Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Sogginess of Steyning, but not Quite

Who is the White Knight

Wearing Purple?
In case you are confused, Phil Stockley's company was always titled "Black Velvet"; but he never painted anything black - it always was purple!

But who would want to buy a bus company that has struggled to make money for some time?

Comment from yesterday's blog, posted last night.
 The thot plickens.
 blog postponed from yesterday 

See also, "Are You Sure? ... erm? ... at Shoreham?" (read again)

fbb is at one of the main bus stops in Shoreham-by-Sea. Information is plentiful ...
... but diffuse. There is an electronic display screen but the interpretation thereof is probably a mystery to most passengers. The convention is that, if the screen shows "xx min", this refers to some cunning scheme which delivers actual time until the bus arrives . If the screen shows e.g "1844", this is the timetable time and the bus may or may not arrive at the displayed hour and minutes.
The screen cannot be photographed with fbb's limited skills and an "average" mobile phone so fbb has recreated some of the displays as they appeared.

Before we have a look-see, we need to be reminded that the services using the stop are:-

   2  Brighton and Hove, every 20 minutes
      of which one an hour runs to Steyning. 
      The other two terminate at Shoreham 

  19  Compass Bus local Shoreham route

 700  Stagecoach; every 20 mins to Arundel
      every 20 mins to Littlehampton

 700 Arundel                2min 
sequence starts here.

   2 Shoreham               1004 

This bus terminates at Shoreham which is one stop down the road. It is doubtful if any passenger would board here. But, presumably, the technology cannot delete unwanted journeys.
The vehicles were all branded for the route which is particularly enjoyable view-wise to the east of Brighton.

 700 Arundel                9min 
Seven minutes after its predecessor, and on a 20 minute frequency, we have another Arundel. This one says "Sorry, I'm not in service" on the blind and waiting passengers were, for some unaccountable reason, unwilling to board; until the driver said "Anyone for Aruindel?"

  19 High St & Shoreham Bea 1013 
Compass bus 19 runs to Shoreham Beach every hour. It runs via "High St" which, presumably, is the same as "Shoreham" as shown for service 2. Why the difference? Dunno! It would never do to be consistent in data delivery. But because the 19 was running 10 minutes late it had long vanished from the screen before it arrived. A couple of passengers for "The Bea" turned up a little late and there ensued much debate amongst the assembled multitude as to "whether the 19 had gone". fbb was about to proffer an opinion when the enquiring two wandered off to walk across the footbridge, assuming that they had missed their bus. Two fares lost.

 700  Arundel              15min 

Aha! The third Arundel, six minutes behind its predecessor and followed immediately by ...

 700 Littlehampton         15min 
... the first of the every 20 minutes 700 to Littlehampton.

   2 Shoreham                1024    
The sequence ends with the next 2 ready to whisk its zero passengers one stop along Shoreham High Street. This bus was followed by another Littlehampton, then the fbb's route 2 bus to Steyning due a tad before 1047.
We will join the twosome for their ride tomorrow.

Conclusions? There seems no point in providing these screens if all they do is to repeat information that is available in hard copy at the stop. Spending a bit of cash on good, clear timetables and maps would be far more cost effective. At fbb's chosen stop much of the electronic information for the 2 and 19 was useless.

Stagecoach seemed to be running their prestigious 700 service to an arbitrary timetable bearing little relationship to the printed word! Under these circumstances the real time screen might be seen to be helpful. But if the service is so daftly disrupted as shown above, how does even the real time information help? The passenger has little choice but to wait and see what happens - or walk home.

fbb is forced to the conclusion that electronic screens are only potentially useful when everything is running smoothly. At such times they are, of course, unnecessary if the timetables in the frame are well designed.
Talking of Brighton and Hove and talking of technology ...
My Hero?

"Roger French began his career in the bus industry 41 years ago with summer holiday jobs including bus conducting in London and working at ’55 Broadway’. After University he worked with bus companies in West Yorkshire, Kent and South Wales before moving to Brighton in 1982 and was been at the helm of the city’s buses from then until his retirement in April 2013. He was part of the management buy-out team of the Brighton & Hove Bus Company in 1987 and its subsequent sale to the Go-Ahead Group six years later.

Until his retirement, he was an active participant in the community being involved in many committees, forums and partnerships including chairman of the city’s Local Strategic Partnership, the Brighton & Hove Business Forum, the Hove Business Partnership and the Martlets Hospice. He was awarded an OBE for services to public transport in 2005, an Honorary MA by the University of Brighton in 2007 and became a Deputy Lord Lieutenant for East Sussex in 2007."
Rog writes in the current issue of Buses, a piece headed "Maps and Apps". The essence of his opinion is that modern technology is great; IF it is designed with the end user in mind. So often, he suggests, the technology actually obscures the needs of the user.

His conclusion reads:-

This encapsulates all that is going wrong with these developments. They are being devised by IT specialists, hyped up by marketing professionals but not actually tested and used by people who understand what passengers really want.

Right from the early days of fbb's work with confusers (maps, timetables, journey planners), one of his mantras has been, "never let the technology tail wag the information dog." If Rog is right, it confirms that the problem still persists and it's not just an elderly, overweight and technically challenged East Devon-based blogger who thinks so!
 Next bus blog : Sunday 20th July 


  1. I've had to take Brighton & Hove to task for using different stop names, not only that vary from NaPTAN, but also are different on board their buses from those that appear on their own bus stop flags. In the case I have in mind, they were the only operator, so there was little excuse for the inconsistency.

    I've found our local Traveline team very amenable to making changes at our suggestion (we also maintain the flags, so we do go for consistency whenever possible!). But in the example here, it's not so straightforward.

    Notice that the B&H departure display illustrated on Thursday also shows the Compass journeys to Shoreham Beach. But, these are not at the same times as those shown on the Compass timetable. And it turns out there is a good reason for that, for although the Footbridge/Crown & Anchor stop is in the High Street, it is NOT the High Street timing point - that's the next stop to the west.

    So Compass, if running on time, are likely to pass the Footbridge stop BEFORE the time shown as High Street in the timetable display. B&H's departure list, on the other hand, has made a slight adjustment, and if you use those, you won't miss the bus - ever! They've done the same for their own service - the 2 to Steyning leaves the High Street at xx47 (after two mins layover, it would seem).

    Stagecoach meanwhile, appears to use the same time at the Footbridge as for the High Street timing point, unless you look at their journey planning system, where "Crown & Anchor" is a minute earlier. Or perhaps the 700 is always late!!

    So, paper inaccuracies exist as much as electronic ones. What is the answer?

  2. Your conclusion about electronic RTI displays is roughly the same as mine. My recent experience relates to those provided by the German railways, providing details of train services. Given that trains run on an exclusive right of way, with an electronic signalling system, one would assume that the relevant information (i.e. where a particular train is at any particular time) is readily available. In practice, the on-platform screens in the area where I live only give information about delays to the nearest 5 minutes (the online timetable on the DB website is more precise). Accuracy diminishes with increasing length of delay.

    Perhaps it is understandable. If the train is running, but ten minutes late, then the systems seem to be able to cope with that and add ten minutes to the departure times from the stations ahead of its current location. Attempting to estimate possible recovery of lost time would probably not be worthwhile. But if the train is stopped because the line is blocked, e.g. due to a suicide - a tragically frequent occurrence - then, probably nobody knows when the train will be able to move again. Sometimes the RTI displays (online and on-platform) provide an appropriate message to this effect, but sometimes it appears a long time after the initial cause of the delay. A recent incident demonstrated exactly this - the incident occurred at around 07:00; but there was no mention of it when I looked at the website at 07:30. At the station by 08:00, the RTI provided limited information, some of which was misleading, if not actually incorrect.

    The problem, of course, is that we can generally take the 5 or 10 minute delays in our stride, and it is not worth changing plans because of them - so the RTI is of no real value. If the delay is significantly greater, when it might be wise to consider changing plans, then the information is inaccurate or not available. So why bother going to the trouble and expense of providing it?

  3. In my hometown (Nuremberg, Germany) real-time-displays were installed in 2006 (in time for the football world cup) and I don't want to miss them any day. They have some glitches (for example subway trains starting at intermediate terminals do not show up unitl they have booked in to the system). But once you know these it becomes very easy to judge, if
    - the system is running smoothly and on time.
    - there are slight delays (so waiting a bit makes sense)
    - there are bigger disruptions (walking or looking for other routes is in order).

    The screens are also used to show information about planned changes or disruptions elswhere in the system. For example it informs you if the "Steinbuehler Tunnel" is flooded again and you should use the alternative route to get to "Gibitzenhof" before you go to "Plaerrer" and find out that tramways are not running.

    I have to agree with RC169 that RTI on the German Railway system is not up to that standard. I assume part of the problem is that the railway network is much bigger and sometimes local knowledge is missing. (Apart from the general problem of underinvestment in the Mehdorn-era.)

    I am less happy about the automated subway system in Nuremberg though. In my experience it is much less reliable as the old line which still has train drivers. This does seem to be a case of too much technology for me.

  4. I am not seen any confirmation today as to the purchaser. of Velvet. the company website simply says they have new owners and are back on the road. tweets make all sorts of guesses!

    Is the resumption just on their commercial service/s?

    Where contracted services are concerned I would have expected the local authorities to cancel the existing contracts once they were advised of the company's failure. This would normally be required within the actual contract. So it will be interesting to see just what the new owners have actually purchased.

    I can't see those who have stepped in simply allowing Velvet to take it all back!

  5. RTI systems can have a real passenger benefit IF all the buses using the stop are equipped with tracking facilities. In the early days of the ROMANSE project in Southampton, I recall observing passenger discussions in Portswood High Street where passengers were making intelligent choices, based on the information on the screens.

    The sort of decisions were 'The bus that goes round the houses isn't due for another 7 minutes, so we will be better to catch the main road bus that's coming in 4 minutes'. Where there is a real choice of route (and suitable interavailability of tickets), then real time info can be a positive help.

  6. I have a little insight into how these electronic systems are set up & run so I can give a clarification of some of the issues. For these systems to work you have to allocate a time to every bus stop using a scheduling system that can give a suitable output (which a number of operators, particularly smaller ones, don't have so are difficult to participate). This is generally done by the operator as it has to integrate with the operators schedules & systems to ensure it can work. These intermediate stop times are estimated by the operator and as they are not used as timing points and so not available for the driver will tend to be slightly back loaded to reduce the likelihood of buses getting in front of the estimated times. The system simply takes these estimated running times for the journey (and each journey can be set up individually so peak traffic can be accounted for) and use these estimated running times & the reported GPS location of the vehicle to estimate an arrival time at each stop. If there is unusual traffic build-up then the estimated time will keep sliding & not flow in a sensible manner as the running times aren't matching what is expected. These systems can be temperamental as it needs to match the details entered by the driver on the bus with the base data loaded into the system and a single incorrect digit will throw it out and cause a bus not to report, which will result in the standard time being displayed rather than the estimated minutes. If the system is based on the operators duty data (rather than simply the timetable with schedules loaded on) then it can forward estimate the running times of the inbound bus to provide estimated times of the return bus but not all systems will work like this or operators supply data in this form.

    The problem is these systems are still being developed and aren't yet fully robust (or the base data supply systems anywhere near universal - even some of the big groups can't supply data to one of the most widespread RTI systems at the moment as they use different scheduling systems) but they are politically popular with local authorities, relatively cheap for their political pull & comparatively easy for them to implement (as opposed to the slightly more complicated operator interface but the operator gets a Real-time vehicle tracking to help with monitoring so it is in their interests & don't many see the positives) with off the shelf technology. The one problem is that the roll out of these systems gives people a false sense of what is possible, exemplified by the drive for on-bus audio-visual announcements because they believe this to be an minor step rather than a major push of the technology. My employers have real-time tracking system which is starting to connect with roadside signs but our tracking rate is still a bit spotty, whilst the more urban operations are getting tracking rates close to universal some of the more rural depots are struggling to hit 80% tracking (so 1in4 journeys aren't reporting over the day) which limits the usefulness of the system (either due to driver error, GPS tracking loss, faulty equipment - the aerials can be delicate - or other reasons) and until the reliability of the tracking rate can be raised across the board it is not worth widening the systems running off it or to totally rely on it by removing non-reporting journeys as it is more likely to be not tracking than not running. The issue is that these problems will often only appear in service so it has to be implemented and up and running to highlight what problems exist and to ensure it is robust, it may well work in the lab or computer simulation whilst the first step into the real world brings issues that no one considered likely to appear.