Review: Real time train data apps

Posted: April 24, 2013 in Transport
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Note: As an iPhone and iPad user, this post has an iOS tilt to it. Some comments may not apply to non-iOS device users.

Real time data on transport apps was recently added for trains, in addition to government operated buses. It achieves this through the use of GPS tracking devices installed on all trains as well as all stations on the suburban rail network other than Waterfall and the Carlingford Line. As with the real time bus data, this functionality does not apply to either the Google Transit or 131500 apps.

Correction: The train data uses information from the rail network signals, not GPS as previously stated.

There are 6 apps in total. TripView and TripGo, screenshots of which are included below along with some descriptions. Arrivo is only available on Android phones. Triptastic requires iOS6 and has received positive reviews, but has no free version. TransitTimes is available for various cities around the world, whereas the other apps are Sydney specific. The final app, Hidden City, is less a transport app and more a random trip generator, suggesting activities in Sydney after providing details such as group size and budget which also provides transport details and information about the cost.

The TripView app displays train locations in an easy to view manner and has also added a function which informs you whether a particular train is air conditioned or not. It appears to be the only app to provide this feature.

TripView rail map

TripView street map

TripView aircon trains

TripGo benefits from having an iPad version of the app as well as an iPhone one. It’s also seen a few improvements since the version looked at previously. You can, for example, select a specific bus stop and cycle through all buses that depart from it, rather than having to select each bus route individually before seeing it. It also displays the actual bus route, and not just the bus stops, which is particularly useful for express or limited stops bus routes.

TripGo bus stop

Like before, it provides both multimodal journeys together with real time information, while providing various comparisons on price, trip duration, and even carbon emissions. It even lets you prioritise which of these are more important to you in choosing how to get to your destination. However, it still has some teething issues (as it did last time), such as the different trip options disappearing from the trip list and requiring you to flip through them in the itinerary. The ability to flip through was not initially apparent, so it appeared that it was only showing the “best” trip, rather than giving you a list of different modes to choose from.

TripGo empty trip list

In addition, the name of the train is an abbreviated line name, such as ESI for the Eastern Suburbs and Illawarra Line or WNS for the Western Line, which while logical in hindsight, wasn’t initially clear given the depth of information provided by the app. Train trips were also sometimes shown on the map as continuing through to the end of the line, rather than stopping at the destination. This appeared to be the case when the journey was made up of 2 or more trips (including a journey involving 2 trains), such as this one for Bondi Junction to Strathfield which continued all the way to Penrith.

TripGo end of the line

It also once recommended taking a train from Central past Strathfield to Lidcombe and then backtracking to Strathfield.

TripGo backtrack

If these issues get ironed out, then TripGo has the potential to be a better transport app than TripView, given all the additional information it contains. But for now you’re probably better off sticking to Google Transit for trip planning and TripView for real time information.

Another recent app, Triptastic, has also received positive vibes. It has no free version, only a $2.99 download, which probably turns off many potential users. It also requires iOS6, which the author has held off from upgrading to, so is not covered in this post.

The point of interest throughout the evolution of transport apps is the government’s response to them. When TripView first came out, the Transport Department tried to have it shut down as it competed with its 131500 Transport Info service. Since then, the government has become actively involved with private app developers, resulting first in the rollout of Google Transit to Sydney and then the addition of real time bus and train information to what is now half a dozen transport apps.

It is this sort of collaboration, one that brings in private developers, that has produced the sort of innovation that wouldn’t be possible had it remained a government only monopoly. It unleashes the dynamism of the private sector, while maintaining government control over planning and oversight needed to make the network function as a complete network, rather than various independently operating agencies or organisations. This has been a welcome move that will see benefits for commuters, just as contracting out cleaning services and franchising of transport operations have the potential to control out of control operating costs.

  1. There is no better real time app than Triptastic, with its precision bus / train locator, showing where they are on the map. It also shows everything that is about to go to your stop / location and where they are all going. It’s worth both the i06 update and the tiny bit of cash.

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