How PostBus is moving into the future
Posted: 19 October 2016 | Simon Rimle, Head of Communication and Member of the Management Board, PostBus | No comments yet
Yellow Postbuses have been travelling on Swiss roads for 110 years. During this time they have become an important part of the public transport network. As Simon Rimle, Head of Communication and Member of the Management Board, explains to Intelligent Transport, PostBus is now taking a bold step into the future and testing a wide range of very different innovations that should benefit the entire industry.
Every child in Switzerland recognises the Postbuses. The yellow buses and their three-tone horns are just as much a part of the country’s image as chocolate or watches. Postbuses have been crisscrossing Switzerland ever since 1906, with the first being driven in the region of Berne, the Swiss capital. Over the past 110 years Swiss Post has successfully developed PostBus into a strong brand that represents punctuality, security and friendly drivers.
From very early on the Postbuses travelled on mountain roads and over the Alpine passes, becoming synonymous with school excursions and holidays in the Alps. The image of a yellow Postbus against a mountain backdrop has become imprinted in the minds of many Swiss nationals, and has been deliberately chosen for advertising campaigns by Swiss Post or by tourist organisations and even featured in commercials.
Switzerland’s leading bus company Today PostBus is the leading bus company in Switzerland. With over 3,900 employees and 2,200 vehicles (ranging from minibuses to articulated buses), PostBus transports 145 million passengers a year. PostBus runs on 877 routes, both in conurbations and in remote valleys of the Alps and its foothills. As the largest transport company in the Swiss bus industry, PostBus enjoys a leading position in various areas. The company considers its responsibility to be the development of new technical solutions and to test innovations that could also benefit other bus operators.
Two major trends are shaping the mobility of the future: electric drive systems and digitalisation. In both fields PostBus aims to find solutions to meet these future challenges. To this end the company has the long-term intention to stop relying on fossil fuels. There is still a long way to go before this objective can be achieved, but PostBus are already in the process of testing alternative drive systems. By the end of 2016 it will have completed a five-year test involving five fuel-cell Postbuses. PostBus has been producing the hydrogen for the vehicle drive systems itself directly on site. The fuel-cell Postbuses (pictured above) have been operating successfully with both passengers and residents being extremely satisfied because the vehicles are so quiet. The cost effectiveness of the vehicles has yet to be established, however, as they are significantly more expensive to operate than traditional diesel vehicles.
At the beginning of 2017 PostBus will begin several years of tests with two electric buses. The main problems here concern battery supply and the performance of the drive system in different topographical areas. Whereas fuel-cell Postbuses and electric buses are still at an early stage of development, diesel hybrid buses are already in circulation in a number of regions. PostBus currently operates 36 diesel hybrid buses. Although they are slightly more expensive to purchase than traditional buses, they consume 25-30% less fuel than vehicles that run purely on diesel.
Whilst drive system electrification concerns the hardware of a transport company, to a certain extent, digitalisation involves software and mobility as a whole. Digitalisation is likely to bring about fundamental changes in mobility; the affected areas include route planning, electronic ticketing, sharing services and mobility-on-demand. Digitalisation is also enabling companies from outside the industry to gain a foothold in the mobility sector and this poses a challenge for traditional companies like PostBus. PostBus is aware that if it does not take action; test innovations and offer digital services, then other globally-active companies from the IT industry will do so. PostBus aims to push ahead with innovations that will be of benefit to Swiss customers and other bus companies; thus developing itself from a traditional transport company into a full-service mobility provider.
PostBus has set up a Mobility Solutions Department in an effort to remain innovative. In 2014 PostBus was also actively involved in founding the Valais/Wallis Mobility Lab together with Swiss Post. The Mobility Lab is an organisation in Sion with very lean structures, whose partners work together based on the requirements of each project. The fundamental issue at the heart of each of the projects is how to simplify mobility for customers. The following partners are involved in the Mobility Lab, besides Swiss Post and PostBus: The Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), HES-SO Valais-Wallis, the canton of Valais and the city of Sion. To follow is a number of projects that are currently running under the umbrella of the Mobility Lab.
CIBO (Check-In, Be-Out) is an electronic ticketing system that works on a smartphone with the help of an app. The service enables users to simply register for a PostBus journey, and be subsequently invoiced for the route travelled. Upon boarding the bus, the passenger checks in to the system using the app – this involves the use of the WLAN router that is already fitted in 70% of PostBus’s vehicles. A smartphone can also be registered via iBeacon technology, which is far less expensive than installing WLAN routers. When the passenger leaves the vehicle the system automatically registers the end of their journey before calculating the price of the transport service. At the end of each month an invoice is issued according to the best-price procedure.
CIBO is a Mobility Lab project that began in May 2016 and will run until the end of 2016. A number of Swiss transport companies are currently testing new electronic ticketing solutions; these include CICO (Check-In, Check-Out) and BIBO (Be-In, Be-Out). In summer 2016 the transport companies PostBus, BLS and SBB agreed to work together to create a common standard for electronic ticketing.
The aim of the ‘Nose’ project is to find out whether the advantages of a smart city can also be of benefit to peripheral regions. Data for the ‘Nose’ project in Sion is collected from networked vehicles and used appropriately. In specific terms, the current project uses the data obtained from large numbers of individual vehicles to determine which sections of streets become frozen in the winter and therefore require salting. Thanks to the precise data obtained from ‘Nose’, it will be possible to save several tonnes of salt and, in turn, money. Individual municipalities are therefore already interested in ‘Nose’.
With the PubliRide project, PostBus is in the process of establishing a network of car-sharing opportunities via private vehicle in various locations in Switzerland. In peripheral regions where trains or buses do not run very frequently, PubliRide can represent an extension to the public transport system. In conurbations and cities, on the other hand, PubliRide can help take the pressure off the roads because fewer people will have to travel in their own vehicle. Both individuals offering journeys and those looking for journeys become members of the PubliRide community. They can offer people seats in their vehicles, or search for car-sharing opportunities, via a smartphone app or on a website. PostBus has developed PubliRide together with the German car-sharing network Flinc. Thanks to this partnership, a connection can be made between car-sharing opportunities and public transport. If a customer is looking for a transport option for a particular journey, they will be shown public transport connections as well as car-sharing opportunities. PubliRide currently exists in six different locations in Switzerland.
PostBus has become a familiar name far beyond the Swiss borders, thanks to the SmartShuttle project. Two autonomous PostBus shuttles have been operating in Sion city centre since 23 June 2016. This is the first time in Europe that vehicles of this kind have operated in public areas. An extensive approval procedure involving national and cantonal authorities was required prior to the test, which will last until October 2017. This process was a novelty for all the partners involved.
The SmartShuttle project intends to provide the answers to two questions: Is it possible for self-driving vehicles to run in public areas, and will the public accept these autonomous vehicles? This applies not only to passengers, but also to other road users. The two minibuses run in Sion city centre from Tuesday to Sunday afternoon each week. They cover a specific stretch of road of at least one kilometre, which has stops, but no timetable. As the system is still being tested, the journey is free-of-charge for passengers. There are eleven seats in each vehicle, as well as space for transporting either a pushchair or a wheelchair.
Security is a key aspect of the project. The maximum speed is therefore limited to 20km/h, and every journey is accompanied by a so-called safety driver. The safety drivers observe the road and would be able to stop the vehicle in the event of an emergency. If needed, they can also carry out manoeuvres using a joystick. There is no steering wheel in the vehicle, however, and it does not have accelerator or brake pedals. 3D maps were prepared for the autonomous vehicles in advance and the shuttle then follows these routes precisely. If there is an obstacle in the way, it is detected by cameras and sensors so that the vehicle will stop immediately. The SmartShuttle project has triggered huge interest – not only from potential customers, but also in the media and among the general public. During the summer holidays, people came to Sion especially to see the autonomous shuttles. PostBus also has very promising regular B2B contacts. It will no doubt take a while for autonomous buses to be employed as public transport on a regular basis, but the first areas of application have already been identified: large company premises, airports or tourist areas.
PubliBike, Switzerland’s leading bike-sharing service, is a PostBus subsidiary. It is not merely a Mobility Lab project, but a company that is already in operation, and currently has networks in 11 locations in Switzerland. Both e-bikes and traditional bikes are available. The self service bike rental scheme works both with a customer card and as a day rental. PubliBike has participated in service tenders for setting up major bike rental systems in the cities of Berne and Zurich – the results of which are not yet legally enforceable, however.
With PubliRide, PubliBike and the SmartShuttles, PostBus is testing and operating mobility services over the ‘last mile’, which means the company is moving away from its traditional area of activity – regional passenger transport. PostBus understands that mobility services and mobility requirements will change in the future, as increasing numbers of people no longer own their own cars, preferring instead to share them. More and more people want transport services that are ondemand, to a certain extent, and no longer pay attention to timetables, but wait until just before they need to travel to find out about transport options. They combine private and public transport as well as travelling by bike or on foot. Thanks to digitalisation, corresponding route planners can be developed with added benefits offered.
In the future we may find ourselves using our smartphone in the morning to order a self-driving vehicle that will come and fetch us from our front door to take us to the station, where we will then catch a train. These vehicles will be electric and therefore silent and emission-free. The time they are not in use is low, which will ease the parking situation in inner cities. We do not yet know whether this vision will become a reality one day. There is still a long way to go. However, PostBus has sensed the wind of change and wants to be there as an innovative company right from day one when a clear course is set for the future. PostBus itself will only have a future if it adapts to meet today’s changing needs and offers appropriate services.
Simon Rimle has worked for over 25 years as a business economist (Higher School of Economics and Administration – HWV) in the Swiss public transport sector. He worked for many years at Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), starting as an apprentice railway traffic technician before managing the Marketing and Sales Department for the Brünig railway line and finally becoming Head of Communication at SBB Real Estate. He has managed the Communication and Public Affairs team and been a Member of the Management Board since 2012. One of his central focuses in this role has been on PostBus’s positioning in its transformation from a leading bus company in Switzerland’s public transport sector to an integrated mobility provider.