One of the pioneers of intelligent transport systems in the UK and around the world, Prof Eric Sampson, has told Smart Highways that the industry needs to do more to explain itself to the travelling public.
Prof Sampson is “The Big Interview” in the forthcoming issue of the magazine, which is distributed over the next couple of days to print subscribers and then available to visitors at Traffex.
In a wide-ranging interview, he agrees that the public seems to know very little about what the industry does and what goes into keeping the transport network moving and that their ignorance does matter.
“The public are paying and deserve proper reports on their investment,” he says. “There are simple things that have sensible explanations which we would readily accept if told but most of the time we don’t have them. One of John Major’s innovations that sadly attracted near-zero publicity apart from a little ridicule was explaining roadworks so as you drove past a 3km coned-off stretch with no visible workforce you saw a sign explaining “new asphalt surface drying out” so you understood what and why. TfL have done some excellent work in liaison with TV companies so that we see why a small incident on the Tube can infect a much wider network and why tunnelling a new railway under London takes a long time and a lot of money.
“A lot of the problem is that we are still not given regular and reliable information including what is really happening,” he continues. “There’s also the resourcing attitude – “I’m too busy sorting out this crisis to get the microphone and explain what it’s all about”. But quite often it has been deliberate silence as the transport operator wants people to behave in particular ways so it delays, or even withholds, explanation of the true picture. This used to be common in aviation: delaying the report that your service was running 75 minutes late to stop the switch to the competition that left in 30 minutes’ time. There’s a lot less of that now, not least because there are so many apps available that give reliable information. If I’m suspicious of an alleged five minute delay at Thirsk station I can test whether the train has left Darlington because if it has not the claimed five is really 25.”
However Prof Sampson says he didn’t have a problem selling ITS to ministers, “I can’t recall any real problems explaining very technical issues to politicians and getting enthusiastic support after talking them through quite complex descriptions of the alternative solutions,” he says. “That’s the private angle in the sense that the briefing isn’t broadcast. You have to accept that a Minister, however famous, will collect little credit for announcing their support for a real-time information initiative involving the collection of raw data from roadside wireless sensors.”
Look out for the whole of this fascinating interview in your new look Smart Highways magazine.