Sunday, 31 May 2009

New Era Dawned

Electronic ticket machines have been with us for 30 years. Given Wayfarer of Poole was within Hants & Dorset ’s area, it’s not surprising that NBC chose H&D to trial the early Wayfarer ETM. The rest, as they say, is history…

It was therefore surprising that associated Provincial should adopt the rival Timtronic. In fact, The National Bus Company felt that Timtronic would prove the better machine.

Looking back, what now seems most odd about the Timtronics was the language used at the time. Remember in the early 1980s computers were a little mysterious.

Analysis was by “micro-computer technology” (I’m guessing just one solitary DOS-based machine at Provincial in those days, just like that for the whole of Oxford South Midlands, the very first to introduce Timtronics). The module was called a “cassette”, perhaps in deference to way in which Sinclairs and others stored and retrieved data. At the Timtronic’s heart was a “silicon chip”, an impressive term at the time and one filled with mysticism. Even the name Timtronic evoked a technological leap.

One thing Provincial learnt very quickly was that the Timtronic was more or less incompatible with the electrics and bounces & jolts associated with the Bristol RE. This mattered little since in the early 1980s these were speeding towards retirement save, of course, that machines that conked out lost potential revenue for the company. Timtronic worked well on Leyland Nationals and by 1984 Provincial used no other bus type.

It’s understandable that drivers weren’t keen on Timtronic, at first. Union negotiations meant that Provincial could only use data for specific disciplinary issues and not, for example, regarding punctuality. Drivers softened as they realised that they needed an ACE module rather than a specially issued ticket machine. The production of an automated waybill assisted in reconciliation, saving driver and depot time. And fares look up dispensed with references to faretables and saved mental arithmetic.

Provincial also discovered that they would need to send one or two ticket machines a week back to Cirencester for repair. And Provincial inspectors became adept at dealing with simple issues on site: rebooting, for example, and the perpetually jamming ticket cutting mechanism that sometimes just needed the removal of accumulated paper dust.

Balanced with this, though, were the problems associated with ageing mechanical equipment. And, Provincial made use of an unheard of wealth of information about origins & destinations, fares paid, journeys made and so on. While others were engaged in the expensive, manual Bus Driver pre-deregulation market assessment, Provincial could simply interrogate its computer.
Photo: Omnibuses' Northern Correspondent


N90734 said...

In fact, the NBC was the stimulus for the development of the TimTronic. It was derived from a Dutch design. The first user was Crosville. Almex had also developed a model to the NBC spec, tried by Southdown, but it was not taken further.

Eastern Scottish adopted the TimTronic, and City of Oxford was the first NBC company to convert completely. Other users included Southdown, Western National, PMT, Midland Red North, Central SMT, Hyndburn, Fylde, Hartlepool.

The problem with it was that many operators could not face the complexities of introducing 'fares-lookup'. Whilst advanced technologically, it was cumbersome. To update the built in faretables required a new circuit board to be installed, for example. Data storage internally and in the physically enormous module was limited by today's standards. This created lots of operational difficulties.

It was also the only electronic machine to use a mechanical printer unit.

The Wayfarer I and later Wayfarer HS350 (later renamed Wayfarer II) were more suited to operator needs at the time - they were basically an electronic Setright. No fares lookup; but all the mechanical complexity of the counters and print mechanism of a Setright or Almex A was replaced by electronics and a dot-matrix printer.

Dingwoot said...

Yes, updating those Timtronics was a pain when you changed your fares. You had to remove what was called an EPROM from the guts of every machine (Electronically Programable Read Only Memory, if I am correct). Each was the size of a cigarette packet but had a tiny memory (but more than sufficient for a depot's needs). You slotted the EPROM into something called a Burner Unit linked to the computer. The EPROMS "Cooked" very slowly in the burner (for about 24 hours IIRC). You had to test each one because they tended to fail. If they failed, you had to Cook them all over again.

N90734 said...

Yes - EPROM is correct.

Despite all the difficulties, the TimTronic was the "bridge" from the mechanical to the electronic era.

Some other random operational quirks:

If they were set up for "fares lookup" (most were), passengers had to be educated to ask for their destination and not "a 10p".

This had to be emphasised when fares went up.

Drivers had to key in destination stage numbers; not so easy as simply advancing the boarding stage as you went along.

Many different types of ticket etc could be programmed-in, but required drivers to remember ever-more complicated keystroke combinations.

The TimTronic was replaced by the Magnet (a far less successful design), and then by the Eurofare (later renamed A90). This was a long-running and successful ETM, only recently replaced by the Optima.

The Optima (and Wayfarer TGX200, ERG TP5000), now with colour screen, intuitive driver interface, wireless data transfer, oodles of statistics etc. .... present-day bus drivers and bus company managers have it (derservedly) a lot easier!

Anonymous said...

Ah, those were the days. Timtronic was not perfect by any means but was a necessary step towards where we are today. Can certainly relate to the paper cutter and mechanical parts. These caused no end of problems. The last ticket out before it jammed altogether would over print itself a couple of times. The machines would also need new ribbons or re-inking quite often. Your picture shows a key in the top. This was the inspector's over-ride key used to try to sort out any problems (not always successfully).

Output was very useful. It showed origin & destination triangles and tables printed out on dot matrix music paper. A bit basic but Wayfarer isn't so much better even today.

A National Bus Company computer unit in Birmingham supported the whole thing. I think this unit developed out of M.A.P. They were computer whiz kids. Let's face it, we knew nothing of computers in our depots or head offices at that time.

notherner said...

My company must've been a bit more computer-savvy...they had two IBM XTs powering two module burners and an AT (my god, the power!) to do the programming on - and it certainly was programming...a slightly odd form of basic which I recall was filtered from the back end rather than the front....

Don't forget all those EPROMS had to be burned clean before the new programming was burned onto them too...what that effectively meant was the company had to have two sets of eproms floating around ... one lot in the ETMs, the other ready for downloading fresh fares certainly wasn't a 24 hour burn, although I do recall we often left them cooking overnight ... which sometimes left us choked in the morning if there were too many failures!

Tell you what though...despite the advances in ETM technology, the data output was far better than the utter cr*p Wayfarer supplies as the norm...

It had other advantages could properly "test" the validity of your input on a computer without having to have a module, an ETM or a depot reader about...

Also, because the input was in two distinct parts (the programming and the fares triangles), both editable with virtually any Word Processing package (so long as you could cut out any rich text settings), most tasks could be split among a number of people and later recombined...a great boon if something complex needed doing at short notice.

Clearly not all progress is good...

N90734 said...

Another quirk I recall was that TimTronic was not too happy if installed on minibuses. I think it could work with a suitable transformer on a 12-volt supply, but ideally required 24-volt.

Anyway, some of the van-derived minibuses (in Harry Blundred's empire), in the rain, at night, produced interesting results: as the driver pressed the 'issue' key and the mechanical printer whirred into life, the lights would dim and the wipers would slow.

Dennis Dash said...

We had Wayfarer 1s at our depot (from 1984 I think) - they were dreadfully slow issuing tickets and printed on thermal paper which faded very quickly. And the modules weighed a ton by today's standards.

One very early Wayfarer 2 was installed on one Leyland National, and was a lot faster especially if, for example, the passenger wanted 2 and 2 halfs to town. This was in about 1985.

We didn't get Wayfarer 3 until 1993 - fares look up at last, and a simple paper feed which doesn't cause many problems. They're still in use now, albeit after a couple of major software upgrades - an impressive 16 year life, but are due for replacement next Spring with ERG machines, hopefully smartcard enabled.

At least we never had the dreaded magnetic cards !!!

ticketmachines said...

Very interesting comments on the TimTronic,would it be possible to use this picture on our website,do hope this is possible .
Many thanks

Anonymous said...

I worked for Midland Red North when we went over to Timtronics in 1982 and remember them well. Programming language was BUSCAL - developed by Almex - and a fares management systems called FIMS developed by NBCCS. Fare cards had 8 x 1k EPROMS and had to be erased in a UV PROM eraser that took about 30 minutes. Then we had to burn the new data - that took about 50 minutes and we had 360 buses so it was all go!

The Timtronic was quirky - but it was way ahead of its time and if you could understand the BUSCAL programming language you could get it to do pretty-well anything (within reason).