Friday 21 March 2014

Isn't Technology Wonderful [1]

Colleague "Busing" [pronounced Bewsing?] writes enthusiastically about the huge benefits of Social Media. fbb is not sure who benefits and what percentage of bus passengers spend their time Booking their Faces or Twittering happily. Readers of this post may just detect a smidgen of cynicism from fbb.

Another blogger ...
... occasionally quotes extracts from Plymouth City Bus and First Bus web sites under the generic heading "Who would run a bus company?" Two quotes from First, published earlier this month, caught fbb's questioning eye.
13 March : Good morning everyone, The 0740 2 from Royal parade will not be operating I'm afraid due to an operational issue. Sorry for any disruption this causes. 

Let's translate that. "The 0740 service 2 will not be operating because it isn't operating." Thanks for the help, First!

On the same day, First gave advance warning of a problem on service 93.
This runs from Plymouth via Kingsbridge to Dartmouth.

13 March: SERVICE DIVERSION: East & West Charleton closed to traffic: service 93 diverted via Totnes Cross: Tuesday 25 March.

Let's look at the detailed notice.

The road between West Charleton and East Charleton will be closed to traffic between 09:30 and 16:30. This is for road resurfacing.
Certainly some of the roads in the area are a tad on the thin side; but where is "the area"?  West Charleton and East Charleton do not feature of First's map at all. These two villages are between Kingsbridge and Chillington.
Therefore service 93 will be unable to travel on the A379 between Kingsbridge and Torcross in both directions. (It will still serve Stoke Fleming and Strete).

Torcross and Strete aren't on the First Bus map either. A road map is more helpful.

So, according to First, their buses can't go "along the bottom" (of the map) and "up". So which way do they go?

From Torcross it will be diverted via the A3122 and A381 via Totnes Cross to/from Dartmouth.

From Torcross? fbb thinks not; as the neither the A3122 nor the A381 serve Torcross. Do they mean "From Kingsbridge it will be diverted ... to/from Dartmouth"?

Got it, possibly! They have to go "up" the A381, then "across the top" via the A3122 to Dartmouth. Now all we have to do is to discern where Totnes Cross might be. An on-line search reveals a War Memorial in the St Mary's churchyard, Totnes ...
... which seems an awfully long way round and is a few miles from the route quoted by First. There are also several references to Totnes Cross Garage and/or Filling Station ...
... which, according to the accompanying Google Maps extract, is in the middle of a field ...
... this field to be precise. And not in Totnes churchyard.
Not very good for passing trade! Despite the efforts of Google Maps to mislead, fbb, in Sherlock Holmes style, has located Totes Cross and its eponymous garage at the base of the little triangle of roads south of Halwell.
Here is the aforesaid fuelling point at that junction ...
... which is at Halwell, of coure, and not Totnes. At this point the significantly diverted 93 bears right then later turns right onto the A3122 to Dartmouth.

But already we have been told ...

It will still serve Stoke Fleming and Strete
... which are back on the A379 coast road which we abandoned at Kingsbridge.
fbb has no idea how the bus gets to Strete and Stoke Fleming and what the implications are for the timetable.

We are hoping the road will be opened to allow the school bus to travel the normal route. However this has not yet been confirmed by Southwest Highways. Therefore until this is confirmed please assume the school bus will also be diverted via Totnes Cross. We apologise for any inconvenience caused due to circumstances beyond our control.

School bus? This one?
Or one of these two?
Or all three of them? Or none of them? Incidentally, First, how does that 1530 "SD" 93 manage to serve Slapton Village without calling at Slapton Bridge? By teleport?
Slapton Bridge is bottom centre, Slapton Village top left and the "map pin" marks the "main road" stop which the bus manages to avoid. Miss-terious? There don't appear to be any stop signs.

Never mind; if you don't quite understand First's on-line notice ...
If you have any questions regarding this road closure please contact Southwest Highways on 01404 821500.
What's the betting that Southwest Highways won't be able to tell the confused enquirer anything useful?

But as blogger Busing is wont to tell us, the great advantage of Social Media is that you can get the information out quickly and on time. And fbb must concur. The deeper question, however, is "does anyone read it?"; and if they do, do they understand it?

No slur is intended on Busing's enthusiasm for all things technological. It is patently true that the internet is very good for disseminating news quickly and efficiently. But what is the point of churning out notices like these that give no information, inaccurate infomation and/or misleading information.

Let's hope that First have posted revised timetable notices on all the stops affected.

Hmmm ... ?

P.S. Two from today.

Due to circumstances beyond our control the planned 'summer' timetable uplift on service 81, which was due to be implemented from 6 April, will not take place.


A tweet from a twit? Sorry, that's not from First Bus. It's from Buses of Somerset; a completely different organisation.

 "Isn't Technology Wonderful" continues on Monday 

 Next bus blog : Saturday 22nd March 


  1. Clearly the real issue is the quality and relevance of information given out, irrespective of how or where it is disseminated.

  2. Anonybus 0324: I'll be attending the 'Integrating Passenger Information' conference in London next week and it will be interesting to see what percentage of the event will deal with the accuracy, quality and relevance of the information provided versus the way it is delivered.

  3. My employers make extensive use of Twitter & Facebook and find it is well used and appreciated and enables the company to inform passengers quickly about disruptions and operational issues. Whilst it will not reach everyone it is the only way to get out information about breakdowns or traffic congestion and it is available (in theory) to all staff and is running on the customer helpline computers so they can see the issues so when customers call with an enquiry they can answer straight away. It also provides a way for operations staff on the ground & at the depots who actually control the buses to get the information out immediately to the customers and not having to go via a website manager and explain the issue so they can add something to the website that will probably be out of date before it gets posted - this may, however, occasionally lead to the odd unusual spelling as these staff are employed for their ability to run a bus operation not their ability to spell and are rushing out a post on top of their main job. Is it better to have a post that may have some spelling errors but is out at a time that is useful or one that is spelt properly but done after the bus should have been passed or one that is never posted at all? We also have a link on our website so that the tweets are displayed on the home page of the website so even if you don't have access to twitter you can see check the latest information via the website.

    Clearly it should not be relied on for all information and on-bus notices and other mediums should be used as appropriate but you can't do on bus notices for a breakdown and you can only do them if you have enough notice of a road closure to get them up with a couple of days notice (I have had experience of roads being closed in front of buses with no notice or arrangements being changed at the last minute with the first the operator new being when they arrived to find they couldn't do what they had been told they could).

    With regard to how the 93 diversion was described it is perfectly possible (and highly likely) that the terms being used would be understood by all locals as the place names are widely known in the local area but not official so would not be apparent to a non-user 50 miles away. All areas will have location names used that every local knows about but that don't officially appear anywhere else (there was a roundabout near where I grew up that was referred to by locals by the name of the company in the office block on one side and that name remained in use years after the office closed) and since these sort of notices are aimed at existing users which by definition are likely to be locals (even on the 93 at this time of year) they can assume a level of local knowledge not apparent to an outside observer.

  4. You only have a limited number of characters and frankly I don't think customers really care that much in the main about whether it was a breakdown, a late arriving driver or any one of the myriad other reasons that mean that a journey may not run. At the basic level they just want to know whether the bus they are waiting for will arrive or not and whether they must make other arrangements or wait for a later journey. If they want more details of the precise reason they can make a complaint in the normal way later as they would have done even if a tweet was not made, it may just mean they had time for a coffee & a bacon sandwich before catching a later journey or caught a different route that got them there slightly later but earlier than if they had continued waiting for a bus that was never going to come. There are issues over how you use social media and the wording you use (the use of uplift on the 81 tweet would be a bit of industry jargon that should be avoided on customer aimed notices regardless of medium - you suspect the 'circumstances beyond our control' mean the TC refused short-notice approval and the company don't want to be making waves though you would expect them to list an alternative date) but they will by necessity be brief, may not be perfectly formatted as would appear on conventionally designed marketing forms and will assume a level of local knowledge of the user that may confuse someone who is not a local resident.

  5. Thank you dwarfer. I would still like to know what percentage of bus users actually refer the "new" media. My observations on buses and at bus stops would suggest that that number is very small. At the risk of appearing totally Luddite, I perceive that such technique are used because they are available rather than because they achieve anything. It's all available on-line is all too easy an excuse; replacing a real effort to overcome the difficulty. Several times I have driven round one of my bus routes to warn passengers of delays. It's called "management".

  6. I certainly do not agree that Twitter and Facebook are the only ways to inform passengers about short notice disruptions. Granted, they are widely used, and some people clearly find them useful, but the first point for such (electronically disseminated) information should always be the operator's own website.

    My journey to work involves a train operated by the Deutsche Bahn. On the DB website there is a timetable lookup on the home page, in which I can quickly enter the names of the start and end stations (on the computers I normally use, the system will remember these so that only one click will be required for each). I then make one more click, and can see the times of the next trains, together with their punctuality. I don't believe that either of the third party sites we are discussing can better that - and DB also has a mobile version of its site for Smartphone users.

  7. Some operators' web sites do have a Twitter feed on the home page, which is fine, but this Twitter info doesn't then appear on the mobile version of the site or the company's travel App.

    I understand for some companies that use of the mobile site and App has overtaken use of the desktop site, so operators should bear that in mind.

    As for spelling, wording, acronyms etc, there is no excuse for sloppiness. Attention to detail is key to getting the information across correctly, so much so that I frequently take an item and re-word it from 'ops speak' or 'local authority speak' into something more customer friendly.

    Operations people must remember that while drivers need to know which roads are closed and where to divert, customers will need to know which stops are out of use, where the closest stops are, whether buses are stopping on the diversion, where any temporary stops are.

    Lots of things to think about to communicate well.

    Pre-planned diversions are sometimes almost ignored by some companies, while others will create bus stop info, introduce special timetables, on-bus info, flyers, etc.

  8. Indeed, preparing the right information is the first step, getting it to the right people in a timely fashion is the next, which of course is where social media can help a great deal.

    Social media feeds (and real-time updates too) can appear anywhere that operators want them to, they just need to specify their websites and apps appropriately.

    Given the growing ubiquity of affordable mobile phones and reliable mobile signals, the proportion of people who want to use social media will increase if the information provided is useful and convenient.

    I have compiled a list of the number of people following the social media accounts of a few of our favourite operators, both large and small, rural and urban:

    Waterloo and City Line: Twitter 18,000 Facebook n/a
    TFL Bus Alerts: Twitter 61,500 Facebook n/a
    South West Trains: Twitter 94,200 Facebook n/a
    Western Greyhound: Twitter n/a Facebook 2,160
    First Devon: Twitter n/a Facebook 488 (new account)
    Brighton: Twitter 9,042 Facebook 1,711
    Bluestar: Twitter 2,529 Facebook 7,039
    Southern Vectis: Twitter 5,734 Facebook 2,794
    Velvet Bus: Twitter 1,378 Facebook 2.042
    Gardbus: Twitter n/a Facebook 146

    Without knowing the respective customer bases, most of those operators seem to have audience numbers that make the use of social media extremely worthwhile. It allows detailed updates to quickly reach a large number of interested people, while still allowing the handling of individual enquiries by one person on duty. Compared to the traditional combination of an enquiry office handling phone calls and sending travel updates for radio broadcast, it can be very efficient and effective, and if managed properly, can free up other channels for less routine matters.

    Once set up appropriately, both Twitter and Facebook allow communication via SMS, so you don't even need to have an internet connection to use them. Twitter seems to be the more reliable of the two (speaking from personal experience) for using via text messaging.

    Finally, the above figures for TFL, W&C and South West Trains, strongly suggest that, even with all the real-time information available for their respective services at stops, stations and online, there is still clearly a huge demand for individual updates and queries to be dealt with via social media.