Sunday, July 24, 2005

Bus info via SMS

Via Matt Cook, an article on a UK service where passengers can get text timetables recently appeared in Australiasian Bus News.

To quote from the story:

To use the service, bus users simply enter the seven-letter code from any bus stop into their mobile telephone. Within seconds they will receive a reply detailing the next departures from that stop, together with the number of the bus service, the time of the message and the name of the selected stop.

What I wasn't sure about is if it provided real-time information or not.

If not, such a service may have some use if people know their bus stop number and can store it in their phone. But for people already at the stop people can look at a paper timetable for free (if there's one there), so what's the point?

Real-time information is more useful but more expensive. To do it accurately would require fitting all buses with GPS receivers and automatic position reporting system transmitters.

A less high tech approach could be to provide a (non real-time) timetable if the bus is running on time, but allow the bus depot's radio operator (who is in contact with drivers) to alter SMS times if services are delayed. Passengers would still be informed of delays but information may not be completely accurate. An example could be '8:45am 627 bus from Stop 45678 delayed 10 min'.

Locally Connex has an SMS Updates service to inform passengers of late and cancelled trains. Passengers can also get train timetables by SMS.

Railway stations normally have 'green button' next service information and PA announcements if services are disrupted. Trams are mostly fairly frequent, so unless there is a major road blockage waits seldom exceed 20 min.

So buses probably need real-time information more than trams or trains. The Smartbus project attempted to redress this by providing real time 'next bus' displays at selected stops. However due to their high failure rate these cannot be considered a success. Also their expense makes it impractical to provide them at all bus stops. Vandalism is a constant risk, and maintenance costs are high.

In contrast, the cost of numbering all bus stops so that they could potentially be made part of a future SMS alert system is negligible. This is especially if it is made part of the current Metlink signage project.

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