National Rail Enquiries: Snow day busier than 7/7

Snow service today
Snow service today

National Rail Enquiries' Head of Online Services has told TechRadar that he is sorry for the frustration of those who could not get traffic information as snow hit the nation, confirming that the level of traffic was far in excess of that on the day of the 7/7 London bombings.

National Rail Enquries is the official source for the UK's train times and timetables, but as the nation was engulfed in white, its pivotal role as the provider of real time travel information saw its traffic spike to a massive degree.

Jason Webb – who is the Head of Online Services for National Rail Enquiries – told TechRadar that, despite serving thousands of enquiries, he was aware that many more were left frustrated.

Next time we'll do better

"We apologise to those people who couldn't get on," said Webb. "The next time we have snow, hopefully 18 years from now, we aim to make sure that we can cope with demand."

Webb explained that, although functionality was dialled down to try to lighten the load on the servers, the amount of people trying to access the service was a staggering six times larger than that of 7/7 when terrorist bombings left thousands stranded in the capital.

"There were a number of remedial actions put in place to increase the sites' ability to serve information, including tuning them at the back end to cope with more and more concurrent sessions," explained Webb.

"We saw volumes that we'd never, ever seen before. [The traffic] dwarfed enquiries for 7/7 and the bad weather of last year.

"The site normally handles 3,000 concurrent sessions, but at points on Monday it was 48,000."

Forward planning

Webb explained that National Rail Enquiries had planned for a deluge of enquiries ahead of the snow.

"What we do is we have a number of calls with both our exec team and also our suppliers and we review what's coming out of the Met Office. Also network rail hold a weekly conference call about the likely impact of the weather.

"We typically switch modes [ahead of busy times]; turn off dynamic content, take away some of the functions that are not really core, because what people really want to know is 'what's happening with my train' and 'what's the latest info on my route'.

"Before we could have put up flat pages [as opposed to dynamic timetables] but now, because we take live feeds from trackside information, we have contact with all the trains. I think flat pages can be useful but it's the real time information that's really important."

New benchmark

Webb explained that planning was already in place for the future: "The benchmark was 7/7 in terms of traffic, but now that's obviously changed. We will now try to easily cope with the kind of demand that we got on Monday.

"What we do is a full architecture review, considering things like new servers or new technologies so that we can cope with this level of demand.

"That's the challenge that we're laying ourselves."

Patrick Goss

Patrick Goss is the ex-Editor in Chief of TechRadar. Patrick was a passionate and experienced journalist, and he has been lucky enough to work on some of the finest online properties on the planet, building audiences everywhere and establishing himself at the forefront of digital content.  After a long stint as the boss at TechRadar, Patrick has now moved on to a role with Apple, where he is the Managing Editor for the App Store in the UK.