How WiFi is improving London Underground

There are lots of things I love about London Underground and quite a few I hate and that’s probably the case with everyone who uses it whether like me relying on it to go to work every day or some hapless individual from the countryside or overseas and wonders what on earth has just happened to them.

One of the things I like about the Underground is that people can’t make phone calls hundreds of feet underground (for the moment) and no matter how frantic, squashed, hot and uncomfortable the journey might be, I still find it a blessing not to have to listen to inane conversations.

However there has long been WiFi on Underground platforms, ticket halls and escalators and since since July 2019, TFL has been tracking smart phones not to spy or eavesdrop on people but to improve their understanding of how people actually travel on the network.  Having done this now for several months, the data has allowed them to change and improve their own travel guides and this is just the start.

Although TfL has long been able to track people entering and leaving stations through their Oyster cards, and calculate their journeys, the interchanges inside stations couldn’t be monitored other than by manual counting, which is slow and expensive to carry out. The Wi-Fi data from 260 stations adds the missing piece into the puzzle.

TfL now has more than 2.7 billion depersonalised pieces of data to play with, and that has already been throwing up some interesting insights about how people use the network to get from A to B.  For example how might someone travel from the mainline station at Waterloo, just south of the River Thames to the main line station at Kings Cross or vice-versa.

wi-fi-trial-tfl-03

How people travel by Underground between Kings Cross and Waterloo train stations

Until one stops to think about it, you’d think it would be straight forward but there are so many factors which influence people.  Do people travel one way due to positive factors or do they avoid other routes due to negative factors?

Some routes have fast trains but they have numerous stops.  Seemingly more direct routes might have longer connecting passageways between lines.  Others might have pinch points on escalators or be plagued by people with big suitcases.  Perhaps overcrowding, platform temperature or stairs play a role.   Maybe people just have favourite lines.

For what it’s worth I would likely take the third most popular route depending on the time of journey… no-one in their right mind wants to change trains at Leicester Square when it is in peak tourist/theatre/eating out times.

TfL’s own in-house data scientists worked through the data and identified a number of situations where the time taken to travel through a station was longer than they had previously said on their website and so have made changes to journey timings at 55 stations.wi-fi-trial-tfl-02

The changes are focused on stations where there are periods of time where crowds build up and slow down how fast (or slowly) people are able to get around the station.

Some examples include Canada Water, which in recent years has become hideously slow to get from the Jubilee line up to the Overground or the exits during rush hours. At high tourist areas like Bond Street, Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, times have been adjusted to take account of higher usage outside of peak periods due to theatres, museums and other leisure activities nearby.

At stations towards the end of Underground lines in outer London, times have also been adjusted to take account of increasing passenger numbers as London itself is always evolving and changing like a living organism in some ways.

Work is also underway to see what further information can be sourced from the depersonalised Wi-Fi data, such as understanding where customers interchange on certain key routes in London, such as King’s Cross St Pancras to Waterloo and Liverpool Street to Victoria, to see whether better alternatives could be suggested at busy times.

Screenshot 2019-11-20 at 09.32.44

The graphic Figure 9 above illustrates how passengers move from  from the Northern line (Bank branch) northbound platform to the Victoria line southbound platform at Euston station. Most people use the shortest path through the passageway. However, about a third head up to the main concourse then go down to the Victoria line platform. Five per cent take more complex paths. Those who use the passageway take around one to three minutes to travel between the platforms and those who use the concourse take around three to five minutes. This could be useful to less frequent travellers who want to understand transfer times and levels of crowding in stations.

tfl infographic PUB17_031 WiFi_fig11

Showing the relative busy areas of Euston Underground Station.

I use Euston station one way or the other probably around 350 days a year and am hugely familiar with the overcrowding issues here caused simply by the volume of people who travel and interchange here and the incredible frequency of the trains too.

Screenshot 2019-11-20 at 09.30.37

As you can see from the graphic above there is an incredible variation in how many passengers travel on each train within a few minutes and this is just one tunnel in one direction on one line with trains often running close to one every minute,

It’s interesting what possibilities this date might be used in the future.  Shops and cafe’s on the network will have quantifiable data as to the potential footfall in a particular station or a particular corridor or platform on a station.

Perhaps one day soon we might receive personalised travel data and journey guidelines. We’re all different and an older person or someone encumbered with bags probably goes slower than everyone else and at certain times it may be beneficial for them and everyone else if they are encouraged to go in routes at certain times that don’t hold people up.    Then are are crazy people like myself who run around like mad, taking every short cut and un-advertised corridor route or stairwell to miss crowds or make connections.

Not that they track me as of course I still have my 1990’s era phone and unless you want to make a call, send a text message or play Snake then there isn’t much going on!

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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