Sustaining and evolving RTPI outside city environments
Throughout Europe, customers increasingly expect to have access, as a minimum, to live arrival information for their local bus, as well as train, services, with this information being available via a variety of media. Meeting this expectation can pose a particular challenge in areas with smaller urban populations and significant rural hinterlands, where the business case for investing in and crucially sustaining Real-Time Passenger Information (RTPI) may not be as strong, when compared with city environments. In this feature, Clive Tombs – Public Transport Officer at West Berkshire Council (UK) – outlines the approach taken locally to establishing and developing lasting partnerships and applying available capital and revenue funding, to implement and sustain scalable telematics solutions in a diverse urban and rural District.
It’s intriguing and important to obtain your customers’ perspective on the travel information that they require and to gauge their awareness of and views on, the information available to them. Speaking with current and potential customers day-to-day and engaging with them through West Berkshire’s Personalised Travel Planning programme, it is clear that there remains a range of needs, coupled with differing levels of awareness – and interpretation – of various travel information sources. Crucially, there is increasing interest in receiving live bus arrival predictions and service status details.
Located 70km west of London, West Berkshire District benefits from its diverse urban and rural setting – with 76% of the District being designated as an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’. West Berkshire’s main population centres are the adjacent towns of Newbury and Thatcham (combined population 56,500 in 2011), located in the Kennet River valley and the urban Parishes of Calcot, Tilehurst and Purley-on-Thames, which together encompass a population of over 25,000 and border the Borough of Reading. Newbury is home to global communications corporate Vodafone, complemented by other established multinationals such as Bayer. The District is also enlivened by vibrant villages that host a range of SME’s, from catering through to web design.
The substantial rural hinterland, coupled with 80% of routes being part- or wholly-subsidised and a high incidence of concessionary travel relative to farepayers, has however posed a challenge for evolving and sustaining RTPI. West Berkshire Council (WBC) was fortunate that our neighbouring authority, Reading Borough Council (RBC), had led a joint bid to the UK Department for Transport (DfT) that enabled the introduction of a core RTPI system, with separate On-Bus Unit (OBU) tracking equipment, mobile communications and locally-hosted server, covering Reading and adjoining areas including Calcot. Following evaluation of options in 2008-2009, Members agreed to accept an offer from RBC to extend the RTPI system coverage, on a pilot-basis to Thatcham and Newbury.
Rapid deployment followed, on a conventional basis, with the Council identifying Section 106 capital from developer contributions, for depot Wireless Local Area Network (W-LAN) equipment, OBUs interfaced to Electronic Ticket Machines and bespoke colour TFT screens for five key stops – four in Thatcham and one at West Berkshire Hospital. The challenge was to build upon this pilot – to roll-out RTPI to other parts of the District, to more bus routes and to secure finances to sustain and enhance the service.
On joining the authority in August 2010, my first tasks were to evaluate the Thatcham area ‘NextBuses’ pilot and prepare a robust RTPI Strategy for 2011-2016. System monitoring and an initial round of customer surveys in Thatcham in September and October 2010 confirmed a high level of interest in RTPI – with all survey respondents saying that the information shown on the TFT screens was useful and legible – and accurate RTPI predictions shown for equipped routes. Members were appraised and agreed the recommendations set out in the subsequent Strategy to:
- Allocate additional Section 106 capital money to extend tracking coverage to all mainstream local routes serving Newbury and Thatcham, addressing adverse customer feedback about absence of comprehensive information
- Confirm a revenue budget, for maintenance of communications, hardware and software
- Progressively streamline system architecture and seek to minimise revenue expenditure, focusing on making RTPI available to customers online and on mobile, as well as enhancing on-street displays to provide audio output
- Seek direct or in-kind contributions from participating operators, notwithstanding the predominantly tendered network.
Active engagement with major operators Newbury & District (N&D) and Reading Transport led to introduction of proprietary third-generation OBUs to the remainder of the N&D fleet, connected to existing ETMs upgraded at the operator’s expense, and the advent of RTPI-driven audio-visual screens by the operator, on Reading-operated commercial routes 1, 2 and 26. Renewed emphasis was placed on prompt supply of accurate schedule and duty data from these participating operators, aided immeasurably by attention to detail from the authorities’ data management consultant and preparation of a Bus Operator Agreement template.
Being aware of RBC’s aspirations for a travel website, liaison led to a productive extension of WBC-RBC joint working in spring 2012. We identified Section 74 utilities compensation money to create a live bus information microsite, accessed via our website at www.westberks.gov.uk and co-located with RBC’s ‘Travel Reading’ pages, with RBC undertaking updates to the site in-house on request. Website traffic was initially slow, with 1,377 individual hits in the first 12 months but the facility is now much more visible following restructuring of the Council’s website (see Figure 1).
Engaging with colleagues at Wokingham and Traveline South East, WBC oversaw linking of the RTPI system to Traveline’s ‘NextBuses’ mobile web – http://nextbuses.mobi – and SMS text services, which was completed in April 2013. The Business Case reviewed by our Members considered experience and level of take-up in other authority areas. This important development has achieved our policy objective of increasing availability of RTPI, via mobile devices, through the well-established, widely-promoted, impartial Traveline service, which local authorities and operators actively support.
To spur use of the NextBuses mobile services, we have adapted our roadside timetable displays and District-wide Travel Guide – still very much in demand, particularly by older customers – to highlight the availability of live information, alongside Traveline’s core journey planning function (see Figure 2).
On core commercial routes, in parallel with upgrading stop infrastructure, we are rolling-out distinctive ‘iGlo’ sign plates designed in conjunction with Thatcham-based supplier Externiture, to promote the web and SMS streams (see Figure 3).
Requests for local data continue to rise, with 1,118 enquiries made for West Berkshire stops using nextbuses.mobi from 01-31 May 2014, compared with 181 in May 2013 when only timetabled information was available. Similarly, requests made for West Berkshire stop-specific data from third party services, via Traveline’s NextBuses Application Programming Interface (API), show an upward trend from 882 requests during May 2013 to 7,229 throughout May 2014.
When coupled with significant operator investment in branding, new vehicles and audio-visual screens, this package of measures has contributed to patronage increase – for example, customer numbers on the ‘jet black’ route 1 have increased by 25% since the brand launched in April 2011.
With the Open Data agenda in mind, live information for West Berkshire services is also available on GoogleMaps and via the Roadworks website (www.roadworks.org) channeled through Transport API. This latter development has been enthusiastically demonstrated by colleagues in WBC’s Streetworks team.
Seeking to further the development of telematics, we actively participate in the UK Real Time Information Group (RTIG). I recommend engaging with RTIG and other co-ordination bodies such as ITS (UK), who offer a wealth of telematics expertise. Authorities need to remember that they are not alone in trying to do this!
Our latest telematics advance has been the introduction of 19 ITSO smartcard-compatible Ticketer ETMs to our mainstream tendered routes, achieved with the assistance of South West Smart Applications Limited through their Framework Agreement. These machines are leased to the bus operator, who is responsible for all revenue costs including maintenance and consumables, and have enabled withdrawal of obsolescent equipment that was affecting vehicle tracking performance.
Crucially, as well as providing enhanced capability to track ticket sales and record concessionary travel, the Ticketers – with integral GPS and 3G communications and Standard Interface for Real-Time Information (SIRI) output – are a springboard to simplification, overcoming the need to support and transfer separate OBUs when buses are cascaded from fleet, reducing revenue outlay and technical complexity.
The user-friendly Ticketer management portal has also allowed creation of new ticket products, in conjunction with the strikingly-branded ‘Change the way you move’ Personalised Travel Planning (PTP) initiative currently underway, covering 5,000 homes across south Newbury, jointly funded by the Council and DEFRA.
Our Travel Advisors are raising awareness among residents of the reliable local bus network, availability of live bus information (including demonstrating the mobile services to them) and our range of ‘Connect’ tickets. In Phase One of PTP, during June 2014, 235 households out of 554 contacted engaged positively with the Travel Advisors and 47 householders took up the offer of a voucher, entitling them to a free ten-trip ‘FlexiConnect’ ticket.
Key to sustaining and evolving RTPI in West Berkshire – and indeed other UK authorities, outside of major conurbations – going forwards will be:
- Building on the good working relationships that we are fortunate to have with our neighbouring authorities, with local operators and with Traveline colleagues
- Continuing to innovate while finding ways to keep revenue costs down – I cannot currently see us expanding our display estate and believe that the focus should be on apps and services available in accessible formats to the customer via their mobile device
- Disseminating disruption information succinctly and accurately, taking account of ongoing work by RTIG while having regard to local resource limitations
- Ensuring continued emphasis on accuracy and timeliness in supply of data – we are incredibly fortunate to have a dedicated local data management team, bolstering the expertise of our local operators
- Facilitating the introduction of RTPI and smart ticketing to more Community Transport operations, serving outlying areas, tallying with other strands of our Local Transport Plan
- Identifying more opportunities to secure external funding – we look forward to competing for more challenge funds!
Above all, our focus remains on keeping it simple – delivering live arrival predictions to customers, using proven interfaces and media, complemented by accurate messaging in times of disruption and augmented by traditional roadsides and Guides to form our information suite.
Clive Tombs is presently Public Transport Officer at West Berkshire Council, with responsibility for customer information, infrastructure and asset management, network and systems development – including RTPI and ticketing. Clive was the first person to gain the TPS/CIHT Transport Planning Professional qualification through the Technical route. He has 15 years of experience working in private sector consultancy and in the public sector, encompassing specification, procurement, introduction and development of RTPI and UTMC systems in diverse local authority environments, working closely with transport operators, authorities and third parties.