How technology is improving business for bus operators by Pete Adney
It is hard to dispute that driver sign-on processes have changed beyond recognition over the years. But could even greater transformation yet be ahead of us? Most bus operators have already streamlined how drivers sign on; the next step is where they do so. Moving relief points away from centralised depots could dramatically optimise route planning and redefine the way bus companies operate.
Of course, many operators are already familiar with evolution in sign-on processes, having long ago replaced punch clocks and paper registers with computerised time and attendance systems. Progressive improvements have led to today’s computerised employee tracking systems – a far cry from the rigid central depot sign-on processes of the latter part of the 20th century.
However, it is technology’s growing ability to change operational models that is likely to have the greatest impact on the sector. This is particularly true with the advent of mobile-based sign-on processes, because offering drivers the ability to sign on for shifts remotely has huge efficiency implications.
In this article we chart the evolution of sign-on processes for bus operators and explore the potential presented by a move towards complete sign-on flexibility.
From man to machine
The traditional sign-on process and management of driver rotations was a laborious process for bus company managers. For most operators, drivers were required to manually sign-on at a main depot, with inspectors present to register attendance and issue duty information. Similarly, inspectors would wait at route terminals to process the end of a driver’s shift.
Heavily time and resource intensive, manual sign-on gradually gave way to a more efficient approach, with advancements in technology facilitating this change. While a visit to a central depot was still very much part of the working day, the introduction of clock card machines and later, electronic attendance registration stations, meant that drivers were able to sign-on themselves rather than report to a dedicated member of staff.
The eventual progression to software-based time and attendance systems further increased efficiency, allowing for faster data processing by human resource and payroll departments. This also introduced the ability to link attendance with driver management and planning systems to aid the daily rollout by offering a central view of the depot sign-on process to the allocations staff. As with any business, introducing automation offered bus operators the opportunity to reduce costs through reduction in administration effort and effective reallocation of staffing resource.
The Self-Service Sign-on and the advent of True Mobilisation
But the greatest advances in workforce management for bus operators have coincided with the digital age. Initially, increasing internet connectivity resulted in web-connected sign-on stations enabling drivers to report for duty from locations other than the depot. Typically, this approach has involved dedicated kiosks distributed throughout a service area, or mobile inspectors positioned at key locations within a network of bus routes with the intention of minimising ‘dead time’ spent returning buses to the depot for driver changes. While this approach clearly creates greater flexibility, it still relies on interaction at a specific point in order for a driver to sign-on.
However, the explosion in use of mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets, has facilitated a new approach in which drivers themselves are directly responsible for the sign-on process. By using mobile apps, staff can report for duty from any given location without the need to visit a specific sign-on point first. This self-service approach offers a new level of flexibility for operators juggling the many variable elements associated with route management.
Unlocking the benefits of remote connectivity
Remote, app-based driver sign-on simplifies and streamlines the process of staff registering for their shift, enabling drivers to receive all required information pertaining to their day’s work assignment wherever they are. Eliminating the need for drivers to visit a central depot or specified location increases convenience for drivers and enables operators to design service schedules without restriction, thereby reducing resource and facility costs.
A mobile sign-on process also provides complete visibility over fleet activity and available resources. Indeed, the location-aware functionality of mobile devices alone means that operators are better placed than ever to validate the sign-on process. As well as ensuring compliance with the Road Traffic Act for drivers’ working hours, this real-time data can be instrumental in minimising failed reliefs. Remote connectivity can be used to request an update to a driver’s status when en-route to a relief point, so the traffic office knows which reliefs are progressing as planned and which may experience problems. In the latter case, teams will have a window of opportunity in which to deploy spare drivers to avert a failed relief and the many associated consequences.
Should the issue be impossible to address entirely, the traffic office still has time to put in place contingencies such as adjusting services or building curtailments into passenger-facing information channels, thereby minimising the impact on the travelling public. In the event that a driver cannot reach a designated relief point in time (perhaps due to traffic congestion or a road closure), mobile-based sign-on also enables the traffic office to move a relief point’s location to avoid failure.
Operators prioritise technology that can clearly show an immediate return-on-investment through identifiable cost-savings. In this light, remote sign-on presents a compelling business case, especially in an age where connectivity and self-service applications are increasingly the norm. From more efficient scheduling to better communication across the business, placing mobile technology at the core of operational strategy will produce increased utilisation for drivers and vehicles; improved passenger experience; and ultimately more revenue for bus operators.
The 3 key elements of mobile sign-on
Moving relief points away from depots will dramatically improve bus operators’ ability to optimise route planning, redefining the way they operate and delivering significant savings by furthering the trend towards centralisation. But how do we actually do this while preventing failed reliefs and ensuring continuity of service?
1: ‘Driver En-Route’ Failsafe
Moving driver relief points to the roadside removes visibility and control: drivers are out ‘in the wild’ and the traffic office doesn’t know what they are doing. Statistically, some drivers will fail to show up some of the time – you just don’t know which or when.
What if you could identify the reliefs that are set to fail, granting the control room a window of opportunity in which to fix the issue?
Trapeze’s Roadside Relief introduces a driver en-route failsafe so drivers can let the office know they are intending to work and en-route to their relief point. Typically this failsafe is set to 15 to 20 minutes before the driver’s duty starts. The traffic office then knows which reliefs are progressing as planned, and has advance warning of any potential issues. The traffic office is immediately alerted when a driver fails an en-route failsafe, granting them time to deploy spares to avert a failed relief.
Should the issue be impossible to address entirely, the traffic office still has time to put in place contingencies, such as adjusting services, or building curtailments into passenger-facing information channels, thereby minimising the impact on the travelling public.
Furthermore, Roadside Relief serves as a two-way communication channel, enabling drivers to send messages to the traffic office. An obvious use is for a driver who has sent a ‘driver en-route’ message but subsequently encountered heavy traffic; in this instance the driver can warn the office of the delay so they can evaluate the impact and identify potential corrective action. Note that this same functionality could also be used to notify the office of early arrival and availability for additional work.
2: Driver Arrived: Roadside Sign-On
Sometimes a driver will do their best to reach a relief point but fail in the attempt – most often due to congestion. This, of course, is a problem for operators that require drivers to come in to the depot to sign on: the driver has ‘signed on’ for work, but they still need to actually reach their relief point. Given that the vehicle may be 30 minutes’ travel away, there’s no guarantee they will actually make it there by the required time.
While there is no way to guarantee a driver doesn’t become stuck in traffic and become delayed reaching their relief point, Roadside Relief reduces the impact of such occurrences by moving the sign-on point from the depot to the road itself. In effect, drivers can only sign on when they are actually present at the relief point – and thereby ready for work.
In this way, drivers who have failed to reach their relief point are identified quickly and the traffic office has the ability to control the situation by contacting drivers; reallocating duties in real time; or bridging any gaps with service regulation.
Furthermore, the traffic office is able to avoid the ‘disaster scenario’ of a failed relief that they don’t even hear about until long after the bus should have departed – by which time there’s a gaping hole in the schedule, and a group of very unhappy passengers.
3: Improve Driver Communication
To return to our earlier point: you may have hundreds or thousands of drivers out working, but you don’t really know what they are doing. In this situation, simple communication is a huge benefit – but of course you can’t communicate to hundreds of drivers at a time. Again, that’s where technology comes in.
One of the more interesting reasons for a failed relief is one where a road traffic accident causes a road closure, preventing vehicles accessing a particular part of town. In this instance your drivers may be at the pre-agreed relief point, but the vehicle can’t reach them. In this instance some drivers may even see an opportunity to avoid working, pleading ignorance that the relief point has been affected. How do you manage this?
In this instance, Roadside Relief can be used to identify drivers awaiting relief at an affected area sign-on location. You can then contact them via your Duty Allocation System to advise them of an alternative relief point. In some instances you may have a group of drivers affected, in which case you can message them and then round them up in a shuttle bus to escort them to a substitute relief point, thereby ensuring minimal impact on upcoming services.
Roadside Relief dramatically improves bus operators’ ability to optimise route planning by making it possible to move relief points to the roadside, rather than centralised depots. The system offers traffic office staff confidence that drivers are on their way to their relief points, and offers means to identify and address any potential failed reliefs.