Railway station lights could guide passengers to platforms via their phones

Lighting-based navigation systems like the ones being installed at retailers including Target and Carrefour could also transform the way we navigate train stations, experts told today's Lighting for Rail conference in London.

Systems based on visible light communication, where smartphone cameras can pick up signals sent by luminaires, have been gaining traction in the retail sector.

The one installed at US retail giant Target can guide shoppers through a store, detect where they are to within 10 centimetres, and send them offers or even recipes based on the products they are looking at.

But while the companies behind these positioning systems - including Acuity Brands, Philips and GE - have so far marketed them primarily as retail tools, there is no reason why they couldn't help travellers in busy train stations – particularly if those stations are also shopping destinations. 

‘If it’s proven to be an investment that is worth is in terms of the revenue you get back from it, I think there’s an opportunity there,’ said Jeff Shaw, associate director of design and engineering consultancy Arup, who spoke at today’s conference.

‘At the moment it’s happening more in the commercial world but that’s not to say it couldn’t happen in rail. We’ll see more and more things being tested in the near future.’

Combining transport and retail is a growing trend exemplified by stations such as London King's Cross (pictured) and St Pancras, where all retail space across two floorsas been successfully let, and an estimated 20 per cent of visitors come just for the shops, without even getting on a train.

Bob Benn, head of stations engineering at Transport for London, said users of London Underground already have the ability to help users find their way with Google maps and travel planning apps. ‘Users can tap into free Wi-Fi on the underground and rail timetables on smartphones. We are planning for the use of smartphones on underground. Whether it’s transmitted through lighting or a radiating cable, the technology is with us.’

Tony Howells, senior policy advisor at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, said: 'It's the service I care about. I want to be able to automatically buy my ticket with my phone as I approach the station. There's a lot of potential for technology to make our journeys easier.'