the station you’re looking at unless you go back to the Home page first. The iOS version seems okay in this regard.

PTV app on Android, showing real-time train info
Citybound trains may show the last city stop rather than the “City Loop” or “Flinders Street” that most people are familiar with. (The first train listed above originated at Ringwood due to Belgrave line works, and seemed to be delayed, hence showing a time not a minute countdown. Also note the two cancellations in a row.)

PTV app on iOS, showing real-time train info
If you use the Ringwood line, on the common section for the Belgrave and Lilydale lines, it’s a little jarring that outbound trains are listed separately on the apps. Likewise other common routes like the Cranbourne/Pakenham lines. Check carefully; the top one listed may not be the first train you can catch.

Also notable above is these train times for Glenferrie station showed the next Alamein train at 3:54am tomorrow (Sunday) morning! This isn’t even correct — even if you wait until then, you still have to go to Camberwell and change trains.

Will it change how you catch trains?

One dedicated tram user (yeah okay, it was PTUA President Tony Morton) commented to me that Tram Tracker had changed the way he catches trams, and I don’t think that’s uncommon.

Many people who have access to the real-time departure information no longer bother to look up timetables. They just check the app and go. This of course is made easier on trams thanks to their mostly frequent (every 10ish minutes or better) services.

Now that all three modes have this, buses and trains could go the same way, especially on the frequent lines, making it easier to use the network as a Turn Up And Go service — which is needed to make public transport more competitive with cars.

On the infrequent lines, if there’s only one bus every half-hour, I think most are still more likely to check the timetable and/or Journey Planner. But the real-time updates will at least help you know if the service is on time.

Simpifying the network

This sort of real-time information works brilliantly… provided you know which route(s) you need to catch.

To reach its full potential, changes to the network to bring more consistent routes and stopping patterns and higher frequencies will help a lot… but that’s a subject for another post.

In the meantime, getting real-time info onto trains is a big plus.