The installation of digital ‘wayfinding’ technologies to help blind people find their way around railways stations and other public spaces might not be cost-effective for five years or more, a leading expert has told E-Access Bulletin.
Dr John Gill, a consultant and former RNIB chief scientist, was speaking following the publication of a report on the operation and management of wayfinding systems by the Rail Safety and Standards Board, a non-profit rail industry body ( bit.ly/fQIyeW ).
The independent report assessed the benefits, costs, and practicability of a pilot installation in Scotland of one leading wayfinding system, RNIB ‘React’, a talking sign system whereby audio messages are triggered by users carrying a special trigger fob when they approach.
It found that while benefits were demonstrated, there were problems with planning, implementing and maintaining the React system cost-effectively: current estimated costs for implementing such a system across the entire UK rail network are between £250 million and £500 million.
Given this size of cost, “only those systems which provide some benefits to the wider rail-travelling community (as opposed to only the visually-impaired) look likely to be even worth considering”, the report says. In the meantime, the provision of extra staff to assist people with disabilities might be more cost-effective, as such staff would also be able to undertake other tasks, it says.
Dr Gill, who contributed to the report on the potential benefits of future technologies in this field such as radio frequency tags (RFID), smartcards and satellite location systems, said in time cheaper technologies could be developed combining positioning systems with live train information accessed over the web.
“With live information over the web, then you can spread the costs, and be useful for all customers,” he said. “At the present time the technologies which would be needed are available but not widely implemented, but in five years’ time, the story might be very different.”
The problems with implementing systems like React were not just related to technology but maintenance, he said. “You need systems to see if it is working reliably. If there is a talking sign on the end of a platform saying don’t walk any further, and it’s not working, is actually creating a safety hazard. Any system has got to work 99.9% of time, so you can rely on it.”
The decision on when to make investments in wayfinding technologies is ultimately a political one, Dr Gill said. “It’s a matter of who is going to pay, and who else is going to benefit. The rate of change of technology and economics is so fast that one hesitates to predict exactly when it will work out.”