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Darwin: helping the public plan their railway journeys for two decades

For nearly two decades, the UK’s rail passengers have been able to plan journeys with confidence thanks to Darwin, a centralised train information system, which delivers easily accessible, accurate and consistent timetable updates to anywhere in the country.

In keeping with its name, Darwin is continuously evolving and handles many enquiries from an expanding variety of devices, delivering a wide range of services. The success of the system has made it an essential information source for UK rail operating companies and a trusted journey planning tool for millions of people.

The way things were

In 2003, the public used to have to ring a call centre or their local railway station to find out if their train was expected on time. More often than not, the information they got varied, depending on who they asked, so when they turned up at the recommended time, their train could have left five minutes earlier.

Rail operators turned to Thales to develop a system that would collate all available information and make the same data available to call centres, as well as departure boards on every platform in more than 2,500 stations nationwide. 

Darwinian evolution

Darwin’s initial function, to provide passengers with accurate information about their train journeys, met a clear need as inaccurate information reflected poorly on the train operators, but it was always intended for Darwin to become more than that.

Darwin collects data from an array of sources to determine where every train is compared to where it should be, predicting accurately when it will arrive at a station.

Darwin became the single source of information to share that information with train operators and National Rail Enquiries.

How and where the public accesses its information has undergone a revolution in the intervening years. Darwin now supplies real-time journey information to mobile apps and websites, as well as via media channels, call centres, station departure boards and the National Rail Communication Centre.

It has given rise to new services such as the National Rail Enquiries’ Online Journey Planner, also developed by Thales, and created new business opportunities for online ticket purchasing and route planning services. The ease at which journey information can be accessed, together with the validity of the data behind it, has transformed the passenger experience. 

Responding to increased demand

Darwin’s capacity to adapt and upscale, in order to manage increases in volume, new information platforms and advancing railway technology has enabled the continuing development of a centralised rail information system, something that many other countries still do not have.

According to the Department for Transport, rail usage has nearly doubled since 2003, from a billion journeys to 1.7 billion in 2019. On a typical day Darwin handles 3 – 400 information enquiries a second. However, when the railway network experiences atypical days – during major incidents or on a “snow day”, that rate can increase to a staggering 1,500 enquiries every second, as passengers want reassuring that their plans haven’t been disrupted.

Originally operated from a Thales data centre, Darwin has since migrated to the cloud, enabling system capacity to flex, depending on demand.

Looking to the future

Working with the Rail Delivery Group, Thales is now looking at new systems architecture to allow further evolution, taking advantage of new data sources, providing additional information for more passengers and capitalising on Network Rail’s embrace of digital transformation.

As pandemic regulations have eased, passengers are returning to the railways. Darwin will continue to develop to cope with future demand while presenting new opportunities for rail operators to develop services and continue to make the railways a convenient way to travel.