Xephos passenger information

Xephos passenger information Passenger information display in York, with timetables for all passing services.
I have, here on my desk, a superbly useful piece of technology for providing me with public transport information. In a pocket-sized device I can access maps, times and route details of bus, train and coach over a wide geographical area.

With only a modicum of ‘finger skill’ I can plan a journey on any day of the week using any transport operator - easily spotting the trap of school or bank holiday variations - and, in the highly unlikely event of a missed connection or a missing bus, I can quickly replan my journey in a matter of minutes without even plugging into to a power supply.

What is even more exciting is that this piece of technology costs less than £1 to produce. What is it? For the technophiles among you, it is called a ‘Bus Timetable book’.

Sadly in most parts of the country this facility is a long lost dream. But way back in the techno-free zone of the 1960s bus operators got together and introduced a standard timetable book format which was adopted by virtually all large companies. Thus, throughout the country, it was even possible to provide at-stop timetables by using the challenging technology of sticking highlighted timetable pages in a glass and metal frame. So multi-modal information was readily available in printed form; on the phone from people who knew where and when the buses ran and could provide ‘real time information’ - (now there's a bright idea) - and in towns, even the smaller ones, there was usually a real live person in a real live enquiry office at a real live bus station.
Bliss indeed.

In the 21st century, and after the great technological revolution, it is good, is it not, that we have moved on? Hmmm.

Except in a few privileged places (such as Brighton, Derbyshire and Cornwall) routinely published area-wide timetable books are simply not produced. There are, admittedly, a few more regions in which area books appear from time to time (for example Staffordshire and Hampshire) but generally operators and local authorities have simply given up, instead filing ‘Bus timetables’ in the ‘Bother, too much’ section of their filing cabinets.

We now live in the accursed age of the leaflet, so why, when I visit Sheffield, for example, are several leaflets ‘out of stock’? Have they never heard of a photocopier? And the curse of the leaflet has now become the curse of the ‘list of departures’, whereby the user has to perform huge feats of mathematical prowess to work out when his bus might get there - if the leaflet even bothers to list the route at all.

Companies with a fine tradition of good printed information have recently slumped into apathy. The summer Southern Vectis timetable is no longer comprehensive and leaves the user floundering with no index and pure guesswork to establish where the buses actually go - and this for a completely re-vamped network.

The former Blazefield companies, after years of first-rate publicity, are now on the lemming-like slide to obscurity. Their latest newsletter for the improvements on the Harrogate to Knaresborough route contains no maps (although the actual routes have changed) and, mind-bogglingly, no timetables either. Even their leaflets are suffering from minimalist departure-list map-less decline. How the mighty have fallen.

And in London, the tourist capital of our nation, timetables, area booklets, and even timetables at some bus stops, have gone completely. There is simply no way of discovering when your bus will actually arrive anywhere in the Transport for London area. Hardly a huge encouragement for leaving the car at home.

Even when printed information of any kind is allegedly available, it is almost impossible to find. Nowadays, tourist information offices are more about selling little fluffy dolls with pointed hats rather than giving out bus times, or even having their travel information on show.

Except in the cash-rich PTE areas, bus stations are closing or being ‘de-staffed’ and even the familiar ‘man-in-the-hut’ of days gone by usually isn't there because he has something more important to do than keep his customers informed.

“But that doesn't matter,” I hear you cry, "it's all available online.”

So it is, or might be, if you have the encyclopaedic knowledge necessary to know where to look. The much-heralded Transport Direct does not provide any timetable information at all (neither does Transport for London) whereas some of the regional Traveline websites do make some sort of an attempt. You can get bits of timetables or, in the south east region, whole timetables that are confusing and inaccurate.

The big bus companies do make timetables available on their corporate websites but more often than not these are complicated to access and need downloading and jiggling to obtain a usable printout. They are rarely available well in advance of any change.

A recent Stagecoach leaflet for Ross-on-Wye area revisions advised readers to go to the website for detailed timetables. They weren't there, and when this was queried, the response was that they had not yet been received from the printers. My copies arrived about a week after the timetable change.

And that's because Stagecoach merely puts the printer’s PDF files online, not a web-compatible timetable at all. I challenge the reader to find a timetable for the Rail Link bus service between Shanklin and Ventnor (on the Isle of Wight) subsidised by huge amounts of public money and almost completely invisible to all but the few locals who occasionally use it.

"But the on-line journey planners are really great...!"

Like most internet stuff they are great if you understand their limitations - or, to put it more simply, they are very useful if you know where you want to go and how to get there before you log on.

A Yorkshire Coastliner bus stands outside York station
where the company offers the quickest rail/road service
from London-Whitby. National Rail enquiries sends London-
Whitby travellers on a roundabout route via Darlington.

The innocent outsider – precisely the person we ought to be winning over for public transport - might try to travel by train from Scarborough just a few miles along the coast to Whitby. More likely he might want to go from London Kings Cross to Whitby; yet National Rail won't give away the secret of through fares and connections via York and Yorkshire Coastliner offering an hourly service throughout the week. No, all you are offered is the few all-rail options by changing at Darlington and Middlesbrough. Tough!

From Transport for London you can get a three-leg expensive journey (£3) by Underground from Covent Garden to Tower Hill because it might be a few minutes shorter than taking the RV1 bus at £1.50 - more enjoyable because you can actually see things and you miss the delights of all those lovely steps and passageways when interchanging below ground.


Transport Direct's rather circuitous route from Grove Park, Lewisham.         

A test journey from Grove Park at Chiswick to Grove Park near Lewisham delivers unadulterated rubbish, by road as well as bus and train. Transport Direct is famous for its convoluted and laughable answers to all but the simplest of questions - sometimes advising the user to swim across rivers to make their connection, or to change buses rather than sit tight and get there on the one bus or train.


The correct answer to the journey from Grove Park,
Lewisham, delivered by Xephos.

"But, these sites have won awards…"

Indeed they have. But may I, not very respectfully, suggest that awards in the technology sector are rarely given on practical end-result usability - merely on presentation and technical quality. It’s just possible the award awarders never actually use the buses.

"OK,” they say, "can you do any better, clever dick!"

Yes I can, I have done, and I would like to continue to do so.

The Xephos system has been almost universally acknowledged as being superior in every way to other available systems. It offers faster journey planning answers, full timetable display and wide ranging geographical search options.

The data input systems are extremely thorough, thus ensuring that geo-plotting and cross referencing of timetable locations is well-nigh foolproof. And at what cost?

The budget for setting up (note, not for running) Transport Direct was £50million. It is almost impossible to discover running costs for the established systems because so much is hidden in local authority and bus company accounts, but expert estimates range from £20million to as high as £35million a year.

A fully completed basic Xephos system might cost as much as £250,000 a year to run - increasing to £500,000 if some of Transport Direct's twiddly bits were added. I would find it hard to spend as much as £1million a year - even if fare information were added.

And what would you get for your (taxpayer's) money? Access to all public transport in Britain from a single, centrally-managed and standardised database delivered via journey planning, timetable pages and raw CSV or PDF files that can be printed and prettied by operator, local authority or anyone who needed to publicise a bus service.

Data would be in place well within the current six week registration period and available freely and reliably to all. Combine this with local enquiry numbers rather than in India (for rail) and Exeter (for Southend buses) and perhaps, once again, passengers can actually find out when and where their bus is going.

Now for the difficult question: Which situation would you prefer? Or, does anyone care?