A guest post by Josh R reviewing the new iPhone app for Manchester’s Metrolink tram system – if you’d like to write an article for Manchester Transport blog, or share some photos, then please get in touch.
I like trams and I like apps. I’m lucky enough though to rarely need the Manchester Metrolink for commuting or getting around, as I have a bike and live in the city centre. Nonetheless, the expanding tram network in Greater Manchester is a key mode of transport for many people living in the suburbs of north and west. Despite this, live information about how the tram is running is something that has traditionally been a pain to get hold of, as most tram stops have no platform indicators and the TfGM website is not mobile-optimised.
The official Manchester Metrolink app by mxData seeks to address this by bringing info about the tram to your fingertips. It’s been on the iPhone app store for a while, but was launched this morning with press releases and – bizarrely – QR codes in the Manchester Evening News.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite live up to the hype.
The app does conveniently include a copy of the map, including the proposed or confirmed extensions. However, it looks a bit like a downloaded PDF: the map key is on the bottom-right of the screen; the icons are too small and subtle unless you zoom in. At this rate, you might end up at Chorlton for the Trafford Centre bus link (when it actually connects at Stretford) or not realise that Mosley Street is a ‘one way’ station: trams only stop when they’re heading out of the city centre.
A ‘surprise’ feature is that you can click on each station icon – but not the name – to get a bit more info.
Well, you can see where it is on the map, but you can’t find out anything about station facilities (parking, bike lockers, etc) nor can you plot a route directly from the map view. You can assign somewhat superfluous pre-defined ‘tags’ to stations, i.e. associate Market Street with “social”, but this has little purpose except to remind people where they might live or go out.
The routing is pretty straightforward and competent, but given that the Metrolink can be traversed end to end within 45 minutes it’s hardly a challenging job, and mxData boast that it’s the “world’s fastest route planner”. You can, helpfully, find the nearest tram stop to your current location, but there are no supplementary walking directions or point-to-point mapping: this is strictly tram-only.
Tapping the line displayed is another hidden feature that takes you to the live travel info.
However, this is where the Metrolink app really disappoints. What people want to know is whether the tram on their part of the route is running on time and when the next tram is going to arrive. Presently, the ‘live’ travel info is little more than a formatted feed from the TfGM website, which isn’t even specific to the suggested journey.
This is the most disappointing part of the app. You’re presented with an unhelpful screen of all the information that TfGM feel they need to throw at you, with little delineation of what’s specific to your journey. In fact, it’s the same screen as the generic live travel info. It does tell you the current frequency of trams, but no information about when the next tram is due.
Contrast this with most London Underground apps. It’s easy to call up a screen that shows you whether there is a good service or otherwise on all lines through a simple colour-coded list.
This isn’t entirely the app developer’s fault. TfGM admit that this information is simply not available, but do say that they “are also planning to roll out a new tram management system… which will ultimately lead to real-time passenger information at all stops”.
This can’t come soon enough.
Ultimately, the app is more Meh-trolink than Metrotastic. Thankfully, it’s free and that means it’s worth downloading because it does have a map of the Metrolink stored on it and the route mapping is adequate. However, it feels very much like a first draft and, given the blaze of publicity, somewhat underwhelming. I probably won’t be tapping on the Share button any time soon.