London Heathrow Terminal 5 preview

Heathrow Terminal 5 London Underground roundel by terminal5insiderThe public opening of the new Terminal 5 at London Heathrow airport is less than a fortnight away and the Queen officially opened it yesterday. I was very pleased to have been given the chance to take a look around while it was in its final stages of preparation the week before last.

Having found the British Airways office, a small group of us (people who had blogged about Terminal 5 or may be interested publicising the opening) were given a tour of the terminal by a BA guide. Paul Parkinson of the This Week in London podcast was also on the tour and gives a great overview of the afternoon in his latest episode, and the terminal5insider has been doing a great job of sharing Terminal 5 photos and videos in the run-up to its public opening.

So, what were my impressions? Looking at the terminal from a distance, it doesn't look all that impressive, and it's only when you approach that you start to realise the sheer scale of the place. Departures are at the top of the building, with a passenger drop off area that gives great views of the countryside out towards Windsor. Entering the terminal via the pedestrian bridges, you start to get a better feel for the building, with a number of floors in view beneath you and an airy departures area welcoming you in. Standing in the main hall, the first thought I had was that it reminded me a little of Stuttgart Airport but on a much larger scale.

The terminal is laid out in such a way (see a diagram on the BBC News guide) that passengers should just flow through from the entrance to the gates with little hassle. In the door, to the self check-in kiosks, drop your bag off at one of the many bag drops and then pass through security to the main shopping and departure area. One thing that I really liked was that even before you go through the usual hassles of security (now even more complex, with biometric information being taken for domestic passengers) you can already see the sky through the glass walls on the other side of the terminal.

Terminal 5Even arriving from the Tube, it looks like there will be a relatively comfortable and short trip from the platform, through the wider than normal ticket barriers, and straight up the escalator to the check-in area.

Transport around the airport is set to be made easier as well, with the introduction of the ULTra PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) system scheduled for 2009, initially taking people to and from the car parks (apparently only for privileged passengers) and later around the rest of the northern side of the Heathrow complex. I also read somewhere that travel on the Tube and Heathrow Express between terminals will be free.

It's obvious from the tour and from the photos that security will be paramount in Terminal 5, with cameras designed into the fittings and signage wherever possible, self check-in desks that have space for a camera to be embedded at some point, the added biometric security, and the new design for X-ray scanning machines that physically separate off anything that needs to be checked by hand (which also has the added disadvantage that it's easy to lose track of where your trays are when passing through), to name just a few of the features.

All in all, I was very impressed with the new terminal building, the only real niggle I had being about the precedence of advertising over information in some places (such as arriving into the baggage collection area to be greeted by an advert instead of pointers to the correct belt, but it's still vastly improved over the design in the other terminals where Vodafone adverts take precedence and you actually have to hunt out the information screens).

I'm looking forward to trying it out as a real passenger, and will probably take the Tube out there to take some photos around the place when it opens to the public on 27th March.

Express ticketing that isn't

Sitting on a National Express coach from Heathrow to Gatwick, I'm pondering the failures of system design of some so-called express ticketing systems, namely the one National Express has rolled out to its coach stations. For my trip back home I'd bought a Young Persons Coach Card online for £10 in the knowledge that I'd save on my tickets (I don't recall why I didn't buy tickets at the same time, but I wish I had).

Walking into the Central Coach Station at Heathrow and seeing the queue for the ticket counter, the natural thought may be to try out one of the Express Ticket terminals that isn't in use. Thinking I could avoid the queue, I went and touched the screen to start the process. A screen of popular destinations is displayed. So far, so good.

The first hurdle is right there though. Which terminal at Gatwick am I flying out of? I dig into my bag for my iPod, checking its calendar to see if I noted it down. No mention of it - my fault for not thinking about that when I put the flight into my calendar - but it'd be nice if the system asked who I was flying with and pointed me in the right direction.

Taking a guess at the South Terminal, I then wonder what the difference is between a single and a return. Do I get any savings for buying a return? Does it just mean I can do it in one go without having to hassle with ticket machines on my return? No assistance there, so already a little frustrated, I select a return ticket.

Choosing the first coach leg was easy, I just chose one of the ones in 20 minutes or so. Does the specific coach really matter? What happens if I've not finished this process and got to the bus by that point? Can I travel on a different one instead?

Now for the pain of selecting a return journey. Prompted with a calendar for this month, I tap on the right arrow to move on to September. About 20 times, my finger hurting more each time. Frustration building significantly, I contemplate giving up, but persevere and finally manage to get the button to accept my prodding.

Selecting September 2nd, I'm presented with yet another list of coaches. Out comes the iPod again so I can check on my return flight time. After scrolling through three or four pages of early coaches I can select one in the mid afternoon that seems like it will suit (again, I wonder what happens if I can't make that coach).

Now that I've selected my ticket I'm offered two pricing options, one an "On-the-day return" ticket and the other the same but with and extra £1 added for insurance. "On-the-day return"? How's that for confusing terminology (it makes me think same-day return), when you've just told the system that you want to return on September 2nd.

Choosing the one without insurance (I'm not going to pay extra out of choice when I'm frustrated by the transaction already) I get an itinerary with a button to press to say I agree to the conditions of carriage. Tapping it, I get another button to click in the corner of the screen to confirm that I'm really happy with the conditions. Not that I had read them, but of course I agreed... I want my ticket, let me pay you already.

The second button tapped and instantly a warning notice appears telling me that I didn't enter my payment information quick enough, even though it didn't actually give me a chance to enter my payment information before telling me I was too slow. Clicking the "yes" button to try again, it gives me a chance to put my card in.

"Authorisation failed." Oh how I wanted to scream. Why do these machines not have alternative payment options so people can pay with cash if desired? Not knowing if there was an issue with my card, I went to try and get some money from the cash machine (successfully) and wandered over to queue up for the ticket desk - something I should have done from the start.

After a few minutes of queueing I was at the desk and talking with a friendly ticketing agent. She took me through where I wanted to go (the terminal question came up again, but she just chose a terminal for me), put me onto a specific coach (but told me it didn't matter which one I took), asked me if I wanted an open return or a specific service (after I asked, she told me the prices didn't differ for that extra level of flexibility) and gave me the ticket. I paid with the same card that the machine had turned down.

As she was taking me through buying a ticket I remarked that I wished the 'express' machines were this easy. She agreed, much like the London Underground ticketing guy did about the problems with Oyster cards on another visit to Heathrow earlier in the year.

I think these machines could be vastly improved upon by simply defaulting to an outbound non-specific coach for the same day and a non-specific coach for the return journey. If people want to change the dates or choose a specific coach then let them, but I suspect the majority of people using those machines are looking to travel now and don't know exactly which coach they'll want to return on. People should be warned that by choosing an open ticket they're not guaranteed a seat, but how often have you tried to travel on a service only to find out that it's full already? Maybe I've only ever travelled on frequent services but I've never come across this problem.

Surely all the system really needs to know is the destination, that you want to travel now and return at some point in the near future and whether you qualify for any discounts (OAP, child, young person's card, etc.). Keep it simple! I get really frustrated when I see technology put in place supposedly to make things easier or faster for people and all they do is make it more stressful, confusing, slower and generally much less satisfactory.

Google embeds rich data in maps

Google has just started embedding rich transport data into their maps, allowing you to click on a transport stop (train station, bus stop, ferry berth, etc.) and see - depending on what information is available for that city - a link to the transit company's website (e.g. in Stuttgart), the services that stop there (e.g. in London), and even the next few departures (e.g. in Manchester or Zurich).

The big G aren't the first to do this, but they are the first that I am aware of to embed information without making it obvious that it's there. Multimap has been allowing their users to overlay local businesses and POIs for quite some time. It perhaps wasn't the best integrated feature in their original site but with the release of their nice shiny new site, it is much better integrated, with the ability to turn on and off different layers of information. Unfortunately it doesn't quite go as far as upcoming departures, but with more and more local authorities providing this information in standard(ish) formats it's something that we could see more of on mapping sites in the future.

Subtly introducing more and more rich information into maps without overburdening the user with information will be a great way forward for online mapping, and something that I'd love to see happening in OpenStreetMap as the database grows.

London Oyster card craziness

I had been meaning to blog about this a month ago but never did, though a post by Jo Walsh has just reminded me about it.

Jo writes about being frustrated by the transport system in London and especially the changes introduced by the Oyster card - the touch in-touch out replacement for paper tickets.

I don't mind the Oyster so much: it does add a certain level of convenience, and the prices go up less quickly than the non-Oyster equivalents. It does have it's problems though and Jo summarises some of the major ones, mostly social, but below is one of the first-hand negative experiences I've had with the technological side of the system (I'll ignore times in the past when I've tried to get onto a bus, lacked credit, jumped off, topped up the card, chased alongside the bus to the next stop and then got on that same bus, noticing the Cheshire-cat grin on the driver's face) added as a comment to Jo's post:

Last time I was travelling through London, just before Christmas in the midst of the fog chaos, I managed to leave my jacket in the loos at Heathrow. Realising I'd forgotten something, I got off the tube at Hatton Cross and jumped back onto the next train going back to Heathrow. Leaving the gates, I spotted a 0.20 on the display and thought, that's a good deal for a short journey! Luckily I found my jacket again, and went back to the tube.

This time, the gates wouldn't let me through, giving me only a cryptic number for the reason. The guy at the open barrier wasn't much more helpful, especially after I told him I knew I had almost 8 quid on there. He told me I had no credit and I should see the guy at the ticket desk.

At the ticket desk I was told the same thing, that I didn't have any money on there. I kicked up a fuss, knowing that I had money on there, and thinking that the last journey had cost me 20p. I explained the situation about 5 times, and he seemed confused. There was no record of me going into the system (I'd touched in, and the gate had opened), but then I'd come out, back to where I'd started. To them, after I'd told them what had happened, that was me going in without touching in, going one stop down the line, starting another journey without first touching out and then in again, and touching out for the first time. (Although why I got charged a double fine automatically, without them knowing that I'd touched in at the same place, I have no idea).

I didn't leave the desk until he'd re-credited the fine (minus a fee for a single journey, if necessary). Thankfully, he did just that. I was very grateful because he didn't have to, but as someone who was f*cked over by the system, I would have been very angry if I wasn't reimbursed.

The London Underground guy told me that the Oyster cards had caused more trouble for the staff behind the desks than the perceived benefits, and wished they were never introduced.

As you say, the queues may be shorter, but they take longer because the queries are hellishly complex.

Terminal 5

Terminal 5Whilst travelling back through London last week, I noticed this new sign showing the extension of the London Underground Piccadilly Line that will take passengers to the new Heathrow Terminal 5 that is being built.

The only thing is, it's really confusing. If you were to look at that, how would you expect to get from the city to Terminal 5, considering trains appear to go straight from Terminal 4 to Terminals 1,2,3, bypassing T5 completely. If that's not going to confuse bewildered tourists, I don't know what will.

Why do systems not talk to each other?

In the world of networks you can barely move without being subjected to a computer network in one form or another. They're everywhere and affect all parts of our lives, so why do we trust them implicitly when they can't even talk to each other?

Traveling back to the Isle of Man today for an Easter break, I came across this problem of systems not communicating with each other. Because two systems weren't talking to one another it created confusion amongst passengers. The passenger information display system at Luton airport was showing my flight in a slot ten minutes earlier than the scheduled one and with a different airline code. After checking the screen and not seeing my flight I instantly checked my ticket to see if I'd arrived on the right day.

After a little checking I noticed the flight and headed to the check-in desk which had the same, different, details. They gave me a boarding card with the original details and pointed me to the boarding gate which showed the wrong ones. The tannoy announcements came out with the original details.

Which am I meant to believe? What if there had been a major difference? Why was there a difference in the first place?

Admittedly this seems to have been a bit of a rant about Luton airport but how often do you come across systems which could communicate more effectively with each other than they currently do? How much could those improvements improve customer satisfaction? The simple answer is 'often', and 'very much' respectively.

Transport for London recently improved their experience for travellers in London by capping the amount one person spends daily on their public transport usage as long as they use their Oyster card. By collating all of the data collected across their vast network of entry gates and other card readers they work out how much each user has spent. This stage they have to do anyway to enable a centralised charging system, but they have gone a step further and introduced the cost-savings benefit to the system as well.

I suppose at any one time the ticket machine you are using may not know what has happened earlier in the day - especially in the case of busses, where there is no physical link to the rest of the network - but by the end of the day the central system will know what transactions have been made on each card and apply the benefits after that. As long as money isn't debited from the card instantly (or there is flexibility in the process) the user knows that they can travel as frequently as they like across London's transport network within one day whilst holding just enough credit for a day travelcard.

Mental note to self: post things earlier in the day so my brain isn't only half awake and not fully able to explain things!

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