Giving customers greater travelling confidence with real-time systems
Working with technology supplier Trapeze, First Hampshire has rolled out a real-time passenger information system with next stop displays (NSD) and audio announcements (NSA) over the summer. This system gives customers greater confidence to travel by bus, first of all by knowing exactly when the bus will turn up at their stop and secondly, by way of a written display or audio announcement, so that they know where they are and when to get off. Dervla McKay, General Manager of First’s business in Fareham and Portsmouth, explains how the system works.
In early-2014 government funding was secured in joint partnership with Hampshire County Council, Southampton City Council and Portsmouth City Council to roll-out a real-time system which incorporated next stop audio and visual displays. Match funded by First, the project was set to change perceptions of public transport across Hampshire.
How the technology works
The Trapeze solution deployed in Hampshire consists of a singular IDR unit (Intelligent Data Router) installed on each vehicle enabling both private AVL (Automatic Vehicle Location) and public Wi-Fi communications. This links to GPRS navigation via the ticket machine, which in turn allows for live vehicle tracking and drives the next stop display and announcements.
The IDR contains two mobile SIMs, one for AVL data exchange across a private APN (Access Point Name) network to a centrally hosted communication server, onward into the Trapeze back-office environment for tracking, schedule adherence and reporting. SIRI (Service Interface for Real-Time Information) feeds into the on-street displays and priority traffic junctions, which are managed by the local authorities. The second SIM provides public Wi-Fi access.
On-bus NSD/NSA capabilities allow both two-line LED displays and TfT (Thin film Transitor) screens to be utilised, the latter with the addition of branded images portraying the route ladders covering the next five stops, a live RSS (Rich Site Summary) feed and advertising content, all configurable for a specific service.
The Trapeze back-office environment is accessed through a web-based GUI (Graphical User Interface), providing our Controllers with a graphic, colour rich landscape on the status of each bus/route overlaid on both street map and route ladder views. This enables them to manage the headway of frequent services. Historic replays of vehicle activities assist customer services in managing customer comments. A wide range of reporting enables the operational managers to better plan each service. Some examples include, in-depth views of route performance, dwell times, time between bus stops, etc.
In order to ensure the successful and on-time delivery of the scheme, a project team was set up. The technology was first fitted to a selected few trial vehicles operating in the Fareham and Portsmouth area. During the trial period, several teething problems were worked through, while in the background, method statements for vehicle fitments and the data collection feed into the system was taking place.
One particularly interesting task was for members of the local service delivery team to sit and listen to the text to speech announcements of their local stops. This involved listening, finding errors and giving some bus stops an alternative name to the one listed in the NaPTAN (National Public Transport Access Nodes) database in order for it to be pronounced correctly.
Once deemed a success, it was then time for all the vehicles to be fitted. This was done predominately out of hours in order to ensure that service delivery was not compromised. This worked well and as each new vehicle was fitted it became ‘live’ on the system.
As vehicle fitment was taking place, staff training was being rolled-out, first of all to operational staff to show them how to use the tracking software and the reporting suite. Training was then rolled-out to a select team of engineers in each of the three depots in order for them to complete diagnostic fault finding and applicable repairs if needed.
Once all the vehicles in scope of the project were fitted, ‘go live’ was official.
The system boasts several great benefits for both the Company and its customers, including:
- The provision of free Wi-Fi to allow customers to use the internet during their journey. Customers can relax and browse the internet or catch up on some work while making their journey.
- The real-time information at key stops allows customers to see in real-time, exactly when their service will turn up, meaning no more anxious waits.
- The real-time system connects with the First Bus app available on smart phones.
- The real-time system connects with the FirstGroup website, allowing customers to click on the ‘next bus’ tab and check when their bus is due in real-time, from their local stop, without even having to leave the house.
- Customers with sight or hearing impairments can now see or hear the next stop announced.
- Customers new to travelling by bus can also benefit by having confidence in where to alight the bus.
- The next stop announcement facility can be broadened to include key safety information to customers.
- The live tracking on the real-time system is used by our customer services team to answer queries in real-time about the location of a service on a route that does not have on street displays.
- The suite of reporting tools based on bus stop departure times, has provided the operations and commercial team with a wealth of data to make quicker, better informed decisions to improve service punctuality.
- Services fitted with TfT screens give the Company a new outlet for bespoke advertising and a news feed that keeps customers up to date with the latest news.
As with any large-scale project that relies on many different technologies, it is not without its challenges. Software and hardware glitches were common place in the early stages of the project, but were worked through quickly by the project team. One such example was the fitment of the TfT screen on our Eclipse services, resulting in the ‘bus stopping’ sign being blocked from view, so new signs had to be purchased and installed in a different location on the vehicle.
The system depends on a number of other technology supply companies interfacing with it in order to make the on-street real-time displays operational, the priority junctions work correctly and the data on the app and web-site accurate. Companies such as JMW and Vix Acis are contracted by the local or county authorities and must work closely with Trapeze to overcome problems that can be caused by something as small as the naming convention on a piece of software.
Looking ahead, one of the key priorities is making sure that small technological glitches do not interfere with the operation of the system to the customer – either on street or on bus. Ensuring system reliability is key to keeping and building customer confidence, meaning more passengers continue to use the bus as their preferred travel mode.
First are currently working towards using the real-time software to show cancellations on the street and messaging about incidents that may affect the service turning up as planned. This will ensure we get the most out of the system with regard to ‘live’ customer communication.
We are also hopeful that our local authority partners will secure funding to roll-out more on street next stop displays across the network.
Dervla McKay is the General Manager for First Solent with 10 years of experience in the public transport industry. She started off her career in the industry by joining the FirstGroup graduate scheme and has spent time in various operational and project roles. Dervla graduated from the University of Ulster with a BA Hons Business Studies with HR and more recently completed a MBA through the Open University. She is passionate about driving improvements and delivering the best possible service to her customers.