Nexus Alpha solar-powered rail sign on the Far North line in Scotland

Low-energy signs cut cost of transport information

Norfolk County Council is expecting 90 per cent energy savings from low-power real-time passenger information (RTPI) signs it is installing at bus stops and shelters in Norwich and Great Yarmouth.

NCC is the first UK local authority to deploy a power-sparing LTN-LCD (low twisted nematic, liquid-crystal display) high-contrast system developed by travel information specialist Nexus Alpha, in a £315,000 contract.

The 90 per cent savings will come from conventionally mains-connected displays. There is also a zero energy-cost solar-powered version designed primarily for remote locations, where extending mains is prohibitively expensive.But the county is using them in-city, to take advantage of government Better Bus Area funding aimed at boosting urban public transport use. 

Future rural rollout will depend on progress made by bus operators in equipping their fleets with GPS units to feed their location data. The signs have four weeks’ battery back-up.

Stressing the importance of cost, Mark Cartwright of the Real Time Information Group says local authority spending cuts have hit RTPI investment hard, with some councils, including Lancashire, switching off their systems. “Others have kicked their rollout and/or replacement programmes into the long grass – so there is strong pressure to look at radical, low-cost options,” he explained.

Existing and new signs in Norfolk are controlled by Region Services Ltd’s Web-based electronic passenger information (EPI) software, and display data from the council’s PubTrans data management integration platform supplied by Swedish consultancy Hogia.

Gary Umpleby, Hogia's UK general manager, sees low-power technology going further. It could help councils cut the costs and delays of updating remote wayside timetables, which are currently printed and physically replaced. By using e-paper systems, new information could be shown as soon as schedules change.

Umpleby said: “The concept is nothing new. It’s just that the enabling display technology is only just happening.” He has already discussed the idea with Norfolk County Council.

In the West Midlands, public transport authority Centro has run e-paper trials of timetable and real-time bus information at an urban stop in Oldbury. Gareth Tyler, ITS specialist with Centro consultants IBI Group, claims this as the first implementation of e-paper technology in public transport. The £50,000 prototype is designed to allow passengers with near-field communications (NFC)-enabled smartphones to tap displays for more detailed information.

One issue with using solar power, admitted Nexus Alpha CEO Patrick McDougall, is the visual clutter effect of square panels atop bus stops in environmentally sensitive areas. He is working with a specialist fabricator on a range of alternative models on the basis that “with flexibility around panel sizes and shapes, the form of the solar array can be a potent design feature”.

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