Friday, 30 August 2013

Breakdown in Performance

In the light of a breakdown, Geordie Lad wonders about performance

Something quite unusual happened this morning. My bus to work broke down.

It wasn’t one of the usual vehicles. It was a spare, held for my route. For the nerdy among us, it was a Wright-bodied 05-plated Volvo B7TL decker but, to the ordinary passenger, it’s almost identical to the brand-new B9s that usually operate the service.

What happened was the offside rear suspension air bag burst. I was sitting over it, facing another passenger. We looked at each other quizzically. It didn’t sound right. There was an audible bang, followed immediately by the loud hiss of escaping air. The ‘suspension low’ warning came on in the driver’s cab, and eventually the ‘low air’ warnings activated themselves.

We pulled into the stop just a few hundred yards ahead. The driver did a quick walk round and it was clear the bus was leaning to the rear offside. But there was another two buses just three or so minutes behind us, so all passengers were transferred and no one suffered a long delay. Between them, the following buses were more than able to lift all the passengers. The bus control room was contacted, and a fitter with a spare bus despatched from the nearest depot. All ended as well as could be expected.

So what have I learned from this experience?

Well, as far as the passengers are concerned, a breakdown is a breakdown is a breakdown. They’re not interest in whether it was a burst suspension bag, an oil leak or a faulty rear thrusset pouch—it’s a breakdown.

Then, it doesn’t matter that the next bus was just minutes away and that the real delay was insignificant. They’ll tell the passengers on the following two buses that theirs broke down. And everyone on the following two buses will have seen the stricken bus and, if they were asked in a survey, the survey would say that people say that one in three buses break down.

Finally, the bus that broke down was ‘old’ compared to the ‘new’ one, but to the passengers they look, sound and feel the same. As far as the passengers are concerned, it looks as if the brand-new fleet that the operator launched in a blaze of publicity is inherently unreliable.

So, those were my observations on Wednesday morning. The question is, though, how do we overcome the impression that such incidents create?

I have a theory. When I climb to the top of a hill, I can see a long way – I can see the horizon. But you don’t need to climb a hill to see a horizon—essentially, your horizon is as far as you can see at any time. This morning, the horizon limit was along the road, over which we were relieved to see two approaching buses. Now, although we know that there’s something beyond the horizon, not many of us bother to climb the hill to see the view.

Surely, our job, as an industry, is to expand passengers’ horizons by giving them a glimpse of the bigger picture. The railways report their performance figures and explain things when they fail to meet them. Perhaps it’s time the bus industry did the same.

34 comments:

Anonymous said...

Try being on your way again with one of the car breakdown firms. It certainly won't be a few minutes!

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, there's still far too many 'on the road' breakdowns with many operators.

You've only got to realise that it's very rare to see any red 'TfL' bus break down to know that it's mostly down to other operators poor maintenance.

Anonymous said...

^is the above comment for real?

Anonymous said...

Suspension airbags are inexpensive components. But are they treated as routine service items, or do most operators only change them when they fail?

Anonymous said...

" ^is the above comment for real? "

No, clearly a troll. :-(

Getting back to the original post, I really do think it's quite a bizarre extrapolation to suggest that people will "say that one in three buses break down" purely from one incident on one day. What about every other day when they haven't seen a broken-down bus? People aren't (quite) *that* shallow.

plcd1 said...

I'm not sure I follow GL's extrapolation. If people were stuck on the roadside for ages waiting for a replacement then I'd say there was justification for people moaning. The fact the incident was well managed and people were on their way in minutes is unlikely to result in a negative perception about bus travel or certain vehicles. I also suspect there are more important things for the average "punter" to talk about.

It is a long while since I experienced a break down on a bus journey. Clearly buses do conk out but it is not a routine event from my own experience.

TfL do publish route by route and borough performance reports. Now they don't list the number of breakdowns but they do show how much excess wait time there is or how punctual low frequency routes are. They also show mileage operated which will give a good view of how well the bus company controls things like breakdowns, driver cover etc. There are also operator rankings.

http://www.tfl.gov.uk/tfl/businessandpartners/buses/boroughreports/

I think Go North East used to publish monthly performance numbers but I haven't seen a press release for those for a while.

Stevie D said...

I think Geordie Lad is painting an unnecessarily gloomy picture here. In over a year of daily commuting by bus, I can only recall two occasions when a bus has broken down in service ... in both cases it was not a "bang - stop" event but either losing power or cutting out. Out of about 600 journeys, that's not a bad hit rate, and I think most passengers would recognise that the reliability of the buses themselves is generally fine. (The reliability of this bus service may be a different kettle of fish!)

In one case, we were half-way along the route when the driver gave up and called for back-up, so waiting 15–20 minutes for them to send a spare vehicle from the depot was the quickest response you could expect (although the driver possibly should have recognised earlier that the fault wasn't going to fix itself, and bailed while we were closed to the depot).

In the other case, we were only about 3 minutes out of the depot, but we had to wait for the next bus, which was 20 minutes later, because despite this being their flagship route, it's the one that the operator is least likely to put extra vehicles on in the event of any disruption.

Anonymous said...

In my experience of travelling TFL buses I've only had a couple of breakdowns but many other experiences of getting turfed off for reasons unexplained by the route controller. These occasions are almost never handled as well as Geordie's experience with most people having to pay again as transfer tickets were neglected to be given out.

At least the shire operators will get you there on one fare! :)

Anonymous said...

Ah, the dreaded "the destination of this bus has changed" announcement, probably the most passenger unfriendly thing ever invented. Yes, I know it may well help even out the position of buses on a route and save people elsewhere from long waits (in theory) but it is guaranteed to p*ss off all those unceremoniously chucked off their bus in a random location. And it happens far, far too frequently. Surely VOSA wouldn't let provincial operators off running full routes like this?

I'd rather have a breakdown - at least then you can stay on the bus until the next one or a replacement arrives. And you won't have to pay again.

Anonymous said...

I believe that most breakdowns are due to poor preventative maintenance. Presumably the London operators have greater incentives, and money, to ensure that it rarely happens in TfL-land.

Anonymous said...

How are those nice new NBFL doing reliability wise? Serious question...as it has all gone quiet on the Borismaster front since they cooked passengers during the heatwave.

Anonymous said...

Experienced a couple of breakdowns, once on Stagecoach Manchester and the other on First. With First Manchester the route runs every 5 mins so we were transferred onto the following vehicle. With Stagecoach the driver must have rang in as there was a replacement vehicle waiting halfway through the route. Both situations were handled very well.

During the summer heat wave a few years ago I saw an awful lot of Eclipse Urbans and Gemini's overheating with a pal saying his bus broke down and so did the following one they were transferred on.

plcd1 said...

@ Anon 1217 - hard to know what's really going on with the NB4Ls. I think the kerfuffle when they launched has abated because the novelty value has gone. Further, those who have to use them will use them or else people have changed routes to avoid them. The weather has also not been quite so warm as at the height of the Roastmaster claims.

Still we can expect more fun and games in three weeks when route 11's conversion begins / happens - still no idea if it is a "big bang" or gradual process. We then have route 9 in October and then the 390 around Christmas time. I think there will be a twitter storm every time these buses arrive on a route.

I hope that Wrights have been back over every vehicle to get the air cooling working to maximum efficiency. I suspect the buses will always be warm by virtue of their design. I also hope that Wrights have thoroughly reviewed what went wrong with the NB4Ls on the 24 in order to avoid a repeat on subsequent conversions. It is not going to be acceptable to have these huge buses conking out all over the place when they're new. Imagine 2 of them conked out in Oxford St just before Christmas? - err I'd rather not.

The thing to look at will be route 24's statistics in a couple of months time when the second quarter's data is published by TfL. I expect there will be something of a blip around the time of NB4L introduction.

Anonymous said...

I remember that First Group in Avon and Somerset a few years ago use to publish punctuality rates. I don't think they do any more though.

Anonymous said...

You ain't seen nothing yet...

Bus drives into the bus station and starts loading. Then the ticket machine goes down (I think there are issues with it getting a satnav signal to tell it what stop it's at). So the eight people already on the bus have to get off because the bus is declared "faulty", and they have to get another bus to run the service - which takes about 12-15 minutes, and means we get away nearly twenty minutes late.

I'd love to hear what people are saying about that sort of broken-down bus...

Anonymous said...

Whereas, some of the more forward-thinking operators would have run that rounder with that bus - on time and free - and turned that negative experience into a positive one. Okay, there'd have been a small cost in real terms but plenty of potential positive upside publicity-wise and simply making a few people's day with an unexpected free trip.

As for Geordie-Lad's article, perhaps I'm missing something but he starts but say "something quite unusual happened" and then assumes that people will assume "that one in three buses break down". Quite a jump... so is it unusual, or not?

To be honest, most regualr bus users will accept the occasional breakdown, the issue isn't generally the fact that the bus broke-down but how the situation was dealt with - see first paragraph in this comment!

Anonymous said...

In many ways it is probably better to know that the bus has broken down, rather than being further down the route with a gap in service.
"These buses never turn-up" is the perception then, (yes 'never' is the word people use) when any number of reasons could have caused the gap. At least people can see a bus stuck at the side of the road, hazards flashing.

Of course no gap in service is good, however rare.

Anonymous said...

As a bus driver in London buses break down frequently but because of the frequencies and roads they are towed straight away the minute you call in.If you ever go or visit London there is a recovery truck by Hyde Park Corner and most of the work is done by Sovereign Recovery.

Anonymous said...

Buses in London getting turned short for no good reason.... Usually following the driver dawdling and wasting time so as to engineer being late enough to get turned short and get out of having to do some work!!! Buses turned short appear to fall into being "beyond the operators control" category, so as it doesn't affect their stats nobody seems to mind it happening.... Hence, as the other poster says, it happens a lot, and tfl appear to not be bothered about it.... Very annoying when 4 in a row get turned short, and the end of the route goes without a bus for upwards of 30minutes.... Surely the controller shouldn't allow this, or be allowed to allow this (!!), but it does happen far too often. On complaining about being dumped in a dodgy area late at night by one such skive, I was informed by customer services that passengers were entitled to wait on the terminating bus until the following through bus had arrived, that transfer tickets MUST be issued on request, and that the terminating driver should accompany transferring passengers to the bus behind to explain the transfer to the following driver.... When is this procedure ever followed correctly in the real world!!

Anonymous said...

I had a similar experience on the X1 bus from Weston-super-Mare to Bristol a few weeks ago. Boarded the bus to be informed the ticket machine was down and instead I would have to pay an emergency fare of £1. A bargain fare considering the normal price for travelling from WsM to Bristol.

Anonymous said...

I've been "waived on" to london buses with broken oyster readers, so its a free journey, great!!! But also i guess the oyster reader takes a few moments to reset itself at the start of journeys and ive had drivers indicate to just get on when the oyster reader isn't ready to work yet.... But what is the position then when an inspector gets on later in the journey and I haven't paid...?

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... An emergency £1 fare and no ticket issued...... ??? Say no more, Guvnor, nudge nudge, wink wink.... A good day for the driver's after work beer fund me thinks!!!!

plcd1 said...

@ Anon 0033 - As a bus driver I suspect you are going to see and hear about broken down buses more than the average passenger. You're completely correct that Sovereign do have a big tow truck near HPC. Given the intensity of traffic in the West End and the potential for jams to develop if a bus conks out "in the wrong place" it makes sense to have the resources in place to get any stalled bus out of the way fast. That resource is there for the greater good as well as the bus companies! I have yet to see a Sovereign lorry parked up on stand by in the suburbs even though some suburban centres are heavily trafficked. Not sure if TfL provide that quick recovery service in the suburbs. I've certainly seen buses conked out by the roadside but my own experience of break downs is limited.

To some extent TfL do now say when buses have broken down. Their TfLBusAlerts twitter feed sometimes advises that routes will be delayed due to a broken down bus. This certainly happened with some of the route 24 NB4L breakdowns but the vehicle type was not mentioned! Other events such as traffic incidents, marches etc are also mentioned.

Anonymous said...

As a regular user of London buses I have to say that it's quite rare to see one broken down. In the provinces it seems far more common.

Eric said...

Re First's £1 emergency fare.

Some months ago (31st Jan this year, just looked at the ticket), I was forced into buying one of these as the ticket machine was knackered. On previous occasions drivers for First have just let me on without paying, but this driver was having none of it. I explained that I needed an all-day ticket as I had a number of journeys to make that day for work and would need to get one on the next bus in any case. However, the driver refused to let me on board unless I bought this emergency ticket, which I could send back in and claim a refund. Curiously, those with free bus passes didn't have to buy this ticket yet the company wouldn't have received anything for their journeys.

Given the next bus was in half an hour, I didn't have the time to wait, so the day's travel cost me a pound more than it should have, no point in claiming the pound back after the cost of an envelope and stamp. Ok, a pound is neither here nor there in the grand scheme of life but still it's a pity that common sense couldn't prevail in this instance.

RC169 said...

Eric said...

"On previous occasions drivers for First have just let me on without paying, but this driver was having none of it."

The driver was presumably protecting his own interests (and probably following instructions). If an Inspector boarded and found passengers without valid tickets, then the suspicion would immediately fall on the driver, even if the passengers said that they hadn't paid anything. The issue of the company not receiving revenue for the concessionary passholders' journeys is probably of secondary importance - they had valid tickets.

Eric said...

RC169 - Pretty much exactly his words in fairness.

Trust me, I didn't have an issue with it, I actually found it quite amusing, and I have an old emergency ticket in my wallet which I wouldn't have had!

It was the fear of an inspector putting the driver in an awkward position in front of his boss was the sole motivation on my occasion. I'd still like to think that an inspector that, in possession of the facts, would have been absolutely fine with the situation had I not had a ticket. I know a Stagecoach inspector well and mentioned the story to him. He told me he would have been fine with it.

Given the situation, how can a company even question my own story? Surely there must be some sort of autonomy in an instance like this? If an inspector has no room for manouvre on such an issue, then God help the bus industry.

There might also be another issue here. Drivers operating under too much fear, having to get things right all the time or they face disciplinaries or worse? No ability to use their own common sense or instinct, stuck by what their corporate bosses demand of them.

Just Me said...

If only the incidents in our area were managed with quite the same efficiency as the original post.

My local route (operated by one of the larger companies along the south coast) is dreadful when it comes to breakdowns. I had four cases of a breakdown in a week once. Two down to overheating, one due to a tire and the fourth a "mechanical fault". In all cases the service was dropped, even though the next bus was not for an hour. On average there is a breakdown at least once every two weeks on a route that uses just five buses. Statistically that means that 1 in 62 buses breaks down when put in service on the route, accounting for 98.4% of services being provided without a breakdown. May seem quite good, but explain that to the public that want to catch the broken bus. They won't see it so favourably.

Neil said...

With regard to emergency tickets, this is a good idea - however it would make sense for these to be security tickets of some form which can be cashed in on another bus later that day for a longer-period ticket (e.g. a day or week) rather than the passenger having to cash them in by going to an inconvenient location.

The only way I'd concede on this would be if they had unique IDs that allowed them to be cashed in online to be credited to your bank account by BACS where a copy of a purchased day ticket is provided. It might even be friendly to refund a higher amount on the basis that not everyone will bother.

As for London, the situation with regard to transfer tickets is a complex mess, and highlights to me that where Oyster is used (=no fraud/passback/selling on) they should introduce one hour bus tickets, i.e. once you have touched in, any further bus touch-ins within an hour are free. I believe this is actually planned (finally!)

Neil

Neil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil said...

Oh, I forgot...

Why is the iBus "The destination of this bus has changed" not immediately followed by "[number] to [new destination]"?

It seems an idiotic piece of design.

Neil

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