As a foreigner using the Turkish rail network, I am struck by some of the differences – and what I would term deficiencies – of the TCDD timetable and public information systems, when compared with Western European norms.
Despite the size of the country, the rail network is not very dense. Some routes only have one train pair per day, or only on specific days of the week. So the number of passenger trains run in Turkey is quite low compared to the size of the country.
Let’s consider some of the basic requirements as a passenger:
- The ability to plan my journey either online, or by means of a printed timetable
- The ability to purchase my tickets online, or at a ticket office
- The expectation that the trains will be punctual (i.e. that the timetable is an accurate reflection of what is actually delivered)
- The provision of information as to the punctuality of my train in real time, both at stations and online
- Adequate advance notification of any temporary changes to train services because of engineering work or other circumstances
- Adequate advance notification of the introduction of planned (permanent) service alterations.
Let’s look at each of these in turn:
The introduction of a new online ticketing system in spring 2014has made online journey planning slightly easier. However it is still a struggle. The website is available in both Turkish and English language versions, so most foreigners will use the English version, with a standard English-language computer keyboard. This is where it starts getting difficult, because no allowance has been made for the fact that some of the letters used in Turkish do not appear on the English keyboard. For example, let’s say I want to travel from Izmir to Ankara. I type in “Izmir” in the From field, and “Ankara” in the To field, and an error message pops up – in Turkish naturally – to say “BinişİstasyonuSeçiniz”. (If you are going to have an English page on the website, then the error messages need to be in English as well. Otherwise, what is the point?). In other words, it hasn’t recognized “Izmir” as a departure location. Maybe it’s because the train runs from “Alsancak”. Let’s try that. No, same result. Eventually I realize that the problem is one of language recognition. The station is listed as “İzmir (Alsancak)” using the Turkish letter “İ” and not the English letter “I”.
So eventually I can choose my train. The screen gives me the departure time, arrival time, and the duration of the journey. What if I want to know the intermediate stopping times, as a friend will be joining me en route? Well if you click on the train name then the full timetable is displayed in a new window – but there is nothing to tell you that anywhere on the website. I only found it by trial and error.
Of course, all of this has taken a great deal of time. It would have been so much easier to look it up in a printed timetable. However TCDD doesn’t publish one. Many Western European countries have also given up publishing full-network timetables, but local or regional timetables are usually available, as are pdf extracts or full timetables online. Taking the small country of Slovenia as an example, all their timetables are available online at their website.
These timetables are updated whenever a permanent timetable alteration takes place. Is it really too difficult for TCDD to do the same thing?
As mentioned above, TCDD’s new online ticketing system enables you to book tickets online, and you can either print the out yourself or simply store the ticket on your computer or mobile phone. Ticket checking takes place by scanning the QR code which forms part of the ticket, with all ticket inspectors carrying a combined QR scanner and ticket machine. This is a definite improvement.
Buying tickets at stations is still a slow and complicated business. In order to buy a ticket, you need to provide both your name and phone number or email address. Your name then gets printed on your ticket. Why is this information required? What does TCDD do with the information that (for example) Jeff Hawken has traveled on the Izmir Mavi from Alsancak to Ankara on a specific date? It strikes me as being totally unnecessary, and only serves to make the queues at ticket counters even slower.
Maybe I am being naive in expecting high standards of punctuality to apply in Turkey, but I am very critical of the standard of timetabling and punctuality for many services.
The best-timetabled services are the YHT, although the timetables here also show signs of having been written to meet a target journey time rather than having been derived from the capabilities of the infrastructure and rolling stock. At least the nonsensical 3 hours 30 minutes schedule from Ankara to Pendik was quickly dropped from the schedules.It was never possible to achieve that schedule on the current infrastructure without exceeding the speed limits. On a recent journey from Konya to Ankara the YHT train ran at over 250 kph for significant distances, and yet only just managed to maintain the schedule. Perhaps these timings are slightly too tight, which puts pressure on drivers to exceed the speed limits in order to meet the schedules. I thought TCDD had learned that lesson already from the fatal derailment near Bilecik in 2004.
Some of the scheduling of other services is simply farcical. For example, the line from Izmir to Usak features a climb from near sea level to an altitude of over 900 meters, with steep gradients and curves which bring the speed of the train down to less than 30 kph. However the timings are nearly the same for the train in the uphill direction as they are for the downhill. So trains such as the northbound Izmir Mavi lose between 45 minutes and an hour on this section every night. Because this is a single line railway (as is most of the TCDD network)this affects the crossings with trains in the opposite direction. It’s not just the hilly sections where timetabling is poor. The section from Afyon to Konya is relatively flat, yet the Konya Mavi manages to lose about 45 minutes in each direction every night. Quite simply, the timetable does not reflect the actual situation in the real world. So what value is it?
Another example of poor timetable planning is the timetabled head-on collision between the Toros Express and the Cukurova Mavi between Karaisalibucagi and Hacikirarasi. Two trains are timetabled over opposite directions on a single line at the same time. That is an elementary error, which is known to the local staff, but nobody has made any effort to correct it.
TCDD has a system for tracking all of its long-distance passenger services. The train crew or station staff input details to the system in real time, using tablets or desktop computers. So any TCDD office with internet access and a system login can check the whereabouts of any TCDD train in real time, both passenger and freight. However, far from treating this as a potential source of useful information to their passengers, TCDD regard this as Top Secret. Other railways give a great deal of information as to the whereabouts of their trains, even providing free data feeds so that independent software developers can develop applications for computers and mobile phones to help passengers know where their trains are. As an example, take a look at some of these from around Europe:
The 2013 Annual Report for TCDD has just been published, but I can find no mention of punctuality statistics in it apart from for the YHT services.
Another aspect of real-time information which needs improvement is the “next train” departure indicators on the Izban network in Izmir. Some trains seem to be entirely missing from the system, so the indicator might say the next train is due in 10 minutes but a train arrives in two minutes instead.
The gathering of train punctuality information and sharing it both within TCDD and with the wider public would be a powerful management tool towards improving performance. Apart from the YHT services, there are currently just 28 long-distance train departures per day on TCDD. The timekeeping of these trains is already monitored, so production of punctuality statistics should be relatively simple. Such information should be published both in Annual Reports, and at stations on a more-frequent basis (say every three months). This would not only highlight where the plan or operation is deficient – or in other words show the managers where they need to focus their efforts in improving the performance – but would also engender a degree of pride and job satisfaction amongst staff when results improve.
Temporary Service Alterations
From time to time it is necessary to alter the timetable because of engineering work. Sometimes this is just for a few days, but often it is for a period of several weeks or more. In either case, the work must be known about some time in advance, so the dates, times and effect of the work should be published – both locally and online – several weeks in advance. Certainly it should be in place before the bookings open for any affected trains. I would recommend having a section of the TCDD website where all engineering work affecting trains can be seen clearly, preferably several weeks in advance. Sometimes the TCDD website will show this information, but on other occasions the only advice is a notice at the departure station, and the fact that online seat reservation is blocked.
Permanent Service Alterations
Within the European Union the annual railway timetable change date is set down by law, and all EU members must adhere to that. So it is natural that any major change to patterns of services takes place on the annual change date (which is in mid-December) or the subsidiary change date (in June). The planning cycle for this is over 12 months long, so it is possible to give advanced information and even fully-detailed timetables several months in advance of the new timetable. For example, the Deutsche Bahn timetable planner now includes a preview of services which will apply from December 14 2014, so passengers get nearly two months advance notice of the changes to their train times. I would like to see TCDD moving more towards this system, acknowledging that it is important for the passenger to be informed about such changes well in advance. Passengers want certainty about their travel arrangements, rather than surprise announcements at short notice.
There is much that is good about TCDD’s systems, but there are still some deeper-rooted problems. As a railway operations planning specialist myself, I am saddened by the poor quality of some of the timetable planning and operations within TCDD. Much has been improved, but there still remains much to be done.
Photo: Senem Özyavuz