How long is a Dublin minute? Adventures in waiting around, with ‘real-time’ bus predictions

It definitely said five minutes. Passengers awaiting a bus in Dublin, 2010. Image: Getty.

It’s one of the little quirks of our postmodern wonderland that slight imperfections in a quasi-utopian service are complained about far more than the absence of the same thing: you’d rather no WiFi than slow WiFi, that kind of thing.

In a similar vein, until quite recently all the humble bus user had to go on when waiting on their chariot were timetables and some educated guesswork. How quaint it must have felt. In the last few years, though, the development of various breeds of real-time software means you can see your bus’s ETA down to the minute, via apps and on-street displays.

That’s the idea, anyway.

Dublin’s version of this, the Real Time Passenger Information system (RTPI), was launched in 2011, supplying travel information to a network responsible for 128m passenger journeys in 2016. And it has a bit of a reputation.

Every commuter has a story about buses supposedly coming closer before receding into the distance, or showing up on the displays, only to vanish entirely. “That thing’s been saying ‘6 minutes’ for a quarter hour now” sits alongside “shite weather, isn’t it?” in the annals of Irish small-talk. Different countries have their own version of the same popular discontent - some a little better, some a little worse.

Basically, RTPI works by inserting a GPS signal into a bus and working out how far it is from each subsequent stop along the route. Jeremy Ryan, head of public transport contracts with Ireland’s National Transport Authority, says that the system is fed with regularly-updated ‘profiles’ of how long a bus should take to get from stop to stop, with different profiles for different days and times. These profiles are aware of normal traffic and pre-planned roadworks, but can’t know about ad-hoc things like heavy rain or emergencies, which leaves the predictions a little sticky.

The NTA carries out quarterly surveys to assess the system’s accuracy. According to this research, about 97 per cent of Dublin buses arrive within three minutes of the scheduled time, which the NTA and Dublin Bus say is “well above industry norms”. Reassuringly for people convinced that their own area is cursed with malevolent software, there apparently aren’t significant variations between routes, directions, or times of day.

Approaching these assertions with the swivelled eye of healthy scepticism, I decided to engage in a bit of citizen’s quality assessment. I walked to some strategically-placed bus stops around central Dublin, waited for a bus’s expected arrival time to tick over to “5 minutes”, and measured how long it took to roll up beside me.

Not having all day, I limited myself to clusters in Phibsboro and Rathmines, 2-3km north and south of the city centre respectively, and to the city centre itself from O’Connell Street to South Great George’s Street.

And what do we find? Well, probably unsurprisingly, on the whole the RTPI system does indeed appear to be remarkably accurate. Averaged across 62 buses, the average time it took for one to arrive after the ticker moved to “5 minutes” was a lean 5:58. Bearing in mind that nowhere is it claimed that “5 minutes” should be taken to mean 5:00 exactly, keeping the average error down to less than 20 per cent is not too shabby a performance.

This makes all kinds of sense. A system with much more of an inbuilt error would be nigh-pointless to continue using from a passenger’s perspective. And it’s easy to see how a system with even a 3 per cent error would develop a negative reputation, considering how many people it stands to annoy every time there’s a slip-up.


That said, at different points of my experiment, “5 minutes” could have meant either 2:32 or 11:21. If you arrived at a stop proclaiming “5 minutes” on a given day last week, it seems there was about a 1 in 4 chance of the bus being more than 2 minutes early or late. Insofar as there was any variation between areas, buses heading into the city centre from the south side averaged 6:41, though there were hardly enough trials here to be statistically significant.

In sum however, we’d probably be advised to give the software some credit. For all I know, it may well have a conception of time divorced entirely from our idea of reality – but for the most part, when RTPI tells you your bus is 5 minutes away, it’s not exactly lying to you.

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

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Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.