Friday, 23 July 2021

Bus Station Departure Board Problems Solved


 After a long-running campaign, during which we had almost given up hope, the ongoing problems with the information shown on Lancaster bus station's electronic departure board have now been solved.

The issues with the display concerned not the times and service numbers, which were accurate, but the destinations shown alongside them, which were often unhelpful and sometimes downright misleading.

Unhelpful 

In the former category were the local services to places such as Vale, Ridge and Marsh. Stagecoach considers these to be "circular" services that have no outer terminal. The computer system that powers the display board is set up to display the destination of each service, so as these services have only only one terminal - the Bus Station itself - that is where it considers they are going, and that is what it showed.
In the "unhelpful" category were the departures on service 7 (bottom left)
and services 11 and 18 (top and middle right)

Some destinations shown could be considered over-helpful. There should be no doubt in anyone's mind about where exactly in Preston the service 40 buses at 09.05 (top left, above) and 10.05 (middle right) were going!

Misleading

Other entries were positively misleading.  The screen above shows two departures on service 42, both at 10.10. One from stand 4 and one from stand 6. Both are apparently going to Garstang, although only one of them to "Bridge Street".  The reality, of course, is that there is only one service 42 departure at 10.10 - and it goes to Blackpool!

Another oddity concerns the 555.  As everyone knows, the 555 goes to Keswick as it has done for many years. The display board - or rather the system that drives it  - took a different view:
Three buses on the 555 to Keswick (at 14.15, 15.15 and 16.15)
apparently went to the mysteriously named "Bus Station (Ken)"
and the 42 shown as going to Garstang at 1346 really goes to Blackpool!


We first wrote about these problems in October 2016.  Much of the difficulty in getting things put right lay in our inability to pin down exactly who was responsible for what when it came to the display. The screen itself was funded by United Utilities as part-recompense for putting half the bus station out of action during extended civil engineering works to install a storm water holding tank underneath it. It replaced a previous system switched off by the County Council to save money.

Operation of the system was then taken on by Lancaster University's IT department, again with some funding from UU. The timetable data came from Stagecoach or Lancashire County Council via the Traveline National Dataset.

Many of the problems developed after Real Time or "Live Time" information was added to the display, although this was also after the United Utilities funding had run out, which seemed to herald a period of uncertainty, at least as far as the BUG was concerned, as to where responsibility for the content of the display actual rested.

But behind the scenes, work has been going on to improve matters, co-ordinated by BUG member Jon Sear and this work has finally borne fruit. Working with Stagecoach, a way has been found to resolve the problems with the circular services, which now go to recognisable destinations, rather than to the Bus Station. The issues with the 42 and the 555 have been resolved and most destinations shown on the screen now match what is shown on the front of the bus.
A recent screenshot of the display

Work is in hand to further improve the destination shown for the 555 so that "Keswick" can be shown in full, this being delayed apparently because, unlike all the other services, it is operated by Kendal depot.
The County Council will also need to correct the info for service 8 (not shown above and not a Stagecoach service) which still goes unhelpfully to "Lancaster City Centre, Bus Station" rather than St. Chad's via Ryelands.

The screen will never be perfect. The GPS system used to identify bus locations to provide the Live Time data isn't accurate enough to detect when a bus isn't on its designated stand, so passengers will still have to keep their eyes and ears open for the all-too-frequent last minute changes, but its all a big improvement on what was there before.

A few minutes spent in the bus station will show anyone just how many passengers make use of the screen and how much they value it so the Bus Users' Group would like to say a big thank you to everyone at the University and at Stagecoach for putting it right.







Friday, 9 July 2021

COVID BUS FUNDING EXTENDED TO MARCH - BUT NO FURTHER

 

Coronavirus restrictions have led to fewer passengers.

The UK government has announced a further tranche of Covid Bus Service Support Grant to help keep England's buses running. However, the money comes with a warning that this will be the last payment operators can expect to receive, with the Grant coming to an end by April 2022.

Fears over services and fares

The end of funding raises fears for the future of service levels and fares.

After bus use plummeted and operators lost 90% of their passengers in March 2020, the government stepped in to provide emergency funding to keep services operating.  Initially expected to run for a twelve-week period, the funding had to be extended a number of times with the current installment ending in August 2021.

The latest announcement extends funding until April 2022, but at a lower level to reflect the recovery of passenger numbers in recent months. The government has also made it clear that there will be no further extensions.

The funding comes with government controls over service levels and fares, In the early days of the pandemic, bus operators were required to run no more than 50% of normal services. This was then gradually increased so that currently a 100% service level is expected. Meanwhile, fares have been frozen - and no dividends have been allowed to be paid - since April last year.


Fully Commercial


From next April, the government expects the bus industry to return to fully- commercial operation, albeit acting in "Enhanced Partnerships" with local authorities to deliver improved services under the National Bus Strategy for England. These Partnerships are supposed to be able to attract government funding from a different pot through the implementation of Bus Service Improvement Plans, although details of this and of the amounts that might be available, have not yet been made known. What is clear is that bus operators will still have to act commercially within the Partnerships and the end of Covid Bus Service Support Grant emphasises that fact. 

But how easy will it be for them to do so? The recovery of ridership,having risen gradually over the Spring, appears to have stalled at about two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels. Bus industry commentators don't expect passenger numbers to exceed 80% of pre-pandemic levels for some considerable time to come, so bus companies and local authorities will be anxiously awaiting the outcome of the submission of the Bus Service Improvement Plans and to hear how much funding they will receive.

Fares to Rise?


The onset of the pandemic came just before Stagecoach's  planned 2020 fares increase, which was therefore never implemented.  By next April, the company's fares will not have risen for three years, whereas in previous years there have been increases of between 5 and 10%

The National Bus Strategy contains an aspiration for lower and simpler fares, but with bus companies expected to act fully commercially and with fares three years out-of-date it is difficult to how this can be achieved.

The Bus Users' Group will be watching with interest.