Feb 13, 2008

Bad Transport Websites; Missing Train Schedules

I am writing a piece on Metro Manila for an online travel guide. It's pretty interesting, because I learned more about the broken services in our city.

For instance, yesterday I discovered that we do not have a website for our international airport (which our friend Urbano dela Cruz found out a year ago).

Today, I discovered how lousy our government websites really are.

But before we launch into this, let's first do some comparisons. In California, Australia, UK and other countries with rail systems, they post trip information (schedules, fares, contact numbers) in their websites. They also publish maps indicating the stops.
The picture above is of BART (Bay Area Rapit Transit) that serves San Francisco and the Bay Area in California. Let's compare:
  • BART has a terminal right in the middle of the airport. Our light rail does not.
  • BART's website, if you look closely, contains a tool for finding schedules and destinations on the upper left corner of the site, which, in usability, is a prominent location. This makes the information easily findable.
  • The main buttons on BART's website are: Stations & Schedules, Tickets, Rider Guide, News, and About BART. PNR's cluttered website has: (top navigation) Services, Projects, News, Search; and a secondary navigation bar on the left, containing: About Us, PNR Officials, Directory (where the station information is hidden away), Government Links, Jobs, Feedback and Mail.
Even without lessons from other countries, it is common sense in any sane public service to anticipate what information and assistance the public will need, and that this information be easily accessible or findable, especially in a medium like the web.

Our 4 Rail Systems

We essentially have 4 rail systems: LRT1, LRT2, MRT3 (servicing the metropolis) and the Philippine National Railways (PNR), which traverses most of Luzon. If memory serves me right, Asia's first extensive rail system was built right here in the Philippines, to carry produce like sugar cane, rice, copra and tobacco (the first tracks resulted from a decree by the King of Spain in 1875, according to the PNR website). This linked Pangasinan, Tarlac, Pampanga, Bulacan, Manila and all the way to Legazpi in Bicol. (The first light rail in Asia was supposed to be the ones operated by Meralco in Escolta).

I remember in the 1970s that the train in our town (San Fernando, Pampanga) still brought passengers to as far as Legazpi. What happened after that? Why did our rail system fall into disrepair?

Finding Useful Train Information

I am not yet sure about the answer to the questions above. What I would like to talk about here is the difficulty of finding useful information for passengers. Ironically, I can get more info about the schedules of BART in San Francisco than our schedules at PNR or MRT3.

Web Usability of our Train Websites

The PNR website is ugly, unfriendly to Firefox or Safari (I could not even click the tabs), and largely full of useless information. Instead of giving schedules and terminals, for example, it gives out the names of its officials and its Vision and Mission. Who cares? We just want to get from A to B!

Actually, PNR does give out a list of telephone numbers for something called MLS, which appear to be stations -- but how will travellers know that this information is hidden under a button called MLS that is in turn hidden in a button called directory?

LRT1, LRT2 and MRT3 are a testament to the lack of communication, careful planning and smooth transition among our government officials and agencies. While the officials and agencies squabble, these three light rail systems do not have a unified ticketing. Nor do they have a unified website.

LRT1 and LRT2 reside on the same website, because they are operated by the Light Rail Transit Authority (LRTA). LRTA's website is a bit more neat in design than PNR's. It also had schedules for LRT1 and LRT2.

However, if you try a web search for "LRT2 schedules" alone, the top results do not point to the correct website.

MRT3 has a website, built no less than in Drupal, but contains no schedule. It does have a funny button named "How to Ride".
Ironically, our train schedules and destinations aren't that complicated, compared to those in other countries. Why can't PNR and MRT3 publish them?

These signs of neglect indicate a lack of commitment to providing really good service to the public, signs that may be seen in other websites like that of the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX).

Realizations from the SLEX Website

My travel piece also had a guide on SLEX and NLEX. Since SLEX is under repair, I wanted to advice travellers when the road works are expected to end. After some googling, I found the website of the South Luzon Tollways Corp (SLTC) which operates SLEX.

There were many announcements, press releases and much ballyhoo about the expansion project... but no expected completion date. This surely is a symptom of lack of commitment to complete projects on schedule!

After more googling, I finally found the expected completion date (late 2008) at Manila Standard's website.


Urbano dela Cruz said...

hey ben c.

I couldn't seem to register on your other blog (couch kamote) but I thought the work of these guys might interest you.

they use Drupal for community participation, visioning and planning.

I met them last week and I could put you in touch with them. (although you probably have your drupal community channels).


Loloy D said...

Galing galing. Very extensive ang review process ng mga government websites, especially sa mga mass transit services arm - and I agree with your sentiments and observations. It goes to show how naive our government is, in general, on how to effectively utilize e-governance and the internet.

I was once in a position to help change things in my sphere of influence. Pero nagsawa na ako at napagod na. Tsaka lumaki na ang mga anak ko. So, another brain drain story na lang ang nangyari. Until we have a Singapore-like realization on how to proceed as a nation, we will never go anywhere.