Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Countdown to Zero - Why Isn't The RealTime Reliable?

I'm in The Strand, London. Famous for the location of the UK's first radio broadcast, and now a mecca for bus photographers who can see both old and new Routemasters side by side in service.
After spending a few minutes observing this phenomenon, it's time to head back to Euston via a 91. TfL's real time information is flawless as usual, as is the huge board at the railway station ahead of my trip north.
Yet back in Brum, things still aren't right.
On Colmore Row, the evening peak is in full swing as the rain lashes down. Commuters squint down the road to see which buses will bring them a bit of relief from the downpour.
For users of the 9 to Halesowen and Stourbridge (including me) it's looking pretty good. There is a usual frequency of every 7/8 minutes, and the real-time information on the the "totem" is showing two buses 1 minute away, a further one 2 minutes away, with a fourth 5 minutes adrift. But as the top two show "due", it's worse than a feisty Victorian lady tempting you with a bit of ankle. The anticipation comes to nothing and there is no sign of our 9s. Five minutes later, both have resorted to "1 min" and goodness only knows what's happened to the other contenders.
There is much mumbling in the rain as the crowd grows ever bigger (there is no such thing as a "queue" for a bus in Brum these days...). The "real time" mysteriously reverts to "timetable time" (almost as if someone has flicked a switch to remove the folly being played out on the totem screen) and it is a full 20 minutes before two 9s roll up together and gobble up two full loads. I decide (fool as I am) to hang around in the rain to catch the next one, which is a further 8 minutes away.
Centro has been at pains in recent times to explain what is being shown on the screens. It explains within shelter information that displays that "count down" (i.e. 5 mins, 4 mins, etc) are actual "real times", with bits of kit on board the bus tracking it's movements. "Timetable time" (e.g. 1135) is just the timetable reproduced digitally for information.
So, what was going on in Colmore Row?
Either the Brummie version of the Bermuda Triangle is at work, evaporating all buses somewhere on Snow Hill, never to be seen again, or something isn't right with the kit.
Versions of this technology have been around for a number of years in the West Midlands. And despite being full of hope that it would bring around a revolution in the way passengers had confidence in their bus services, I'm sadly coming to the conclusion that it is actually doing more harm than good. People just aren't believing what is on the display and are simply ignoring it.
Posh liveries and leather seats are important ways to woo people onto buses, but reliability will always be the number one issue that concerns bus passengers. Real time information (alongside smartphone apps) have the potential to be a game changer. I want them to work. Indeed TfL's London system seems to do just that. Back in the summer whilst I was bashing the New Bus for London on route 24, I hopped on and off for hours - and it all seemed to run perfectly. So why can't we get the technology to work properly in the West Midlands?
And there's more.
Centro's bus stations increasingly use screens with "live" information on them. Stourbridge's wonderful new Interchange - opened last year - is a great facility. But I'm afraid I've lost count of the amount of times the digital screens are showing incorrect information. In fact, I've given up reporting it to Centro. Even as recent as this very evening, the departures for some of Arriva's evening trips on the 257 are not showing on the departure stand - and these are for buses without the real time kit! It should be showing the standard timetable departure. But they're missing. In Wolverhampton the other week, the entire 256 departures weren't there. (since reappeared.)
Does all of this matter?
Yes, actually.
Bus passengers deserve to benefit from this type of information. They deserve to have real confidence in the system. If technology has the wherewithal to track a vehicle (a bit like your car sat-nav) and let you know how long you have to wait, that is a great thing. But so often does it not work around here, it is beginning to become a folly. So when one of Arriva's evening 257 departures actually didn't turn up this evening (resulting in a half hour wait for the next one), the screen simply dumped it, everyone ignored it, and a great waste of time was had by all.
Back to our Colmore Row saga earlier. It became apparent that something was going on traffic-wise as, when I finally boarded a 9 resembling a drowned 6'7" rat, it then took over 20 minutes to get less than half a mile. But here's an idea. We all accept that traffic incidents have a huge effect on bus reliability, and God knows the slightest prang in Birmingham City Centre has the network clogged up within minutes. But our super-shiny totems displaying the dubious real time information also have the potential to scroll information across the display. If a problem is known, why cannot that information be scrolled immediately, for the benefit of waiting passengers? In a similar vein, I've been banging on literally for years for PA systems in bus stations to be actively used to inform of delays as they happen. We know that someone knows about all of this, because the largest operator (National Express West Midlands) has an excellent control centre that is watching the movements of it's entire fleet, and altering their movements, as necessary. NXWM's Twitter feed has also upped it's game and is getting a lot better (although it tends to tweet info from Birmingham more so than Black Country happenings). We also know that bus stations, PA systems within them and info screens belong to Centro, so there is a potential conflict in who puts the information out, but surely this is not insurmountable? Although it may be hard to believe, not everyone does Twitter, and not everyone has a smartphone to whip out whenever there are delays.
Rail passengers have it all too easy. The "real time" works on the platform, and is trusted. The air is filled with announcements, automated or "real". Of course it is easier said than done, but why cannot bus passengers have this same level of information provided, and digital information they can reliably trust?
This isn't meant as a cheap criticism of the transport professionals who work at Centro or the bus operators. I know enough of them to know that they are dedicated people who want public transport to succeed.
But for the people standing in the rain on Colmore Row this evening - mostly without the use of a shelter seeing as that too has shrunk to minute dimensions since the City Centre went for the "minimalist" look last year when it comes to infrastructure - the complete non-believing of the information provided tells a poor tale of what should be real advancement of the bus users lot, but is anything but.
The ideas are really sound ones, but the proof of the pudding is always in the eating. And execution of real time information in the West Midlands is still, years on, left wanting.

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