Monday, December 04, 2006

Testing tramTRACKER

You might have noticed the new tramTRACKER stickers on tram stops around Melbourne. Started on two routes last month, the real-time information system became effective across the whole tram network today.

Unless a tram is within sight, my common 1.2km afternoon peak-hour trip is often faster walking than tramming. However in the cause of science, I waited around to give the new service a go.

There are two services available - voice or SMS reply.

In both cases you dial a number (1300 698 726 voice, 1999 2772 sms) and enter a four digit tram stop ID number. Then it will tell you the time of the next three trams by voice or reply SMS message.

I tried the voice option first. This gave times as per the printed timetable, so it doesn't seem to have a real time function yet.

Then I decided to send an SMS. The reply came quickly; the next three trams were 14, 13 and 24 minutes away respectively. After about 10 minutes a second SMS was sent; now the answer was 4, 4 and 18 minutes.

And sure enough, in 4 or 5 minutes two (bunched) trams arrived. Based on this quick trial, TramTRACKER is accurate and it works. However at least for now, SMS beats voice.

To make it more useful one could save the number in your phone and memorise the four digit tram stop number. Then you can get information from home, bus or train, before you reach the stop.

Is this an exercise in transport geekery? No doubt! But for critical trips it's a useful service. And since tram on-time data is already collected for operational purposes, it may as well be made available to the public for minimal cost.


Ari Sharp said...

Hey Peter,

The whole idea sounds monumentally crappy to me. The only time this sort of data is useful is if you can actually change your activities because of it. Otherwise, it falls into the 'interesting but useless' category of information. In your particular example, the information would come in handy because it would help you decide whether to walk or tram. For most people though, their use of the service would take place only when at the tram stop, by which point there is little alternative but to wait for the next tram, whenever it comes.

If real time SMS data is the answer, what is the question? I don't hear many people asking it.

Unknown said...

In response to "-a.", the data does have broader appeal.

Firstly, one need not be at a tram stop for precise tram timing data to be important. Anyone within walking distance of a tram stop they may use without a timetable or internet connection on them can now find out if and when it's worthwhile walking to said stop (if they or their phone knows the appropriate code). For example, someone may be shopping or drinking a coffee near a tram stop, and would like to know exactly when they should leave in order to catch the next tram.

Businesses near tram stops should make posters containing the appropriate numbers clearly visible on their premises. Such posters would ideally include a route map (and a mention that Metcards can be purchased there if applicable).

If the business has instore TV systems (like nearly every newsagent does), it should ideally include onscreen warnings of impending tram departures fed by this data source. As with the posters, these would work well with integrated Metcard, tram reading material, snack and similar ads where appropriate.

Secondly, the data, if not the current delivery system, is an ideal addition to a broader traffic data system. The main public service offered would be better routing by personal navigation systems and similar websites (such as Google Transit).

The RACV is trialling a FM radio based subscription data system that would be a perfect mobile distribution method for this from early next year.

With such a system, travellers could ask "what's the quickest/cheapest/least CO2 producing/etc" way to get from A to B, and the tram component would highly accurate.

Additionally, tram movement data is highly indicative of general traffic flow, which is of intense interest to peak time drivers (and no doubt the RACV has already negotiated a contract with Yarra Trams for their new system).

Sean Fishlock said...

Hi Peter,

Great Blog by the way. Just stumbled onto it today.

This post catches two of my biggest interests - technology and trams.

I haven't tried the service yet, but to be honest, SMS is old hat. I couldn't be bothered to use my phone to call some number to get the info I need.

What I'd like is the convenience of my Pocket PC being able to access realtime route/timetable data like the Metlink Online Trip Planner.

I've been using a great Pocket PC app called "Metro" (I think it is free) which gives you public transport route information for practically any city in the world. The route info is great if you want to know how to get from A-B, but by itself is useless if your train/tram isn't going to arrive for hours or won't link up with another service.

Unfortunately, Metlink Trip Planner not only seems incompatible with the Pocket PC and Palm OS, but even if it was you'd have to spend money on Internet connectivity to access it. Whereas Metro can simply synch updated info to my device when I am at the office.

In an ideal world, you'd be able to use your phone's voice recognition to say where you are and where you want to go and the phone would display the route and timetable information for you.

Alas, I can only dream that a fully usable mobile solution for PT info will happen in my lifetime ....

Anonymous said...

Come to Adelaide guys. They have a java mobile timetable service that allows you to download any or all of the Adelaide metro timetables (Bus, train and tram) to your phones memory, which then allows you to look at your timetable anytime you want for no cost. When a new timetable is produced, the phone tells you your version of the timetable is out of date and asks you to update to the new timetable. It is also an interactive timetable and it uses the gprs network to update the time chosen from any service, This will deliver to your phone any messages about the service, or network that is relevant. Unlike sms which is limited to 110 characters, Nomad on Board can issue messages that are clear and very precise in what they are telling you.
Tram companies telling you the sms timetabling solution is the best available is basically a furphy. SMS technology is over 10 years old.(and it costs the user each time they use it)
Have a look by downloading the software to your java mobile by typing: into the bookmarks browser in your phones web menu. It works very well on most makes of phone. Or,just go to the Adelaide Metro website and check out "Nomads on Board.
You might then like to ask why you need to spend money on crappy sms solutions and the like.
Adelaide is progressive.