Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Bad Timing?

Timing points are the foundation of the entire bus service. Without them, chaos would reign, for drivers and for passengers.

Yellow Buses will again be at selected timing points this morning to hand out YB Valentines cards & red roses. The winner of the deliberately corny card poem competition, centre, is actually an EFL teacher and not one of the students!

Yet, there seems to be a tendency in some areas to reduce the number of timing points in a public timetable. The reasons an operator may choose to do this could be:
  • Timetables with a large proportion of timing points are more prone to punctuality problems, as drivers arrive either early or late. There’s reduced scope for passengers to be cheesed off or a driver to need to make alterations.

  • Where there is likely to be punctuality problems, why create a rod for your own back by lacing the timetable with unnecessary timing points. This might simply result in a bus compliance monitor clobbering you, something that might even end up at a punctuality-related public inquiry (though, statistically, the likelihood of such inspections remains small and is falling).

  • Where there is actually nowhere easy or safe for a bus to layover to wait for time. In such circumstances, it seems rather pointless in keeping the timing point if it cannot live up to its name.
There are also routes where a timing point has moved away from the natural focus of things, the point to which people gravitate. There is a substitute rather than a cut in timing points because the location three stops downstream, though otherwise inappropriate, is free of congestion or parked cars and may be has a bus layby where the bus can more easily wait.

I’m sure readers can come up with routes or operators that have seen diminishing numbers of timing points (and a consequent lengthening of gaps between those that remain).

While there may be sound operational reasons to reduce to the number of timing points to an absolute minimum,the other side of the coin is just how a new or occasional passenger feels when they are faced with timing points 15 minutes apart (the current maximum allowable by VOSA). At the best of times, it’s difficult enough for a prospective passenger to interpret a timetable. Create gaps by offering fewer timing points and you may not be attracting infrequent or chance users. Set the timing point away from the suburban centre because there’s a problem waiting there you face possibly further alienating the passenger. Where frequencies are high, there’s less of a problem. Infrequent routes combined with fewer timing points may cause significant issues.

The answer, of course, lies with technology. Smartphones and the right apps can give you a stop-by-stop timing breakdown. This cannot be wholly accurate but it certainly helps. Real time information countdowns, where they exist, have an added benefit. The fact remains that older passengers are least likely to have a smartphone. It is they who rely on a timetable.

Where timing points are reducing, has the industry got it right in offering a timetable that is overall more robust and punctual? Or have we lost something because of the reduction in the timing point? Is it operational over passenger needs? Which is it to be: a passenger reference point or a way of operators measuring their performance? It seems it can no longer be both.

21 comments:

Neil said...

There's an argument that times should be deliberately conservative between timing points. It should certainly, to me, never be the case that a bus is running early at any point on the timetable, even an interpolated one, whereas a bit late is fine so long as arrival at the next timing point is right-time.

A timing point should *never* be departed early under any circumstances whatsoever.

Venturer said...

I'm also aware of at least one commercial bod who likes to have different timing points in one direction to the other, again to make it harder for any Bus compliance monitoring. Personally I think that is probably one step too far.

Anonymous said...

"A timing point should *never* be departed early under any circumstances whatsoever."

I know one company who will not punish their drivers for moving on from one of their timing points a couple of minutes early and going and waiting at the next stop instead. The said stop is at a major supermarket out of town complex, where they have problems with lorries parked in the bus layby.

Blocking the road there for too long to wait time causes massive traffic congestion as nothing can get past, and delays other buses of the company, so it's considered best to go one stop up if necessary.

It's not a case of just moving the timing point, as it's the terminus of a major route and therefore has to be a timing point.

The said company is extremely strict with regards to early running otherwsie, I was in the control room once and they were keeping an eye on things. One driver left a timing point early and was immediately written down to be questioned by a manager.


Granted, in 99.9% of cases the timing point should not be left early, with no exceptions, but to just say a timing point should "*never* be departed early under any circumstances whatsoever" is just totally short sighted. You know the local circumstances in every route in country, I guess?!

Neil said...

"It's not a case of just moving the timing point, as it's the terminus of a major route and therefore has to be a timing point."

If a stop is a timing point for one route surely doesn't mean it has to be for another route?

Neil

Anonymous said...

Anon 08:47 said:
"One driver left a timing point early and was immediately written down to be questioned by a manager."

How are times synched between base and the driver? Via the ticket machines? Presumably the driver doesn't have to rely on his watch? Sorry - this might sound like a dopey question but being outside of the industry, it's not something I've thought about before! Thanks.

David said...

They're normally monitored either by ticket machines or by GPS I believe. I assume that modern ticket machines don't allow drivers to fiddle with the machine to have a couple of convenient free passes board at a timing point despite having left five minutes earlier. That was a favoured trick of Yorkshire Rider drivers back in the day. Yorkshire Rider are now First, if you wish to draw any conclusions from that...

The issue is not timing points, in my opinion, it is PVR. My local operator- Stagecoach Newcastle- have very tight timetables to keep the PVR low and, as such, the timetable on many routes is essentially a work of fiction. I'd rather that they added the extra five minutes to the journey time to ensure that buses run to time rather than 20 minutes late (as my 6.58am bus frequently is, inexcusably IMHO).

It comes down to realistically understanding how long a bus takes to travel a journey. I don't know if it is apocryphal but I am told by someone who should know that Go North East set their timetables according to journey times on Google Earth...

Anonymous said...

Neil - but it's a major supermarket complex so it makes sense for the timing point to be there for all routes, rather than the next stop along which is nowhere in comparison.

It's a compromise. There's no point changing the timing point to the next stop along, as that would mean if the bus was early, it would always have to drive on and wait time at the next stop.

With the timing point at the supermarket, in the majority of cases, the bus can wait time at the sensible place. Only when there's something blocking the stop do they have to move on a bit early.

As I said, it's a compromise. There's no point inconveniencing everybody, all of the time, by moving the timing point to where there will never be an obstruction, just because sometimes, there is an obstruction and the bus has to leave early.

That would be daft.


Anon 1025 - yes, these days it's all GPS tracked by the ticket machines. They have traces of exactly where each bus was at exactly what time, and what it was doing. Therefore if you're caught running early, you're for it.

Anonymous said...

The i-bus system in London even shows the driver precisely how late or early they are running in realtime.An excellent tool when coupled to controllers back at the garage.The data which is captured from this sytem is very comprehensive.

I believe TfL now select certain journeys or locations and can instantly see how services have performed compared to their schedules and headways.

Having said that,a few enlightened operators 'out in the sticks' do use running time data to hone their running times.Others seem to have little idea where any bus is once it leaves the yard...or are very reluctant to provide passengers with real reasons on their facebook page why some buses do not show up or run very late !

Eric said...

I'm interested in how operators come to determining how long it takes to get from one timing point to another.

As an example, my local route allows 4 minutes to get from one large village to the next, which is around a mile and a half away. During busier morning periods, it is not uncommon for 15+ passengers to embark on the two main stops in the large village, taking at least 2-3 minutes between them. I've often found that it takes anywhere between 6-8 minutes to get from the one timing point to the next.

When it's quiet it only takes 4 minutes but rarely less than that.

I appreciate that there's a line between allowing buses too much time and having them waiting around at stops (time spent waiting costs money) but there should be some allowance to accomodate busy runs.

Anonymous said...

First are introducing a new timetable on 19 February on service 28 (Taunton - Minehead). I looked at the new timetable on their website and discovered the timing point at Carhampton ( a village of over 1000 souls)has been deleted. Examining the previous and following timing points the 28 must come through Carhampton so First don't see this as a problem BUT if you search for Taunton to Carhampton on their website it returns no service, strange as the frequency is every 30 minutes. Now if you do not know the area you might assume there was no service or you just might discover the competing Webberbus service 18. Either way cutting out this timing point is definitely an own goal
(first sent this morning but that message must have gone to the great bus blog in the sky)

RC169 said...

Eric said...

"I'm interested in how operators come to determining how long it takes to get from one timing point to another."

In my experience (a long time ago!), it often involved driving a bus along the route with management and trade union representatives present to ensure fair play.

Peter said...

I think there are probably more timing points in timetables now than there were 30 or so years ago. In those days it was not uncommon to have timing points 20 or more minutes apart on main road or limited stop stage carriage services.

And does anyone else remember Coventry Transport's (and later WMPTE in Coventry's) habit of no intermediate timing points on most radial services? This led to timing points up to 30 minutes apart on urban routes!

Anonymous said...

Stagecoach South East and, I understand, Stagecoach South are trialling on certain routes, traditional timetables (either paper or on-line accessed via scannable QR codes at all stops) supplemented by detailed timetable case information (again at every marked stop) which is actually stop-specific.

None of this is exactly rocket science but it's refreshing to see in use in rural & interurban operations as well as urban areas (must be pretty labour-intensive and time consuming to put up/maintain though).

Anonymous said...

Apologies if I'm missing something, but couldn't you follow Traveline's example and publish timetables with timing points clearly denoted in bold and a note to say all other times are estimates, and the bus may depart up to (say) 5 minutes later?

This could work wonders on routes such as the 6 in York, where depending upon traffic you could end up sitting at Burton Green for a few minutes, at the hospital for a few more minutes which piles on the journey time. Rougier Street (TP) could then be denoted with arr/dep times 5 or 10 minutes apart. Do they penalise early/late arrival or just departure times?

Michael Bennett said...

Reading buses introduced a £1 flat fare on a few selected short routes during 2011 and I understand (although I don't actually know) that the extent of passenger growth resulted in an overall increase in takings, and that this was achieved in a very short amount of time. Because they are short routes there can be no over-riding. Note that there is no car park in Reading that would cost less than £2 for any sensible amount of time spent in town.

Overall this shows that there is a perceived value for a short hop bus ride, and that both passenger and operator can get a win from setting it correctly. Equally they can alienate customers by not having it available.

Neil said...

"As I said, it's a compromise. There's no point inconveniencing everybody, all of the time, by moving the timing point to where there will never be an obstruction, just because sometimes, there is an obstruction and the bus has to leave early."

But you inconvenience anyone who wants to board when it's early.

No scope to do anything about it, either enforcement or moving the stop so it isn't convenient to lorries?

Neil

Anonymous said...

Given most timetables are now all but useless as most just show departure times and an approximate journey time. Many do not even indicate the route

Old Cynic said...

"As I said, it's a compromise. There's no point inconveniencing everybody, all of the time, by moving the timing point to where there will never be an obstruction, just because sometimes, there is an obstruction and the bus has to leave early."

This is surely the sort of situation where you'd simply advance the time through the stop by a couple of minutes so the bus CAN'T pass through early, then, for contingencies, mildly pad the timetable further down the route at a point where waiting IS possible.

Anonymous said...

I said - "As I said, it's a compromise. There's no point inconveniencing everybody, all of the time, by moving the timing point to where there will never be an obstruction, just because sometimes, there is an obstruction and the bus has to leave early."

Neil said - "But you inconvenience anyone who wants to board when it's early.

No scope to do anything about it, either enforcement or moving the stop so it isn't convenient to lorries?"

Erm, but I already said it was a compromise. I already that that moving the timing point would inconvenience, everybody, all of the time. "But you inconvenience anyone who wants to board when it's early" isn't everybody.

Of course the bus company aren't just sitting there and doing nothing, because it's a problem. I never said it wasn't. But in a supermarket car park complex job, there's really not a lot you can do - they don't built supermarket car parks with spare space for later, do they? I've no idea whether the supermarket enforce it, but if they do, then it's obviously not very effective for the bus company management to tell me about the problem and if they don't, then the poor old bus company had got to persuade the supermarket to splash out on staff for enforcement. And I don't think they're likely to want to fine their own delivery lorries, either.

I only used the example to show that, in some very very rare isolated cases, early running is a necessary evil. I wasn't expecting it to get this complicated and boring.


Old Cynic said - "This is surely the sort of situation where you'd simply advance the time through the stop by a couple of minutes so the bus CAN'T pass through early, then, for contingencies, mildly pad the timetable further down the route at a point where waiting IS possible."

I already said it's the terminus of a major route. I'd like to see someone try and pad the timetable there... They'd have to be no layover.

Neil said...

"I already said it's the terminus of a major route. I'd like to see someone try and pad the timetable there... They'd have to be no layover."

Depending on the length of the route, putting *all* the layover at one end might actually not be all that bad an idea[1]. Not as effective as at both ends, but there are plenty of places it's done.

If it is indeed a "terminus", though, terminating one stop up the road isn't going to really inconvenience anyone, I suppose. The original post didn't state that.

[1] So long as it isn't reduced. So if it'd be 10 minutes at each end, if moved to one end it needs to be 20. The Stagecoach 99 from MK to Luton Airport does that - layover at the airport is very short - just five minutes, not itself enough for an inter-regional coach route with running on the busy M1 - but at Milton Keynes it's 55 minutes. Consequently it tends to be pretty punctual.

Neil

Neil said...

"then the poor old bus company had got to persuade the supermarket to splash out on staff for enforcement. And I don't think they're likely to want to fine their own delivery lorries, either."

A typical modern-day approach.

Most likely the lorries park in the bus stop because there's nowhere else practical/convenient to park. So the supermarket should provide somewhere suitable!

Neil