Selecting the right tools to solve your transportation issues

Published April 01, 2020 in Blog

Michelangelo carved the statue of David out of a single piece of marble with a hammer, a couple of chisels and some sandstone. You can do the same with your transportation network.

Building and managing a transport network is not an easy task, but the right people with the right tools can create wonders.

The Right People

The right people can be found in the modern, forward-looking public transport authority as well as in many bus, tram and light rail operators. They have been selected for their skills and belief in public transport.

Often with years of experience, they have a deep understanding of bus operations and network design. They push the boundaries of service delivery and help ensure the viability of the operating companies.

To make the most of this intellectual pot of gold, they need the right tools.

The Right Tools

The right tools, of course, have changed over time.

It used to be that a large desk with rolls of transparent paper and a pencil was the right tool. Planners would work out run plans using huge space-time diagrams.

At the depot, the right tools were a whiteboard, printed timetable lists and a dedicated private radio system to let operations management talk to drivers.

Locating the vehicle was a case of asking the driver where they were (not much help if they were lost) and then managing operations based on the control room’s mental picture of the services.

Passengers got a printed timetable at their stop (updated every 12 months) whether they needed it or not.

Historically, the government also had little in the way of tools and were reliant on the transport operators to report performance.

As responsibility for designing and operating routes has shifted away from operators, the transport authorities have taken up the mantle. They are now actively seeking to improve both service quality and frequency, putting services where people want to go and running services at the rate and times that they are needed.

To help with this, transport authorities have embraced new technologies and now use maps based on travel time (isochrones), census data and state-of-the-art planning tools to determine the best routes and derive budgetary costs before putting these out to tender.

The modern transport company also uses a specialist planning tool to optimise fleet runs and driver shifts. This is coupled with a day-of-operations package to manage the rosters, payroll and allocation of assets whilst taking into account work practices and enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs). These operational tools allow them to deal with the frenetic pace in a depot during morning dispatching.

In all these cases, the right tool in the right hands delivers exceptional value to both the transport authority and the operating companies.

Savings made by operating companies in operations will result in lower costs, allowing authorities to buy more services for the same amount of funds.

Automatic Vehicle Location and Control

In addition to planning and asset management tools, a key tool used around the world is Automatic Vehicle Location and Control (AVLC) systems.

These systems track buses and trams in real time and report the vehicle’s location, allowing operators to manage their fleet and deliver real-time information to passengers. The systems also provide other economic benefits by way of reduced travel time (minimising fuel consumption, maximising fleet utilisation, reducing wear and tear on vehicles and so on).

Passengers benefit too through having easy access to accurate real-time information and improved arrival time reliability.

Because they typically operate across a city serviced by multiple operators, AVLC systems are normally purchased and owned by the transport authority.

There are many good reasons for governments to buy a tracking and control system, keeping both their own needs and those of the various operators in mind. Governments get the operational performance monitoring they need, and at the same time operators get a tool to help them deliver the very contracts the authority wants monitored.

This is a classic case of buying the right tool rather than the cheapest tool.

The right tool becomes an essential part of the city’s operations. It is a collaborative effort to help the operator meet the performance KPIs set in their contract with the authority, lower operator costs and improve services to the public.

The Right Tool for Transport Authorities

So, what does the right AVLC tool look like? This will vary based on your perspective. If you are a public transport authority, then the following things may be important to you:

    • The delivery of multimodal arrival predictions at stops with minimal error
    • The ability to separate real-time content from the delivery medium. This provides a level of vendor independence with multiple technologies used to deliver the key RTPI and disruption message. This was the case in the UK and we are now seeing this approach used in Singapore, New Zealand and Australia. Typically, this involves the sharing of arrival data using the CEN-SIRI standard protocol and a separate contract for the provision of the display hardware
    • Data analysis using a centralised data warehouse
    • Seeing the historic tracking of vehicles as well as service performance over time
    • Derivation of performance metrics across the network. The results are often used to determine payments to the operating companies
    • The ability to analyse where service standards are not being met so that any network issues can be quickly corrected

The Right Tool for Transport Operating Companies

If you are an operator, there is quite a different and longer list that is focused on helping deliver services:

    • You need to see your fleet. Not just on a map, but in ways that give you insights into their performance. Operators need a quick and simple way to look at a selection of routes to see the status of all relevant vehicles, then drill down to a single route or vehicle to quickly determine the cause of the issue
    • You want to have a single AVLC across multiple modes. This allows operators to see how their operations fits in with those of others. This holistic view of operations means they can coordinate the response of modes and messages. It also enables connection protection, that powerful ability to help passengers make their connection even if the incoming service is a little late. No more seeing the back of your bus disappearing as you get off the tram and contemplate a 20-minute wait!
    • With hundreds of vehicles under your control, you need the system to tell you when things are not going to plan. Automatic alerts should identify
        • When a vehicle goes off track
        • Has exceeded operational tolerance (early/late schedules, headway variance)
        • Is wanting to communicate
    • Having identified an issue, you need to be able to determine options to resolve the issue and direct your fleet to enable the preferred option. Built-in workflows really help with this
    • Communication between your drivers and your control room should be straightforward and ideally will make use of the AVLC data network, eliminating the need for a standalone communications network. This can deliver significant savings to an operating company
    • Mobility is also important. Bus operators are often called on to provide supplemental services that may include rail replacement, event services for concerts and sporting fixtures and specialist charter services. Having the ability to fit out a vehicle quickly with a temporary, tablet-based track and control system that fits seamlessly into the primary AVLC system is invaluable
    • Drivers are the primary contact point with passengers and they need to be empowered. Any AVLC system should help drivers keep to schedule by providing information on how they are running against the schedule, or the current performance against headway targets for each route. To help them help passengers, the system should list upcoming stops and provide map-based directions to newer drivers on the current route
    • By using vehicle monitoring to identify and then train drivers who accelerate and brake hard, the right tool will help improve ride quality for passengers and save fuel and maintenance costs
    • Emergency alerts will provide improved security for your drivers
    • Seeing the tracking history of vehicles and service performance over time helps you understand how you are performing against your operating contract
    • Having daily performance metrics across the network helps keep the focus on service standards and allows the development of solutions that maximise the delivery of services against the contract
    • It also makes sense for any control system to open the door to other future uses, such as:
        • Headboard/destination sign management
        • CCTV security
        • Connection protection
        • Integrated support of autonomous vehicles within fleet operations

Finally, depending on who has responsibility for the public-facing help desk, operators or authorities will also want:

    • The ability to communicate with passengers in the event of service disruption, ideally through on-board displays and audio, at-stop displays with audio, the web and mobile apps
    • To see the historic location of vehicles to answer customer issues such as: “I left my phone on the 435 near Smith St around 10:00am. Can you get the driver to check if it is still there?”


It has been said that “A wrench is a great tool, just don’t try to drive nails with it”. This analogy applies strongly to public transport operations.

The right tool is far more than just a specialist knife for the transport authority. The range of benefits that can be gained and number of use cases that can be identified require a multifaceted tool more akin to a Swiss army knife.

In Australia and New Zealand, the burden of picking the right tool falls largely on the public transport authorities. It is essential that they keep a high level view and never lose sight of the bigger picture, which is delivering a seamless passenger experience.

There is no doubt that we have some fantastically skilled people in both our transport authorities and in bus and tram operations. They are the Michelangelos of the public transport world.

Given the right tools, they can create and deliver transportation far beyond expectation. Transit leaders’ job is to think big, be the patron of public transport, commission their ‘David’ and then give both authorities and operators the tools they need to create a true masterpiece of public transport.

Mode of Transport

Bus, Trams/Light Rail, Ferry


Intelligent Transport Systems

Meet the author

David Panter

Industry Solutions Manager, ITS

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