In a recent We Are Railfans article, we looked at how the digital age and online technology has a place in really enhancing the railfan experience in the UK, with tools like Rail Record. Continuing the theme, we delve deeper into how a similar tool can assist passengers, commuters and regular rail users in the form of Realtime Trains. Whilst Realtime Trains and Rail Record (along with other online train tracking tools) utilise much of the same data to display schedules and workings, the way Realtime Trains displays this data is markedly different and better suited to those riding on the trains, rather than spotting or photographing them. Passengers wait as GWR Class 165 no.165133 arrives at Henley-on-Thames Station on a wet summer's day in 2019. Photo by Joe Rogers.
The key to benefitting passengers is displaying information about where a train is, when it is due to arrive at a station and prioritising that over locomotive classes and detailed signalling info. Other train tracking websites can offer this, but Realtime Trains works hard to accurately display this in a way that's easy to understand for railfans and non-railfan commuters. As a result, it has both 'Simple' and 'Detailed' display options - the former perhaps for passengers with little rail knowledge and a need to understand delays and facilities available, with the latter offering information relevant to those with a deeper understanding of rail movements, signalling, pathing, routes and rolling stock. The 'Simple View' of the 1200 Greater Anglia service from Norwich to London Liverpool Street shows information that any passenger would need to know: Platform; Arrival Time; Departure Time; and the real-time delay. At the most recent station, Colchester, it arrived at Platform 3 at 1258, departed at 1300 and therefore had a delay of -1 minute (ahead of time by 1 minute). A detailed view of the same service shows much more information, including a more accurate real-time location for those familiar with the route (in this case between Hatfield Peverel and Chelmsford). Timings are given to the nearest 30 seconds (rather than 1 minute) and the Path / Line is indicated (UM = Up Main, D = Down etc). The numbers on the far left denote distance in Miles and Chains.
Going one step further, Realtime Trains also provides passengers with information about the facilities available on board a particular service with a neat illustration of the locomotive / multiple unit and icons denoting them. This is vital information for passengers with particular needs, whether that be wheelchair access, bicycle storage, the location of first class seating, or whether there are refreshments on board in the form of a trolley service or buffet car. Such information can sometimes be difficult to obtain 'on the day' in the heat of the moment, especially at busy stations where information points and staff might not be easily seen or reached. This enables passengers to make their own decisions 'realtime' by electing to grab a coffee before hopping on board, standing in a particular area of the platform or missing a service altogether to ensure a more comfortable journey on another. The Know Your Train feature for this CrossCountry service between Plymouth and Birmingham New Street informs users that there is WiFi and a trolley service on board and that reservations are compulsory. The illustration of the train shows a 4-car Class 220 'Voyager' with disabled access in Coaches A and F and bicycle storage in Coach D. The Know Your Train Feature is also available for LNER services, including the Azuma. This service between Edinburgh and Kings Cross passes through Grantham. Photo by Joe Rogers.
Some of these features are available only with certain Train Operating Companies (or TOCs) and the list has gradually expanded over time thanks to collaborations between Realtime Trains and major TOCs like LNER and CrossCountry. But it doesn't stop there - the Swanage Railway, a heritage line running to the Dorset coast from Wareham via Corfe Castle, has joined Realtime Trains in 2021 meaning that tourists and railfans visiting the heritage line can take advantage of the thoroughly modern realtime tech to see heritage steam and diesel locomotives operating on the line. This was the result of over 6 years' work, with the heritage operations platform first in use during 2014 and more extensively during diesel galas in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Regular Realtime Trains users will also see the familiar profile illustrations of the locomotives and carriages on specially-made digital noticeboards that bring a sensitively modern touch to the otherwise period station buildings and ticket booths. Though rolling stock on heritage railways can be historic, many still accommodate bicycles, wheelchairs, pushchairs and buffet cars and some of those facilities are still displayed on Swanage Railway services as they would on modern mainline ones! SR 2-6-0 U Class No.31806 at Harman's Cross Station, part of the Swanage Railway. Photo by Jamie of European Steam.
Of course, for railfans all of this information is still very useful. Realtime Trains still displays Train Service Codes (or TSCs), headcodes (where known), freight movements, maintenance trains and specials like Rail Record and other online tools, but for railfans that are also passengers for one reason or another, seeing whether there'll be a cup of tea available after a hard day's spotting is always worth knowing.
Many thanks to Realtime Trains for the information and screenshots. You can find out more at https://www.realtimetrains.co.uk/
An overview of the Class 166 DMU as it enters 30 years of service across a number of routes.
Heritage railways provide the venues for most of today's 8F and Jubilee steam action.