South West Trains has turned to BlipTrack sensor technology, to measure passenger flow, identify bottlenecks and improve the traveller experience at Clapham Junction, the busiest railway station in the UK.

Have you heard about the time a conductor apologised for overcrowding due to too many passengers? Or the time a train was late because of dew on the tracks? British train commuters know that the list of strange - and frequently humorous - reasons for delays can seem almost endless, while the delays themselves can be frustrating. With passenger volumes increasing every year, the light at the end of this tunnel sometimes appears to be anything but an oncoming train. Thankfully, an innovative solution has been making railway travel a considerably more pleasant experience at one of the United Kingdom’s busiest stations.

Busy, busy, busy

As one of Britain’s, and Europe’s, busiest stations, Clapham Junction’s 17 platforms host three train operating companies - South Western Railways, Southern and London Overground - and handle over 430 000 passengers every single day, of which 135 000 use the station during the morning and evening peak times. Some 2000 trains stop or pass through daily, swelling to a rate of 180 per hour at peak times. A station of this complexity needs a carefully considered management structure if it is to operate efficiently.

Over and above the regular daily traffic, the station sees abnormal passenger flows at certain times during the year - the Wimbledon tennis fortnight, Rugby matches at Twickenham, race days at Ascot and Epsom. There are also occasions when, for instance, London Underground is disrupted, and people change trains at Clapham to arrive at a more convenient London terminus. During these periods, the number of travellers interchanging rises considerably and often these people are non-regulars who do not know their way around the station.

Practical solutions

London is one of Europe’s longest-existing cities, and the urban environment is very dense, making expansions challenging as well as expensive. To avoid unnecessary expenses, while making the passenger journey more pleasant and smoother, previous franchise incumbents, South West Trains instead adopted the BlipTrack flow management solution in 2016.

Installed and handled by system integrators telent, the solution measures passenger flow and occupancy in real-time and provides early warning when congestion occurs. These alerts enable management to take proactive steps to initiate countermeasures, such as wayfinding on information screens, or dispatching employees to regulate the flow.

The data is fed into telent´s Mica station management system, which automatically changes the wayfinding on information screens. This information guides travellers to the fastest route through the station’s overbridge and underpass tunnels. This traveller redistribution helps the station to reduce bottlenecks and provide a better overall travel experience.

But how does it work, and how do passengers get involved?

Simply put, passengers don’t need to do a thing, as the system is designed to work by recognising that most ubiquitous of all devices - the WiFi-enabled mobile device. WiFi sensors are mounted on the overbridge and subway, efficiently measuring how mobile devices move and dwell. The data is then processed and displayed using straightforward and easily interpreted graphics - allowing management to see, at a glance, when congestion is happening.

Using a simple colour-coded system, monitors can easily see when passenger numbers are growing (green), when busy is edging towards congested (yellow), and when congestion is reaching unsafe numbers (red). This system also makes it considerably easier to avoid dangerous levels of congestion. Controllers can quickly intervene to redirect station staff to the pinch point and take action to either divert people elsewhere or locally restrict the flow.

Benefits all round

Aside from the obvious benefit of improving flow and reducing congestion, this system also helps the station to comply with fire safety occupancy regulations, keeping otherwise unsuspecting travellers safer and reducing the chances of accidents or life-threatening incidents.

The solution also offers the station several other benefits, all of which add up to making the passenger experience better every day. For instance, future planning is made significantly easier, as management can now not only track regular daily volumes of people entering and leaving the station, they can also accurately track unusual volumes during certain times, days, weeks, or even months. This allows for considerably better resource planning and predictability.

“With BlipTrack, we can see where the flow of visitors enter and leave the station, and measure their numbers, walking routes, length of stay, times of day, and how busy the different locations are,” says Eelco Thiellier, SMART Station program manager at Royal HaskoningDHV.

Eelco Thiellier

Strategic Advisor & Innovator at Royal HaskoningDHV