British Rail is not keeping pace with computerised information, says Paul Gosling
Through-ticketing has been preserved for rail travellers, following last month'sreport by the rail regulator. But while it would be simple to place electronic inquiry monitors next to ticket offices to show available connections for an onward journey, there are no plans to do so. In the age of computerised information, most rail passengers still depend on telephone inquiry lines and information desks that are often unable to cope with the demand.

By contrast, electronic information services are increasingly being used to improve bus travel. At bus stations and stops in Southampton and Birmingham, pilot systems advise waiting passengers on some routes where their bus currently is and when it will arrive.

Both cities also have electronic journey planners in several locations, with details of direct transport links to local and national destinations, and Hampshire council is conducting market research to determine whether to make this available on-line for domestic and business users. Bus-only, touch-screen inquiry systems are in use in Glenrothes, Leicester and Nottingham.

Yet the rail industry's new regulator, the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising, says creating an electronic rail inquiry system is not a priority. There are now 44 train operators, each with its own inquiry bureau, which the regulator admits are often inefficient, inaccurate and are potentially biased. Guidelines for inquiry services that franchise operators will have to meet are being drawn up, but these will not include an electronic service either at railway stations or on-line.

An experiment four years ago with inquiry terminals at selected rail stations was unsuccessful because the technology then available was not up to the job. Now it is. But the newly commercial British Rail will not install monitors unless a "business case" can be made for them. If terminals can be found that also sell products to cover the costs, or otherwise attract sponsorship, then a system will be purchased. But, says BR, providing information is not enough to justify the costs.

Bob Dunbar, BR business systems retail product development manager, says: "Information systems are wonderful, but in themselves they do not actually put bums on seats."

BR does, however, provide an excellent computerised system for anyone with a computer who is prepared to pay for it. "Journey Planner" disks, containing a full timetable as used by staff, are available from TRMC (0171-214 9935), at £45.70 for a Windows version, or for £41.70 for DOS. These need to be updated every six months when a new timetable is produced, and updates cost a further £36 for Windows, or £22 for DOS.

CompuServe subscribers also now have access to a British Rail timetable - although no thanks to BR. It is provided by the German rail company, Deutsche Bahn. BR timetables are also on-line through the Tel-Me service from Phonelink, but only if you first purchase a licence at a cost of £300 and then pay a service charge of 15 pence per inquiry.

TRMC is carrying out market research to see if there is enough demand to warrant on-line provision of Journey Planner. If the response is favourable, new software will need to be written, and it will take at least a year before it could be available.