Our daily rail journeys are dotted with a plethora of all-too-familiar visual and audio cues prompting us to adjust our behaviour in various ways. While informative, the messages soon become routine for the majority of regular passengers – as do the actions and decisions they trigger.

Influencing passenger behaviour is an integral part of maintaining a standard of safety and security, as well as the efficient operation of the entire system while keeping delays to a minimum.

In London, four million people use the network every day, up to 50% more than ten years ago, according to Network Rail. This surge in demand is showing no signs of stopping: as the fastest growing European city, London’s population is expected to rise from the current 8.6 million to ten million by 2030. At this rate, the London Infrastructure Plan predicts that demand on the system will rise by 60% before 2050.

Adding more capacity to accommodate the growing number of commuters is one of the main priorities, with London Underground (LU) investing £1.3bn a year in its capital programme with major stations, trains, track and signalling being constantly updated, modernised or replaced.

But in addition to these vital infrastructure works, a lot of effort is going into fine-tuning behavioural campaigns.

“We strive really hard to improve the reliability of the system, which has improved by more than 30% over the last few years”, says Gareth Powell, director of strategy at LU and chief operating officer at London Rail. “But actually, if you look at the causes of delays to our system, at least a third of them are caused in some way or another by things having to do with customers.”

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Data gathered by First Capital Connect over a few years up to 2014 similarly revealed that on its network, around 80% of incidents were attributable to behavioural issues.

From annoying to anti-social to criminal: passengers behaving badly

An anti-social behaviour analysis compiled by independent watchdog Transport Focus in 2010 identified some of the most problematic and hazardous behaviours of rail passengers.

When polled about types of anti-social behaviour they witnessed, travellers identified playing music loudly, fare evasion and graffiti or vandalism as the most annoying behaviours in their fellow passengers. On the train, putting their feet on seats, the use of mobile phones in quiet carriages and groups behaving rowdily also topped the complaints list.

“Taken from behavioural science, the “nudge theory” is a popular concept often used by railway authorities around the world.”

This behaviour becomes a more serious problem when it strays into criminal territory, with those between the ages of 16 and 25 being most likely to be victims of violent crime on the railway. Although crime rates on the rail network have consistently fallen for the past eleven consecutive years, British Transport Police statistics show that there are 25 crimes recorded for every million journeys.

But while tackling criminal behaviour is a challenging task best approached by the authorities, certain actions can be prevented by “nudging” customers to mend their attitudes. Taken from behavioural science, the “nudge theory” is a popular concept often used by railway authorities around the world, which relies on positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to influence the motives, incentives and decision-making of groups and individuals.

New London trials challenging the norms

The sheer volume of passengers travelling daily on the UK capital’s rail and Tube network has pushed operators to get creative in their approaches. In 2013, Transport for London (TfL) launched a “poetiquette” campaign aimed at minimising delays on the network.

Alongside a series of poems plastered across stations and the inside of carriages, a week-long launch event brought together London poets to give recitals at some of the busiest stations. The poems encouraged passengers to avoid dropping litter, obstructing doors and causing delays to the service.

More than 13,000 tonnes of litter is picked up on the underground each year, the equivalent weight of 50 Metropolitan line trains, according to TfL.

“We’ve done a lot of visual information, we’ve put things on the trains themselves such as yellow markers on the doors and we’ve actually tried to explain this in a slightly more interactive way,” Powell says.

“So rather than just putting up a notice, people can read the poems and we discovered that that’s a good way to get people to engage with this subject in a slightly different way, that’s not a draconian message.”

A more complex trial, aimed at increasing capacity, will be rolled out by TfL at Holborn Station, one of the busiest on the tube network, with more than 56 million customers each year.

For six months starting on 18 April, passengers will be encouraged to “stand on both sides” on two of the “up” escalators when exiting the station in an attempt to reduce congestion. Results from a previous three-week trial showed that this method increased capacity on the escalators by 30%. This is mainly due to the fact that, since the Holborn escalator is 23.4 metres tall, most customers will prefer to stand rather than walk up the escalator.

In order to make passengers comply, a combination of “standard” and “light” messages were developed with the help of the behavioural science department at the London School of Economics. Some of the cues will include a talking projection of a staff member, an electronic versions of the triangular ‘stand on the right’ signs, signs on the floors, foot prints on the escalator steps, handprints on the handrails and station announcements.

Extra reinforcement from staff will be withdrawn from the experiment after the start of the trial to test “whether customers will change their behaviour in the longer term through use of the signs and messages and force of habit,” according to a press release.

“This new pilot will help us find out if we can influence customers to stand on both sides in the long term, using just signage and information,” said London Underground operations director Peter McNaught.

But with more people riding the escalators at one time, safety is taking centre stage. With figures showing that 40% of all passenger injuries on the Tube network occur on escalators, a separate trial rolled out in February saw virtual assistant ‘holograms’ introduced at King’s Cross and Waterloo stations.

Although conclusive results will be released six weeks after its completion, TfL said that thanks to positive initial feedback, a more widespread roll-out in other areas is “very likely”.

The first hologram was introduced in the UK in March 2014 at Heathrow, followed in October by “Louise”, Network Rail’s virtual assistant at Kings Cross station.

The age of information: nudging turns digital

In keeping with the digitalisation of the entire railway network, technology is also tipped to be the future of “nudging”, as ongoing experiments prove.

For the moment, despite all the new technology and the novelty factor associated with it, research published by Transport Focus shows that passengers still value the “human face” of staff on the ground.

“The more information we can give our customers, the more decisions they can make for themselves.”

But progress is already being made towards a more digital approach. At this year’s HackTrain event, rail experts, together with the technology community, developed the Goodthings (come to those who wait) app, which aims “to influence travel behaviour by incentivising passengers to take a different (less crowded) train”.

“Our customers actually want information and if you give them information, customers can choose for themselves,” Powell says.

“The more information we can give our customers, the more decisions they can make for themselves [about] how to use the service. Technology more broadly is a huge part of the play here in just getting information to our customers.”

The Future of Rail 2050 report by consultancy firm Arup predicts that over the next few decades, “the growing pace of technological change will be one of the major drivers of change for the transport sector”.

“Web 3.0 will be about the semantic web (or the meaning of data), personalisation, intelligent search and behavioural advertising,” the report reads.

TfL’s leading experiments with open data, which sees large amounts of performance being released for free into the marketplace, certainly helps speed up these changes.

“We’re looking to the future,” Powell concludes. “We’re looking to see whether is it possible to be able to tell people in real time how crowded our trains are. Because if it’s possible to do that, we can give people the choice to make more valuable use of their time. And that’s all going to be underpinned by technology.”