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Enhancing public transport with reliable and accurate RTPI

Posted: 19 August 2016 | Jim Grieve, Programme Manager, SEStran & Stuart Maxwell, Director, WYG Ltd. | 1 comment

BustrackerSEStran is a regional fleet management and live bus information system covering south-east Scotland. Jim Grieve, Programme Manager at SEStran and Stuart Maxwell, Director of WYG Ltd, explore the challenges associated with delivering a successful long-term, multi-stakeholder public sector transport project of this type against a backdrop of significant capital and revenue budget cuts; evolving systems and communications options; and changing stakeholder aspirations…

Live travel information can help passengers chose alternative routes if disruption occurs on their desired route

BustrackerSEStran is a regional fleet management and live bus information system covering south-east Scotland. Jim Grieve, Programme Manager at SEStran1 and Stuart Maxwell, Director of WYG Ltd, explore the challenges associated with delivering a successful long-term, multi-stakeholder public sector transport project of this type against a backdrop of significant capital and revenue budget cuts; evolving systems and communications options; and changing stakeholder aspirations.

SEStran (the South East Scotland Transport Partnership) is one of seven Regional Transport Partnerships (RTPs) in Scotland set up by the Transport (Scotland) Act 2005 with a core remit to develop a Regional Transport Strategy (RTS). SEStran covers a wide range of geographical locations from the highly urban Edinburgh city centre, to the rural Borders. A main aim of the RTS is to promote transport policies and measures that support regional growth; provide a transport system that allows the economy to function efficiently and enables all societal groups to share in the region’s success through high-quality access to services and opportunities; respects the environment; and contributes to better health. Achieving this requires public transport improvements that enhance the range, quality and reliability of services across the area.

The bus network in the region serves an area of very mixed urban/rural character. It is delivered by a mixed economy of bus operators of significantly varying sizes. Stagecoach and First Bus are the largest commercial regional operators. Edinburgh is predominantly served by the publically-owned Lothian Buses – City of Edinburgh Council being the major share – holder. Through its Regional Transport Strategy, SEStran was mandated to develop a system similar to the successful City of Edinburgh Council /Lothian Buses project already operating in and around Edinburgh. The new SEStran system would cover the region and be open to multiple bus operators whilst respecting commercial confidentiality. The feasibility report recommended a 1,000 bus system with 600 real-time passenger information displays and 150 traffic signal priority junctions.

Initial implementation

The budget for Phase 1 was £6 million and included 500 buses and 100 on-street signs. Following government elections in 2008, changes to all RTP funding arrangements resulted in specification amendments to reduce capital costs. Since then SEStran has successfully secured funding from local authority partners, the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the Bus Investment Fund (BIF). The project currently includes:

  • The core regional system platform hardware and software
  • All Stagecoach and First bus services operating in the region
  • Three on-street electronic bus stop signs
  • Bus operator fleet management tools and integrated voice communications
  • 135 off-network TFT passenger information screens within a wide range of public and commercial premises
  • Web/mobile and app-based passenger information providing flexible and immediate access to live bus stop departure times for SEStran-equipped buses operating across an area spanning Edinburgh, Carlisle, Glasgow and Dundee; 24/7 scheduled bus stop departure times for all First and Stagecoach services at every bus stop in the SEStran region; relevant service disruption information affecting your stop when you make your mobile/web query; and location and street named based searches to find relevant stops in the area
  • A live link providing bustrackerSEStran information on the national TravelineScotland ‘NextBuses’ mobile app.

The initial deployment focused on major bus operators but SEStran is committed to an inclusive system providing live bus departure information for all bus operators across the region. With over 45 independent bus operators delivering more than 600 registered commercial and subsidised services, this poses an ongoing technical and administrative challenge.

Consultation with small operators also revealed different operational requirements. For example, smaller operators do not require the comprehensive fleet management tools used by larger operators, preferring a ‘lighter touch’ solution that does not require SEStran’s on-bus hardware. The increasing availability of GPS/GPRS/3G enabled ticket machines and growing support for SIRI data interface standards offers a potential way forward in this area. However, it could increase rather than reduce the ongoing data management challenge for SEStran to maintain the accuracy and timeliness of underlying data and live bus predictions.

Changes of direction

In 2014 Stagecoach started to roll-out a ticket-machine-based fleet management and live bus information system across their entire UK fleet. Deployment in Stagecoach Fife was programmed for 2015. SEStran immediately recognised the significant implications and risks for the regional project but also saw an opportunity to expand bustrackerSEStran following another successful BIF 2014 bid. 

BustrackerSEStran was modified to accept a SIRI Vehicle Monitoring (VM) data feed supplied by the new Stagecoach system. This ensured bustrackerSEStran could continue to calculate and disseminate live departure times for all Stagecoach services across the region. In addition, the new SIRI VM interface provided a suitable platform to integrate smaller bus operators using the ‘light touch’ ticket-machine-based approach aforementioned. The successful 2014 BIF bid also included the transfer of the Stagecoach on-bus equipment to First Scotland East.

This meant that by March 2016 bustrackerSEStran included all First and Stagecoach vehicles and offered a platform to accommodate smaller bus operators.

Further development

With insufficient funds to install traditional at-stop electronic displays, SEStran investigated alternative ways to maximise the availability and impact of live bus information. This resulted in another successful £500,000 BIF bid to implement an alternative low-cost, Internet-based digital signing initiative.

The project is currently being delivered and will provide 250 digital signs in key public locations across all eight SEStran partner authority areas. Typical sites include hospitals, sports centres, libraries and schools, etc. This flexible, cost effective solution will then be marketed on a commercial basis to generate an ongoing revenue stream to support and expand the bustrackerSEStran system. A small number of commercial signs have already been successfully installed in retail centres, tourist attractions, theatres, offices etc.

Key features of the digital sign network

SEStran creates a branded, personalised sign configuration for each customer that displays the following:

  • Live bus and, if appropriate, rail information from a selection of nearby stops/stations
  • Marketing material or other location specific information supplied by the customer
  • Selected ticker/news/weather feeds.

The customer provides the power and Internet connection and installs the screen/computer hardware. This is issued free-of-charge by SEStran as part of the project but some commercial customers have also provided the screen and computing hardware. SEStran configures the individual signs to the customer’s requirements, commissions the screen and manages the back-office system. Pro-active customers can manage their own screen content, if they wish. They cannot, however, amend the public transport information elements. 

Live travel information can help passengers chose alternative routes if disruption occurs on their desired route

Live travel information can help passengers chose alternative routes if disruption occurs on their desired route

The digital signing initiative is extremely effective as it achieves the following:

  • Builds on previous investment
  • Provides a low-cost deployment model
  • Raises the profile and increases the coverage of the bustrackerSEStran system
  • Builds partnerships with local businesses
  • Offers a potential revenue stream.
Enhancing public transport with reliable and accurate RTPI

This travel information board at Borders College helps travellers plan their journeys effectively

Partnership with others The project offers significant added value to TravelineScotland due to the live data link implemented under a previous phase. This means all newly equipped/monitored buses will immediately deliver live bus times on TravelineScotland’s national web and mobile services. The TravelineScotland system is reliant on the underlying local authority and regional bus systems, such as BusTrackerSEStran, for the delivery of live bus information at a national level.

Furthermore, SEStran is using TravelineScotland’s national data set to provide the baseline scheduled service and timetable information for small bus operator services. This TravelineScotland Transxchange file includes all service registrations and is updated on a weekly basis. SEStran will compare live SIRI VM feeds from small operators with this data set to generate live bus predictions within bustrackerSEStran.

SEStran also has eight local authority partner authorities including:

  • City of Edinburgh Council
  • Fife Council
  • East Lothian Council
  • Midlothian Council
  • West Lothian Council
  • Falkirk Council
  • Clackmannanshire Council
  • Scottish Borders Council.

The BusTrackerSEStran project has demonstrated significant levels of partnership working at all stages of the project, from feasibility to commissioning. The digital signing initiative demonstrates that SEStran is pro-active in seeking new partners to exploit the ongoing potential of the system and previous investment. This will continue as the project grows, and will be maintained after it reaches full-fleet deployment. This is because the BusTrackerSEStran system is a live system that directly impacts the day-to-day activities of bus operators, public sector transport officers, digital signing partners and, ultimately, the travelling public.

Benefits of delivering live bus information

Quantifying the value of live bus information has been notoriously difficult owing to the fact that projects are often delivered as part of a wider package of improvements. Nevertheless, numerous studies have linked live bus information with patronage growth. The scale of predicted benefits varies from 3-15%, but the impact is invariably positive.

However, there is now another indicator of the economic benefits of live bus information as the quantitative benefits are defined in the latest UK ‘WebTag’ guidance. WebTag is used when assessing and comparing the economic benefits of government funded transport projects using multi-modal transport models. The need for accurate and reliable real-time passenger information has long been assumed but the fact that the Department for Transport assigns a quantifiable, positive value to live bus information within multi-modal models helps reinforce the case.

The benefits of accurate and reliable live bus information can also be judged by the response from the travelling public. The City of Edinburgh/Lothian Buses BusTracker system is noted for its accuracy and reliability and for the popularity of its mobile applications. It has become an everyday part of using the public transport network in and around Edinburgh.

Enhancing public transport with reliable and accurate RTPI

The SEStran Regional RTPI system has been specified to deliver passenger information of the same quality as that provided by the City of Edinburgh/Lothian Buses BusTracker system. That system also benefits from full fleet coverage. Full fleet coverage improves public perception because buses do not run ‘invisibly’ – a problem noted by the UK Passenger Focus report ‘Bus Passengers’ Experience of Delays and Disruption’. SEStran now has full fleet coverage of the major bus operators and is working to also include all smaller operators. SEStran has already received requests from bus passengers for small operators to be added to the system. This indicates customer support for the project overall.

In addition the bustrackerSEStran app was downloaded 1,400 times during a four-week promotional period. This is the beginning of a co-ordinated marketing campaign to market the BusTrackerSEStran system. However, bustrackerSEStran app and website statistics do not tell the complete story. As aforementioned, TravelineScotland – the national public transport information service – uses bustrackerSEStran live bus information within its own website and mobile applications. In addition, bustrackerSEStran is the source of all scheduled and live bus information shown on the increasing number of SEStran digital signs. From the perspective of social inclusion, SEStran has been successful in attracting funding from the ERDF whose priorities include social inclusion and accessibility issues across rural and urban areas (ERDF Priorities 3 and 4). SEStran is therefore committed to providing an equitable live bus information level of service across the region. Full fleet coverage, combined with affordable web, mobile and digital signing services, will help deliver this.

Conclusions

As with any project bustrackerSEStran has evolved from its original concept to adapt to changing economic and technological landscapes. By any objective measure it has been a success, increasing bus patronage whilst itself attracting large numbers of users for its applications. This success was recognised in 2014 when the project was voted ‘Local Authority Bus Project of the Year’ by the UK Bus Awards. Key to that success has been a close working partnership between public and private sector agencies; adaptability in the face of those changing landscapes; and a willingness to think ‘outside the box’ to overcome obstacles.

SEStran recognise that the perception of public transport is significantly enhanced when the system offers reliable and accurate live bus information for ‘every bus at every stop, 24/7’. Live bus information then truly becomes part of the users’ everyday travelling experience. That is SEStran’s ultimate aspiration.

Reference 1. www.sestran.gov.uk

Jim-GrieveJim Grieve is a Chartered Civil Engineer with extensive experience in transport and infrastructure engineering. He has operated at senior management level in local authorities for over a decade, managing a wide range of technical and professional services related to local authority civil and transportation engineering. Jim was appointed Head of Transport at the City of Edinburgh Council (CEC) in 2007. In 2009 Jim left ECC to form his own property renovations company which carried out a number of property renovations. However, keen to return to mainstream project management and engineering and to resume involvement in major projects, Jim stepped in to the role of Programme Manager at SEStran at short notice. Since then he has taken charge of a demanding portfolio of projects, including many EU-funded initiatives and is working closely with a wide range of partners in the UK and Europe.

Maxwell-S1Stuart Maxwell is a Director with WYG (Environment Planning Transport) Ltd. He has 30 years’ experience of traffic signals, urban traffic control and AVL/RTPI systems gained across public and private sectors. His bus AVL/RTPI projects include the specification and project management of SEStran (busttrackerSEStran); City of Edinburgh Council/Lothian Buses (MyBusTracker); and Hertfordshire County Council’s AVL/RTPI/Smart Ticketing project.

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