Sifting through the information

An interesting example of putting infomation that already exists on the web has just appeared on the National Rail site that represents the main line train operators in Great Britain: go to http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/stations/ , choose a station name, or the three-letter abbreviation that’s associated with the station in the train companies’ databases, and select ‘stations made easy’ from the list that appears.  This will give you a whole lot of information, much of it intended to help you if you need level access through the station, with a plan of the station and photos of some of the facilities.  For example http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/stations/sjp/STP/plan.html gives you a plan of St Pancras, and if you hover the mouse over various points you’ll see photos to help orient yourself, plus very detailed information on access for people with disabilities.  This isn’t limited to major stations or those in London either: http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/stations/sjp/BLN/plan.html would have been useful on my trip to Merseyside earlier this year.

If this wasn’t the Internet, it might seem churlish to criticise something that’s obviously taken a lot of effort and is a useful resource.  But in the spirit of the perpetual beta (a term promoted by Tim O’Reilly as part of Web 2.0) I’m going to offer some comments.

First a couple of minor ones.  ‘Left lugguage’ would be an inexcusable typo even if it only appeared on one station – it actually appears in quite a few stations so is presumably part of the template.  The plans are good but the simple, chunky, graphics do have a touch of the web circa 1998 about them, and I think could be made much more attractive with a little tweaking.  Those simple graphics should load quickly – which is good – but I can’t view the entire St Pancras plan on my desktop computer without scrolling.  Therefore I can’t imagine that the plans would look that good on a smartphone, which is a pity because that’s one obvious use for the site: point to one of the photos while you’re using a mobile device at the station, to check that you’re in the right place.

More seriously, it’s a pity that the plans couldn’t be mashed up with the live departure boards, so that you could click over platforms 11 and 12 and get the appropriate entries from http://realtime.nationalrail.co.uk/ldb/sumdep.aspx?T=SPX .  I appreciate that station facilities and accessibility and train running are probably the responsibility of different people in the rail companies, but once all that information is on the web it should be possible to integrate it more effectively than has been done.

But to me the biggest problem is one of wording, and it could possibly be addressed with more guidance on exactly how to interpret the information.  For instance click over Carluccio’s at St Pancras, and you’ll get http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/stations/sjp/STP/objectvalues/3151-0000420.html , telling you that there’s one entrance and no steps into the building.  If I didn’t know better, I’d assume that ‘the building’ referred to the station.  As it’s a recently refurbished major public building, there is level access to most parts of it, including Carluccio’s, using lifts, but the station has multiple entrances, and one way to get to Carluccio’s is up a staircase from Pancras Road.  To be fair, all of this can be inferred from the plan, but it’s not clear from the wording, which actually means that Carluccio’s itself doesn’t include stairs, and has one entrance.  Similarly the description of the gents’ toilet at http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/stations/sjp/STP/objectvalues/3151-0000221.html says there are no disabled-accessible toilets or baby change facilities (though it says that there are accessible toilets elsewhere in the station) because there aren’t any in that unit, although both are provided in the corridor next door.  The same effect means that at Finsbury Park Station – a sprawling mixture of Victorian and 1960s construction that definitely wasn’t designed with wheelchair users in mind – http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/stations/sjp/FPK/objectvalues/1872-0000038.html tells you that the AMT coffee kiosk is wheelchair accessible because it’s on a level with the immediately surrounding area.  But this surrounding area is a mezzanine level which you could only reach, either from the street or from the platforms, using enough stairs to make it inaccessible to most wheelchair users.  Nothing on the site says this, although you could deduce it from the plan.  I love maps and plans, but other people have difficulty in using them, and a bit more explanation would help.  It reminds me of the IT developer who conceded that you needed to read his documentation very carefully to understand things, which is great in principle but not always achievable in practice.

Still, it’s a very useful resource, and if by chance anybody from Network Rail is reading this, I hope they’ll take the criticisms in the constructive vein in which they are intended.

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