Making commuters “insiders”

Have you ever missed your train because you didn’t know what platform it would be arriving on?

I have – and it’s infuriating. It’s happened to me more than once in New Haven, where the train to Grand Central usually leaves from track 14 – but not always.

At Penn Station – one of the busiest train stations in the country that often resembles a zoo – the situation’s a lot worse. As track numbers blink on electronic screens just minutes before a train is supposed to leave, I’ve often been afraid of getting trampled in the mad dash to the train.

New Jersey-based mobile web developer Josh Crandall saw a way out of this. By pulling data from the web site of the rail agency New Jersey Transit, he offered customers a $4/month app called “Inside Track” that would tell them, among other information, what track their train would arrive on. Since April, hundreds have downloaded it.

But when NJ Transit figured out what was happening, the agency pulled the data off its web site, saying it wasn’t always accurate and that some commuters would be misled. Now, Crandall’s customers “are furious,” he told me.

Crandall’s predicament is just one example of a new and wild information age that rail agencies are confronting. They could give tons of information up to mobile app developers – up-to-the-minute train delays, track numbers and track changes, for instance – but what if they garble it or if it’s wrong some of the time?

Metro-North was concerned about this issue several years ago. Greenwich web developer Chris Schoenfeld created a mobile application for phones called StationStops that shared train schedules with users. At first, Metro-North told him he was stealing intellectual property. Then, officials told him some of his information might be wrong, and they didn’t want to be liable.

Schoenfeld’s response: Maybe it is wrong some of the time, but his app has been downloaded by thousands of users.

“This is the way the internet works. Nothing works perfectly,” Schoenfeld says. “If you go onto Google Images, once in a while, you’re going to get a picture of a naked guy. That’s a much bigger offense than, ‘Hey, my train’s two minutes late instead of ten.”

Would you pay a few bucks a month to get inside information about your train? And would you trust that information?