Why we still need to schedule bus operations

There has been much talk across the bus industry in recent times about demand forecasting, dynamic route management and big data. With all of the technology and data now available to us, Kieran Proctor explains why we still bother to schedule buses,

Well, scheduling your operation in advance will give you the best plan possible for any given day of service.

London's double decker bus empty seats

This is unavoidably as true today as it has been in the past, however, the wealth of data available to us may advise a movement away from the ridged service patterns of the past. 

Schedules need to be realistic

Traditional service patterns such as ‘school days’, ‘school holidays’, ‘Saturdays and Sundays’ are if nothing else, easy to interpret. That means anyone stood by the road on a Wednesday in mid-summer can easily predict that the buses are operating the ‘school holidays’ timetable. The danger of moving towards more complex (though arguably more precise) service patterns is that you may lose a degree of that predictability. 

Regardless of the number of service patterns required and created, the work carried out by a good schedule compiler will always ensure that every journey required, for any given day of service, is resourced in the most efficient and economical way. The resulting set of schedules are often then used to predict costs and develop financial forecasts, so it’s essential that the planned hours, miles and resources determined by these schedules are realistic, to lessen the chances of any sudden financial strife for the company. How realistic these schedules are will depend upon how sensitive the data used to create them is to any unpredictable forces that are prevalent in the real world. 

As I have mentioned, it’s unarguably necessary for your scheduler to create driver duties that are efficient, but they should also be realistic and fair. This should be in recognition that the true costs of driver duties is found in the total paid hours, after the work has happened. If duties are not realistic then the actual paid hours are likely to increase from the hours planned. Also, if they are not fair then staff retention or absence could start to become an issue.

Scheduling isn’t all about costs

But scheduling isn’t all about the money. Your completed schedules are also required to communicate with the travelling public as to what journeys are available.

Bus companies have a legal obligation to provide information regarding their services, not only to the public, but also to the local authority and the Traffic Commissioners office. This means that the scheduling process must take place in ample time to correctly resource and make any necessary changes to service before declaring the journeys you are going to operate. 

How you communicate any changes to your services is key and shouldn’t be seen as a begrudged legal obligation. Also, it should be recognised that how easy it is to communicate any changes to anyone, will depend heavily upon how complex your service patterns may have become in the pursuit of precision. 

Communication is key

Many operators have embraced various technologies to help reach out to their customers; be that through social media or dedicated mobile apps and websites. These technology based methods shouldn’t, however, be the only interface you have with your customers or else you risk denying information to those who are less ‘connected’ or who may only travel occasionally. To reach out to these groups perhaps some clear messages either on or off the buses could be employed, but perhaps most crucially, you should never underestimate the power of a well-informed and customer-focused driver. 

Here again we have an example of how communication is key. Having those who have to deliver any schedule produced engaging with changes, has to be encouraged. If nothing else, getting information on how and why certain parts of an existing schedule may or may not work too well ‘on the road’ is vital. But by giving the workforce as much information in advance of a change will mean that they are able to communicate directly with your customers, armed with the facts and real knowledge. 

So, why do we schedule? Well, in part it is to ensure that we can operate services efficiently and economically and therefore control the costs of our operation much more keenly. Scheduling also helps to ensure that our legal responsibilities as an operator are met. But we also schedule to help our customers by providing service information that is truthful, reliable and can be understood. How we ensure the quality and reliability of this information is through good communication between those who plan the services and those who have to deliver them.