Designing a digital twin of Newcastle Central Station to understand anxiety around rail travel

In 2019, we collaborated with Northern Rail to create a working proof-of-concept for an explorable 'Digital Twin' of Newcastle Central Station. Through facilitating research with our VOICE® members, we helped Northern Rail to identify and explore why older adults may be reluctant to engage with the rail network.

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Two older women and two older men in a VR workshop with another man faciliating

Background

While active travel is one of the most effective methods for individuals to be happier, healthier, and more connected throughout their life, levels of activity generally decrease as people get older. Despite the availability of public transport, one third of older adults report unmet travel needs in relation to pursuing leisure activities or visiting friends and family. Barriers to travel have been listed as personal safety concerns, fears around declining health and/or disability, the lack of an active travel habit, and the prevalence of car culture in the UK. We wanted to investigate these barriers specifically in relation to rail travel, in collaboration with Northern Rail.

The objective of the project was to create a working proof-of-concept for an explorable ‘Digital Twin’ railway station – in this case: Newcastle Central Station. The aim of the Digital Twin was to engage with a demographic who were currently reluctant to engage with the rail network and to identify and explore the reasons for this reluctance. Through our VOICE® network, we identified a number of people within this demographic who became the project group for the research.

Our approach

  • What are the barriers to older adults engaging with travel?
  • What can we do to help older people overcome these psychological barriers?
  • What could be the benefits of enabling people to travel more often and become more connected?

During our initial research, we engaged a panel of active citizens – our VOICE® members – who helped us to understand several of the key tensions at play, a major one being an ‘unfamiliarity’ with the station itself. This unfamiliarity led to decreased confidence, increased anxiety and, therefore, a reluctance to engage.

We’re the generation that’s got the money to travel, maybe we haven’t got the confidence. So this will give us it.

Through a series of workshops, we identified that creating a ‘Digital Twin’ of the environment they were planning to engage with could help to alleviate this tension, and enable as realistic an experience as possible.

Together with Northern Rail, we co-designed and co-developed a highly detailed, virtual version of Newcastle Central Station, along with an easy to understand ‘User Interface’ to allow free-roaming or structured way-finding; all of which could be experienced in a full audio-visual Virtual Reality environment.

By engaging directly with a cross-section of the demographic in a further four separate workshops, Northern Rail were able to ascertain highly detailed and specific insights. The latter two workshops included hands-on use of the system in which all members of the workshop directly engaged.

The project

The innovation in the project lay in the use of CGI and animation to improve the experience of existing railway customers, and in allowing those who didn’t engage to navigate prior to their journey, thereby increasing their social mobility.

Hands holding a smartphone showing Digital Twin

This project involved engaging with a wide range of people and harnessing the knowledge, insights, experience, and ideas of the public to help build an evidence base. This methodology provided invaluable insights from those who did not currently use or perhaps actively avoided the station, which was an innovative way to ensure that unmet needs were met.

One VOICE® member on the Digital Twin demonstrator:

This would change my life!

This project was also novel in that it used stereotypically ‘youthful’ technology, computer games, to enhance the lives of those across the life course.

You can watch a sample of the interface we developed with Northern Rail and TigerX here.

The outcomes

Through this project, Northern Rail encouraged a demographic, via the research group, to feel more confident to use Newcastle Central Station, thereby increasing the accessibility of the station.

Other highlights included:

  • The workshops retained 100% returning members, all of which engaged with and fed directly into the development of the tool
  • A final showcase workshop to use the Digital Twin tool, in which every member had at least once direct hands-on experience with the tool, with unanimously positive feedback
  • 100% positive feedback that all members of the user group felt inspired and empowered to use the ‘real’ station
  • Confirmation that, as a direct result of this experience, some members felt empowered to use Newcastle Central Station

This is a modern solution to a typical railway question regarding how to pre-navigate complex surroundings (which railway stations uniquely are), for people in general (think VR Google Maps for railway stations) but more importantly for those people who feel anxious undertaking new journeys in environments they haven’t experienced before.

This project has the potential to initiate an entirely new 3D-based virtual way-finding platform that could become the go-to application for the general public wishing to explore large scale transportation hub buildings prior to visiting.