Friday, March 24, 2006

Brian Rudman: The BUS is DUE, so expect a short DLY

Auckland City Council bureaucrats have a sense of humour after all. How droll of them to choose April Fool's Day to palm off the city's misleadingly labelled Real Time Passenger Information System to the Auckland Regional Transport Authority (Arta).

From my experience, this $6.9 million electronic noticeboard system is about as accurate at predicting bus arrival times as the sports experts were in predicting our medal count at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games. As for the token price of $1, it sounds rather expensive.

Each time the indicator board at the bus stop outside TVNZ on Victoria St misleads me with unreal information, I'm reminded of a trip down Dominion Rd I took as a cub reporter a hundred years ago.

In the driving seat of his Morris 1100 was new and eager-to-please MP Jonathan Hunt, and alongside him, playing havoc with the new-fangled hydrolastic suspension, was the large Labour Party leader, Norman Kirk.

I was in the back with veteran Auckland MP Norman Douglas, Norm hanging on for grim life, in those pre-seatbelt days, from the leather strap attached to the door frame.

After we'd dashed through the third intersection in, shall we say, a most adventurous way, a grinning Kirk turned to ashen-faced Douglas and declared how much he loved the way Auckland decorated its intersections with flashing coloured lights.

"One day," he quipped, "you Aucklanders might even discover a way of using them to control the traffic."

I live in hope that on some similar eureka day the electronic sign boards at our bus stops will finally predict accurately the comings and goings of our bus fleet.

Until that glorious time, it's alarming to read reports that Arta plans to expand this flawed system throughout the region.

Surely, the priority should be to fix the existing set-up.

Wednesday was a good example. The 005 I was heading to work in was almost alongside the Ponsonby bus shelter when the woman within erupted in a flurry of waving arms and falling bags. Luckily, the driver took pity and leaped on the anchors. Red faced, she flustered aboard, loudly apologising, "Sorry, the board said you were 12 minutes off".

That evening it happened to me on the way home. The electronic board said the 004 would be there in three minutes, the Link in 13 minutes. As I looked away, both the 004 and a Link bus hove into view. This was better than the day before when I arrived at the stop to read the 004 and Links were both "DUE", which in sign lingo means less than one minute away. I can catch either, but the Link involves a five-minute walk at the other end, so lazily, when the Link turned up first, I ignored it for the still DUE 004. Ten minutes on, the 004 changed from DUE to the dreaded DLY, which in sign talk means "disappeared off the face of the Earth". I was left wishing I'd got the long-gone Link - next one 15 minutes.

My research is hardly scientific, but over the past weeks I have been scribbling down these real-time incidents. Monday the 13th, for example, I arrive at the stop just ahead of a 004 to read it's not due in real time for eight minutes. Wednesday the 15th, Link due in 13 minutes but arrives a minute later.

It's the DLYs that really bug me. How can a real-time system slowly count down the minutes until your bus is about to crest the brow of Hobson St, then suddenly declare it's gone missing? Is there a great taniwha in Queen St that swallows them up?

Auckland City awarded the real-time contract to Saab ITS in March 2002. Two years later, council officials claimed they'd got an initial "missing service" error rate of up to 30 per cent down to 3 to 4 per cent. But an independent audit by Parsons Brinckerhoff concluded that the system should have to continue "to run with far fewer issues" before council proceeded to stage two. Despite the warning, politicians voted to move with stages two and three, spreading the signage throughout the city.

Now it's Arta's turn to spread it regionwide. Mark Lambert, Arta's manager of passenger transport development, acknowledges "there are a number of issues which are affecting the accuracy which we are working on" but says the "core system" is fine.

Until buses turn up when the signs say, I will find that hard to believe.

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