For frequent train travellers a good mobile app for accessing train timetables is simply invaluable. The National Rail Enquiries for iPhone app is the latest in a line of apps that give up-to-date information on UK train times. Read more iPhone app reviews.
Essential up-to-the-minute data is scraped from data feeds provided by the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC).
This new iOS application is now the official version commissioned by National Rail Enquiries, and was created by mobile application developer Fortune Cookie.
National Rail Enquiries: Background
In essential form, National Rail Enquiries offers similar functionality to the market leader in this category, the app now known as UK Train Times.
This latter app, developed by Agant Ltd, was also formerly called National Rail Enquiries, and was until recently the official train-times app endorsed by National Rail.
Now this new app takes that name of National Rail Enquiries – or just ‘National Rail’ when viewed on the iPhone home screen – and it carries the well-known British Rail double-arrow logo, first seen in 1965.
Until April 2012, Train Times (top left) carried the official British Rail logo; now new app National Rail Enquiries (top right) has a version of the same well-known 1965 BR logo. UK Train Times v1.7.3 onwards now carries a new logo
National Rail Enquiries: Features
Themed in dark steel blue, the National Rail Enquiries app provides four main tabs across the bottom.
The first tab is ‘My travel’, and lists recent searches, further sub-divided by buttons at the top into ‘My live trains’ and ‘My journeys’.
These pages list recent trains you’ve been following with live updates; and recent point-to-point travel plans you’ve already requested. We found negotiating this split somewhat confusing, a theme that recurred through the testing and use of this app.
The second bottom tab is where you go to find live train information. Here you can tap in the name of a station (or its three-letter BR abbreviation), then press a yellow Go button to retrieve the latest reports. Mostly you’d likely be using the Departing top tab, but you can also select Arriving – for example when meeting someone at a station.
The third Planner tab is used to map out complete journeys, filling in station names in the From and To fields. There’s an Advanced option here where you can specify an Via/Avoiding/Change at/Don’t change at route variations.
The final fourth Settings tab is where you can manage alerts. Alerts is a new feature we’ve not seen before, letting you set an alarm for late-running trains and even to wake you before you reach your stop.
National Rail Enquiries: Performance
We tried this feature by asking the app to ‘wake’ us 5 mins before a Sutton-bound train arrived at London St Pancras. It didn’t.
Other features this app shares with UK Train Times is a 'Get me home' shortcut button, which will use GPS to calculate your present location, then suggest routes to your designated home station.
Omissions we missed in the design include the clickable stations when viewing a journey’s span from end to end.
With UK Train Times, you can jump to any station displayed in that line, and view its current departures information. Moreover, this new National Rail Enquiries app does not give departure information for passed in-between stations.
Live travel information in the National Rail Enquiries app does not show which station you're querying, onceyou've scrolled down the list. Stations are not clickable and no departure times are listed
But another gripe with the layout of this screen is that the station under request is hidden from view, as soon as you start to scroll down the page. This undermines at-a-glance usability when your running for trains.
In the plus column, this view does list platform numbers in the timeline view.
Overall, we found the National Rail Enquiries app to be awkward to use compared to the clear and more straightforward UK Train Times app. It appears as if the developers have tried to make the National Rail Enquiries app more shiny and modern, but have failed to think through usability, losing important cues that aid the all-important human interface.
From a graphic design perspective, its mix of serif headers with san-serif typography is not a pretty combination.
Finally, we found the National Rail Enquiries app to be relatively slow. When directly compared to UK Train Times, train data would take a second or two longer to retrieve each and every time, a spinning cogwheel underlining the additional delay. This app has the feel of one developed for a different phone platform, then ported across.
The National Rail Enquiries app is available at no cost from the iTunes App Store, but with in-line advertising. An in-app purchase of £4.99 will remove the annoying adverts.
We're left wondering why Train Information Services Ltd, the company behind National Rail Enquiries, saw fit to disown a great iPhone app and replace it with something decidely second-rate.