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“We told the drivers: if you can go, keep going": What happens behind the scenes at Dublin Bus

Ever wondered what goes into taking a bus journey? We went behind the scenes to find out.
Nov 7th 2015, 5:02 PM 32,324 54

IT’S EARLY ON a Monday afternoon and things are quiet before the lunchtime rush at Dublin Bus’s central control and operations building.

Based in a modular set-up deep within the Dublin Bus base in Phibsborough, the office is surrounded by, of course, buses – and the sound of roadworks.

The new Luas line servicing Grangegorman is being noisily laid down right next door, but it’s business as usual inside central control.

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Inside, a TV screen flickers above one of the central command pods. Each pod houses up to eight staff. “On a really busy day, you nearly wouldn’t be able to hear yourself thinking,” says Joe Stobie, Area Operations Manager at central control, as the screen above him changes to show CCTV footage of yet another busy Dublin road.

A controller called Mark Drew flicks through the different CCTV channels. In one location, a fly crawls across the screen. Seconds later, two starlings are captured happily staring out at a different vista below them.

“You couldn’t get this nature if you tried,” chips in Drew, who’s one of the staff members that keeps an eye on what every bus in the fleet is up to. Access to the 368 Dublin City Council street cameras means that the controllers’ eyes can be everywhere.

They can tell when a bus route needs to be diverted, can phone a driver when a road gets blocked, or give someone a push when they need to get to their next bus stop on time. With a 900-strong fleet, it’s essential that every bus can be accounted for.

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Tracking a journey

This neat modular building is where every single bus is tracked from the beginning of its journey, as it travels along its route picking up passengers from the city streets and depositing them at their destination.

An AVL – auto vehicle location – system on each bus sends information back to the staff in central control, who can watch as the buses make their journeys. Every time a bus stops, it’s logged. Every time a door opens, it’s logged.

“He’s two minutes behind where he should be,” says Mark Drew as he points to a coloured box (which represents a bus) travelling along the screen. The box turns yellow when a bus is three minutes behind; it turns orange when the bus is up to five minutes ahead. If it turns red, that means it has no layover time once it reaches the terminus.

Real-time information

There’s a real-time passenger information (RTPI) display unit at central control, so that staff can see what passengers see.

These displays are what passengers’ journeys hinge on – they depend on them to get to their destination quickly. They need the time on them to be correct.

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That’s what the AVL system is for: to update the RTPI so that the time is real-time information. When you’re waiting for a bus and the display says three minutes, then changes to five, that’s because the AVL has let controllers know that the bus is delayed.

There were 119 million customers carried by Dublin Bus in 2014, meaning there are thousands of people every day who count on this RTPI to be as up-to-date as possible.

To try and make their journeys even speedier, Dublin Bus is currently taking part in a Traffic Light Priority project. It’s working with DCC and the National Transport Authority to get green light priority for buses in parts of the capital.

Under the pilot project, some traffic lights will detect the buses approaching, and hold a green light for them. So far, it’s seeing positive results.

A learning curve

All of Dublin Bus’s control rooms were centralised to Phibsborough in 2009, and in the past few years they’ve moved from the old notebooks and radio system to the AVL system.

This meant retraining tens of staff, some of whom had never used a computer before, in a brand new system. It was a “huge learning curve”, says Stobie.

But the benefits were also huge: “Now you can see absolutely everything.” What controllers do hasn’t changed, he says – the tools have changed.

The data picked up through the system is reviewed every two to three weeks, and is 96% accurate, the company says. The reason the data is analysed is so the RTPI info is correct. They review how long each bus is taking on its route, and the factors influencing this (like roadworks or diversions) and adjust times accordingly.

Dublin Bus meet up with DCC and the Luas operators regularly to discuss any issues, like a junction that needs to be widened, or roadworks that are causing delays.

“If and when there’s something going on, all we have to do is pick up the phone and we can ask the people in DCC and they will always oblige,” says Stobie. “We have a great working relationship with them.”

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‘You see people doing really stupid stuff’

Watching the roads every day means that the Dublin Bus controllers have a solid idea of what not to do on Dublin’s roads.

“You get some people doing really stupid stuff,” says Stobie, pointing to CCTV footage of Upper Rathmines Road. “You could very easily get a guy coming down here with a truck and he’ll just stop in the middle of the road and start unloading.”

People often drive the wrong way down O’Connell Bridge, with coaches said to be particularly bad offenders. Then there are the yellow boxes.

“The yellow box junctions, if we could get a message out to motorists, the yellow box junctions are sacrosanct.” That’s Stobie again:

No matter what’s going on, if they stayed out of the junctions everybody would get home. But when things get really, really congested, people get panicky. And they’re the last car on the line and they just say ‘feck it, I’ll drive it into the yellow box junction’. Now, when the lights go red and they go green the other way, nobody can move.

Blocking yellow boxes is even enough to kick the city “into chaos” when the heavy snow or flooding arrives. Speaking of heavy snow, during 2010′s terrible snowfall the buses were the last form of public transport left on the streets.

“We basically just told the drivers, if you can go, keep going,” says Mark Drew.

The Mad Dash Home

Source: Dublin Bus/YouTube

In an effort to show how much work goes into getting a bus to the bus stop, Dublin Bus has just launched a new campaign, the Mad Dash Home. It follows TV funnyman Baz Ashmawy and his mother Nancy, and is clearly inspired by the 50 Ways to Kill Your Mother show that the pair brought to the telly.

The ad follows as Baz and Nancy make the aforementioned mad dash home, Nancy on board a Dublin bus, and Baz in a race car.

There are no surprises over who makes it there first (Nancy even has time to bake a loaf of soda bread), but the focus on the Dublin Bus staff in the ad is a clever one. It anthromorphosises the company, showing that it’s not just an orange light blinking on an RTPI screen.

Social Media

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Starring in the ad is social media staff member Matt, one of the nine-strong team who deals with Dublin Bus passengers on Twitter. One person at a time monitors the Twitter page, with an aim of answering queries within an hour.

During the recent rail strike, the pressure on social media was so intense that the whole team decamped upstairs to the central control office so that queries could be answered as quickly as possible.

Matt uses the real-time bus tracker, and the Dublin Bus website, to get the right information to passengers. He can call the central control staff with any messages from passengers, or ask them what’s going on.

Embracing Twitter and Facebook (customers also contact Dublin Bus by email and phone) showed the company “that we need to be more savvy on social media”, says John Phelan, the customer services manager at Dublin Bus.

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“The controllers are great to come back and say ‘this is what happened, this is why there’s a gap and this is why such and such has happened’,” he says, nodding towards the multiple windows open on Matt’s computer screen.

A glance at the tweets sent to Dublin Bus shows that the staff have to deal with the ire of those who aren’t happy with the service.

Matt is sympathetic: “If you’re standing at a bus stop for 40 minutes in the rain, you’re obviously going to be annoyed. But usually we give them the information and after that they usually come back and say thanks. Some people won’t, but you can’t please everyone.”

They have regular tweeters: “You can tell from what time of day [it is] that they’re going to tweet,” says Matt. “A lot of the time they’re just checking where [the bus] is. They can ask us directly because then they know that it’s going to arrive at this time.”

The most common questions are the basic ones, like what time is my bus due, or how do I get to a certain place. There’s a huge amount of learning involved for social media staff – routes; bus stop details; the common areas that most buses go to, like hospitals.

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“When you come in on the first day you say, ‘Oh God, I’ll never take all of this in,” says Phelan. “But then you find that most of our customers are going to town, they’re going to shopping centres, going to hospitals, going to places they don’t normally go to.”

Twitter isn’t just for complaints. It’s also handy when people don’t want to, or can’t, talk to the bus driver. “People will tell you that an accident has happened or something has happened,” says Phelan.

Even anti-social behaviour on buses sometimes, they’ll tell you that has happened and the driver might not even know it. The driver might not see it, so we might pre-empt that, get straight on to the guards and say the bus is on such-and-such and tell the driver something is going on on the bus. If people don’t want to be seen talking to the driver, at least they know they can talk to somebody here.

A look behind the scenes at Dublin Bus shows that there’s more going on than you might realise.

Yes, there are the everyday complaints, the usual queries, the delays and the blocked-up yellow boxes, but, says Matt, there’s the broader picture too:

“There are a lot of [Dublin Bus employees] trying to get the buses through as quick as they can. And we are trying our best. It’s just the way the city is, we’re doing our best to get around it.”

Read: These are the people who know if your Dublin Bus is going to be late>

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Aoife Barry

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