Your Next Bus

Tuesday 20 March 2007

Dr Martin Siczkowski, Smartcards & Telematics Development Manager, Metro


Have you ever stood at a bus stop in the pouring rain and wondered how long it would be before your bus arrived or even if it would turn up at all? Well, wonder no longer, help is at hand. By simply sending the bus stop number in a text message to 63876 (this spells METRO on your keypad) you will get a reply within about 30 seconds telling you how much longer you’ll have to wait. This is all possible thanks to a new system called yournextbus designed and delivered by West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (Metro) and Dr Martin Siczkowski delighted in providing an interesting and informative talk about it.

The system relies on a GPS card and computer in each bus which continually calculates the bus’s location and transmits it via one of 10 radio transmitters located around West and South Yorkshire to a central bank of computers housed in London Docklands. The bus’s ticket machine is connected to the on-board computer in order to provide the bus’s route number to the system. There is also a driver voice system and a “panic” button that can be used to track a bus in an emergency call. Some buses are now fitted with GPRS.

The central computer holds details of all bus timetables which are provided and updated fortnightly by the bus operators. Altogether the system takes in 5GB of raw data in 2,600 files from 16 different sources in four differing formats to update the central SQLServer database. As well as SMS text (Martin was quick to point out that Metro makes no money on calls!), the system can also be accessed using WAP or the Metro website. The data in the system is also used to drive bus station displays and displays in bus shelters in town centres.

Another aspect of the system is the ability to feed into the control of traffic lights. Although buses can communicate directly with the lights, communication via the central system allows such aspects as lateness (and maybe in future the number of people on the bus) to influence the lights. Metro is a member of Real Time Information Group (RTIG) which sets standards for communication protocols within the bus industry - the traffic light application is one example of their use.

The system was launched in September 2005 following a four-year, £16 million, development project. Initially covering West Yorkshire it has now expanded to South and North Yorkshire and is the most used system of its kind in the UK (the total enquiries for yournextbus are more than for the remainder together). There are on average 3,300 enquiries per day via SMS (and rising) and 1,400 WAP/Web enquiries (steady).

Key statistics show 2,700 buses equipped, 34,000 bus-stops numbered (this is a national numbering system), 127 bus operators taking part and 95,000 distinct journeys. Under the title of the “Yorkshire Scheme”, a partnership including bus operators, PTEs and Leeds City Council, the aim is now for saturation coverage of Yorkshire. The overall objective of the system is to increase bus usage by giving passengers improved and timely information. However it is very difficult to quantify the return on investment when so many other factors influence bus usage.

Martin’s talk concluded with a lively and prolonged question and answer session. When asked what had been the biggest challenge for the system, Martin replied “trees”! Apparently overhanging trees have a habit of removing the radio aerial mounted on top of a bus! Feedback from those attending who had used yournextbus was very positive, indicating that Metro were onto a winner.