Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

What can expert rail travelers tell us about passenger decision making?

  Shalaka Kurup (2015 cohort)   www.nottingham.ac.uk/~lpxsk5


Prior transit experiences are a determination of future travel choices (1). A factor that has been discussed extensively in the psychological literature surrounding frequent travel has been the idea of stress – for public transport in particular, this has been attributed to factors like mode changes, time spent waiting, delays, and noise (2). Further, with regards to rail research, this has been credited to operational issues like the experience of crowding (3), or the lack of control over individual behaviour within the travel situation (4).

Research depicts a reduction in the efficiency of decision making processes under stress, caused by the hasty evaluation of options, without the complete consideration of all of the potential costs and benefits involved. However, stressed individuals have been found to be more open to information provision (5). Thus, the key issue here seems to be a question of information use – as opposed to the availability or attention paid to the same. Keinan (6) describes this by outlining specific ways in which the consideration of alternate options in a stressful decision making situation could be problematic – premature choice selection, prior to the evaluation of all possibilities; inadequate time spent considering each option; and the formation of a decision before every possible option has been considered. There is much to be discussed with regards to how personal choices change through the formation of the travel habit, or the influence of real time stress. This seems to involve an interplay between rational and experiential systems of decision making (7) – while choices made prior to the formation of a habitual pattern of travel might have been a function of the analytical rational system, daily behaviour might be proposed as being a function of the automatic experiential system, resulting in the possible selection of ineffective options. Thus, there seems to be an interesting and complex interaction between decision making and informational susceptibility under the influence of stress.

Going back to the specificities of rail travel, there are a number of sources of information that contribute to the planning and management of travel - passenger behaviour and journey experience have been a key area of focus in the transportation literature (3, 4, 8). In particular, significant attention has been paid to areas related to information provision to travellers, as well as the enhancement of the same (9, for example). More interestingly, there has been an increased interest in ensuring that information dispensed aligns with the specific trip at hand and/or personal context of the traveller - De Witte, Macharis and Mairesse (10), for instance, investigated how everyday travel is affected by lifestyle and location within one’s personal ‘lifecycle’. Keeping these ideas in mind, important contextual factors to acknowledge is the nature of passenger’s pre-existing knowledge - particularly with frequent travellers or commuters, to be discussed - and its interaction with experiential elements of travel.

Frequent travellers have been said to have “expert knowledge” (11) regarding their own commutes, resulting in an accumulation of relevant journey information (12). This could cause the development of certain behavioural characteristics, such as a preference for the quickest route on their journey (13), a requirement for more high-level information during their trip, or limited responsiveness to additional information provided to them (9). Here, travel experience is an example of the personal context that modifies information collection and use. The question is: what can these experts tell us about the interaction between the experiential and informational elements of rail travel, and subsequently, the manner in which it decision making? This project looks to benefit from the expertise that comes with being a frequent traveller, and develop a practical understanding of the characteristics of passenger decision making.

The aim of this PhD. is to investigate how information provision can be effectively optimised to match the requirements of a rail traveller, based on their prior experience with and/or knowledge of railway travel, in order to enhance their experience. Theoretically, with the acknowledgement of the influence that an advanced level of knowledge has on information processing and decision making, the research questions asked will be as follows:

  1. Prior provision of background information has been found to influence both individual information processing and decision making approaches (14) – can this effect be seen with regards to the advanced knowledge that comes with frequent rail travel?

  2. Experts are known to rely on heuristics, past decisions and minimal information processing whilst operating within their area of proficiency (15) – does this extend to the process of rail travel?

  3. If so, should methods of information provision adapt to reflect and/or match the different informational needs of a traveller, based on their pre-existing proficiency in rail travel?

Method & Output

Over the years, there have been various approaches applied to the study of passenger experience, and to further investigate concepts related to human decision making. These have included surveys, questionnaires, verbal protocols and experiential approaches.

Current Research

Following a literature review, the first method used was the process of a “go-along” semi-structured interview regarding travel behaviour, journey planning and disruption management. The “go-along” method (16) was implemented in order to situate the interview within the travel context, and understand the concerns and actions of the traveller in accordance with the relevant environment. In this manner, observations and comments of the participants are grounded in their lived experience, providing a more naturalistic form of data collection (16). The interviews began with general discussions about the journey at hand, followed by conversations around the planned questions, with room for elaboration and additional comments from the participants.

In addition to this, telephone interviews were conducted with academics and members of the rail industry, with questions surrounding their perceptions regarding the barriers and enablers to successful information provision, the challenges and opportunities surrounding regular rail travellers, and the future of rail information delivery. This will be seen as a continuous process, in order to remain updated regarding industry-based initiatives around passenger experience, and to ensure that any research conducted will acknowledge the current status of information provision during rail travel.

Finally, an online survey exploring the link between self-rated expertise and information use during rail travel will be distributed within the next few months. This will aim at examining the influence of advanced travel knowledge - if any - on people's preferences for different forms of information during the process of rail travel.

Future Methods

The next few stages of research will involve the use of the following research methods:

  1. A repertory grid study involving the presentation of disruption-themed scenarios (the elements) to participants. Participants will be asked to elicit constructs during the course of this process, which will ultimately be placed in a repertory grid. These constructs will then be rated by groups of rail travellers, during the second phase of study.

  2. These findings will inform the design of an information-based intervention - this will be an iterative process, influenced by ongoing research within the rail industry.

In summation, there are a number of sources of information, that contribute to the planning and management of travel. Keeping the nature of frequent travel in mind, and the specific issues that come with disruption, efficient information provision is crucial. This PhD. will result in the formation of a model that outlines the manner in which personalised information can be provided resourcefully during disruption, to aid the passenger in effectively managing their travel experience.


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  1. Kurup, K., Golightly, D., & Wilson, N. Understanding rail travel through the curation of personal data. Proceedings of the 2016 ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing: Adjunct (2016) 541-546.
  2. Kurup, K., Golightly, D., & Wilson, N. Curating rail travel through personal data: habit and context. Proceedings of the European Transport Conference (2016).

This author is supported by the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Nottingham (RCUK Grant No. EP/L015463/1) and Rail Standards and Safety Boad, Rail Delivery Group, Network Rail.