You can’t trust the new real-time bus system; don’t

by stephen clover on April 28, 2011

Earlier this month Alan heralded the beginning of the roll-out of the Regional Council’s new Real Time Passenger Information project. So far, though, I’m not happy. Just as numerous pieces of publicity in local and community newspapers have failed to alleviate my suspicion that the system is not all it is cracked up to be, numerous bad experiences have left me with little faith in the service it purports to provide.

Computer says "no" and bus says "sorry"

Computer says "no" and bus says "sorry"

Once upon a time — let’s call that time “Pre-RTI” — I had no particular faith in the bus time-tables: buses mostly turned up on time, but frequentlyregularly were late, or failed to appear at all. Now, in the time we’ll logically call “During-RTI”, the failure rate is more-or-less the same but the implications are far worse. Buses still run late, or fail to show up, but the RTI system doesn’t match what is happening in the field and leaves the customer with LESS trust in the time-table.

Some examples:

  1. This morning via the Metlink Live Departures page for my smart-phone, I determined I would catch the #18 University service which originates at Newtown Park/Zoo (stop #7923), departing 8.29 am. I waited at the stop from 8.24 until 8.40 at which time I caught the #10 Railway Stn service instead (more weirdness: see 2, below). At some time before 8.29 the #18 entry in the Live Departures list just disappeared. Where did my bus go?
  2. I was watching and refreshing the Live Departures list between 8.20 and 8.55 and the 8.40 #10 never showed up in the list all — which was mildly disconcerting considering for a lot of that time I was sitting at the stop, looking at it and indeed rode it into town.
  3. Once the 8.29 #18 disappeared from the Live Departures list, nothing else showed until the 9.22 #10 and #18 services were listed. Thus missing also was the 8.55 #10 service, which I am informed DID appear on time and provided a very timely service to the Railway Station terminus.
  4. Another morning waiting in plenty of time at the Wallace St stop opp. Massey University (stop #7914) I watched via the smart-phone Live Departures listings my #10 service get closer and closer, until it sailed past me at 8.49, a good six or seven minutes early. According to my colleague in bus malarkey monitoring who was riding on it, it had left Newtown Park/Zoo (stop #7923) on time but made uncharacteristically good time through Newtown and hence was running very early. Around 8.48 the Live Departures page was listing it as 7 min away. Next moment it whizzed by, and shortly after that it vanished from the list altogether.
  5. I have previously commented about what happened to my #10 which was meant to depart from Stop B at the downtown interchange at 6.15 pm one night. From about 6.10 the display read “10 Newtown Park – Due: 8 min” and remained showing that for about 10 minutes at which point the display changed and the #10 entry just disappeared.

Don’t get the idea I’m only complaining about what happened to me or that my misfortune is particularly bad or anything — I’m not, it’s not, and nothing particularly unfortunate has resulted. Many other people have probably had similar experiences though, and if you add all these experiences together it becomes obvious that the new system is not getting anywhere near its imaginable success factors.

It’s also clear that the algorithms behind the bus RTI system and not coping with these extraordinary circumstances at all, and nor do they seem to be sufficiently taking into regard anything more than instantaneous user experience.  A bus simply shouldn’t disappear from the listings — what, are they being vaporized by cosmic rays? Indication MUST be given when a service is cancelled, is coming through way ahead of schedule / has come through ahead of schedule, or anything else unusual.

If I’m being honest I have to admit that I’m actually incredulous, and frankly it’s tempting to add that calling this system anything “Real Time” is a slur on the term and probably upsetting to anyone who is or has been involved with building real-time information systems. Without significant improvement, it’s hard to see how the new scheme can be relied-on to give accurate information at all — and so you can’t trust the old timetable and you can’t trust the new “real time” system either. I’m just going to have to go back to cutting cards, or tossing blades of grass in the air, to work out when my bus is due.

[Epilogue: what kills me the most, though, is that Auckland have had a very accurate and competent RTI bus system for at least fifteen years — I remember marvelling at it on Dominion Road in 1997. Now we finally have one too, after years of rumour and hints; I really really want this to work out and succeed and everything. Hopefully this post can be seen at least in part as constructive criticism; I pray these glitches can be ironed out and our system kicks ass.]

Hadyn April 28, 2011 at 3:24 pm

“From about 6.10 the display read “10 Newtown Park – Due: 8 min” and remained showing that for about 10 minutes at which point it just disappeared without a trace.”

stephen clover April 28, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Soup nazi :p

Alan April 28, 2011 at 3:40 pm

I’m not quite as down on it as you guys, maybe – I think there’s some bedding in to go yet – but I am a bit irritated with the continual outages in the real time pages of the Metlink site. Particularly as those outages seem to be just when I might want to use the system (i.e., between 5 and 6pm at night)

Given that these pages are the only way for anyone to access the system at the moment (apart from those people at the station who can see the boards, and even then at the station it’s only really relevant for through buses rather than those that start there) it’s a great pity that the site is not dependable at peak times.

Tom April 28, 2011 at 3:54 pm

One thing to note is apparently not all the buses have the GPS tracking unit thingees installed yet.. and the ones that disappear from the ‘upcoming’ list probably do so with the so-called “timetable”. (Not that that explains all the weird-ness.. )

Still given that Go Wellington consider a bus that doesn’t run at all as ‘on time’ anything that gives some indication of the likelihood of a bus gracing us with it’s presence is a start!

One thing I always thought they could do (even pre RTI) was actually wait at a bus stop when they get ahead of schedule? Like they do basically everywhere else in NZ. You know ‘key stops’ where they pause to get back in line with the timetable. Nothing more frustrating than showing up at a stop 5 minutes early for scheduled bus.. (then waiting for 40 minutes for what is likely actually the next bus also running early).

Still given that bus drivers seem to see their job primarily about getting to the other end of the route as quickly as possible, picking up the minimum of those pesky passengers as they can, it’s unlikely they’d be prepared to sit for 1 minute at a stop.

I just fear RTI will mean buses can run even further from the timetable ‘Don’t worry if you’re running early.. the punters can use the real-time departures to get to the stop in time’..

Any way when is the Wellibus app going to start using the RTI feed?

Alan April 28, 2011 at 4:25 pm

Any bus not equipped with a GPS is shown on the realtime Metlink pages by timetabled time for that service to arrive at that stop (e.g,, “4.25pm”).

Conversely, the buses with the estimated time to arrival in minutes do have the GPS installed, and say things like “Due”, or “8 minutes”. These buses should not be disappearing, or be many minutes ahead of their times as shown on the Metlink site or Station boards.

Tom April 28, 2011 at 5:13 pm

True – Still I’ve had a few ‘phantom’ buses which were fitted with GPS (and showing as ‘due’) disappear from the live departures list, as if they had passed the stop already, then they show up a few minutes later.

I guess maybe the bus-super-controller-computer doesn’t hear from a bus for a few minutes, and assumes the bus should have been past that stop already (given its progress up to that stop maybe?) so removes it from the list. Where-as it might actually be stuck around the corner before the stop..

I’m wondering more if it’s a programming issue that means a bus can’t re-appear in the departures list once it’s been removed?

Well at least while I’m waiting for a bus to show up I have something to play about with 🙂

Steph April 28, 2011 at 10:04 pm

I was at stop #5006 earlier tonight, that’s Manners Street @ Willis Street (by the Post Shop) for those not in the know, and was constantly refreshing the page on my smart phone. I noticed a couple of buses turn Due almost at the same time (probably when they were at the Arty Bees stop or approaching it), one stayed Due until it left the stop, but the other was caught at the lights by McDonald’s for what felt like AGES (purely because there was no traffic and very little pedestrians around and it just seemed like a useless red light), and fell off the Due while still at the lights, and not yet at the stop.
That was me agreeing with Tom’s thoughts that maybe the fat controller computer tries to use logic in times of minimal communication.

Joanna April 28, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Yes please to the idea that the buses will wait at key stops if they’re running early. My buses seem to be early more often than not, and it drives me nuts. But if I get there early, they’ll get there late…

stephen clover April 28, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Agreed, that would be brilliant. I actually thought they were currently meant to do this, but perhaps not.

The problem with waiting early buses is that they can impede the progress and impact the timeliness of other services — of course with a decent real-time system drivers would be able to see which other buses are following them and in what order they are, who needs to be let past, who can wait, and make an informed decision about if/how long to wait.

Emma April 28, 2011 at 10:03 pm

Drivers are instructed to wait at a bus stop if they are early.

It’s the drivers discretion whether they do or not – unfortunately sometimes they don’t wait!

Steph April 28, 2011 at 10:06 pm

The Newlands drivers were pretty good at stopping if they were early. I used to love being on the bus as it pulled into Johnsonville station to see people run to try catch it, then we’d be sitting there for another 5 minutes until our scheduled departure. Especially when during that time, another bus would pull in to the station and leave on it’s way to town and annoy those previously mentioned runners.

Aidan April 28, 2011 at 4:38 pm

@Alan – completely agree with you, the website seems to go down all the time. It feels extremely mickey mouse. Most bus stops don’t have the real-time ticker so the website is crucial.

This morning I went to the bus stop at 8.55. I checked on the website (which was working, unlike yesterday) and the next bus listed was due at 9.20. I was surprised – this is at Karori Tunnel, a hot-spot for buses.

Then a #22 turned up 3 minutes later. Useless!

stephen clover April 28, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Ooh, look what I spotted on the Metlink main page:

6 hours ago – @darrylgray we were having issues with RTI yesterday and this morning but it has been fixed. The #7 and website should work now

(and this:
8 hours ago – @theraromachine please send your complaint to, from there I can log it with Go Wellington :))

sue April 28, 2011 at 6:10 pm

yet another reason not to get a jesus phone, and i know all the buses from karori park stop at the bottom of lambton quay and pause if they are ahead of schedule. which is great if you are waiting for that bus, annoying if you are on that bus

Emma April 28, 2011 at 7:10 pm

Granted Stephen, buses not being punctual or in some cases not arriving at all, is a definite inconvenience. In its defence, the RTIS system has just been rolled out and some technical glitches are to be expected in the initial stages of getting everything running smoothly, as with any new technological development. Auckland’s system is not so dissimilar to Wellington’s, and with the same group of companies working on the project you can expect the Wellington service to improve with time.

Coming from the other side of public transport systems – ie, being involved in analysing timetable performance from an operational perspective, and recommending improvements, I can assure you that processes are in place, and actions are being taken in order to make the services more reliable. There is a great team behind the bus services in Wellington who are working on improving the quality of services in a multitude of ways, after all, they take the buses to work too 😉

stephen clover April 28, 2011 at 8:13 pm

Excellent news, thanks Emma. I’ll be the first to celebrate (and post) when the glitches are sorted out.

What I would say in addition is that if a system is in ‘beta’, undergoing a staged roll-out, still being bedded-in and wotnot then it would be a definite advantage to your userbase that it is made very clear that the information that they are seeing is incomplete, may be misleading, inaccurate, etc.

I don’t feel at this point that this has been done.

Emma April 28, 2011 at 10:00 pm

You make a good point. Unfortunately I haven’t been involved with NZBus for a couple of months, so was not involved with the RTIS launch. You might like to approach NZBus directly or provide GO Wellington with this feedback, they will no doubt appreciate feedback on where they can potentially improve the service.

Steph April 28, 2011 at 10:11 pm

As for Auckland’s RTI… I too remembered being wowed by it back in about 2001, incidentally also on Dominion Road. Recent visits though have led me to have less faith in the Auckland displays than the faith I have that the Johnsonville train will actually be a train and running.

Emma April 28, 2011 at 10:15 pm

Trains are a different story altogether! Especially the J’Ville line. Perhaps you could write a blog about trains…. Or bikeracks on buses!

Robyn April 28, 2011 at 10:33 pm

I’m still really puzzled that the prototype RTI signs at the bus terminal show the expected departure time of the bus but not the current time. So, ok, my bus is going to leave at 11.34, but what’ the current time? Aw, don’t make me keep getting my cellphone out.

I’ve said this before, but I really like the Auckland signs that say a bus is due in a much more human friendly format – eg “7 minutes”, not the clock time.

Cr Daran Ponter May 6, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Hi Robyn,

If you are seeing a display that gives a clock time then that means that the RTI is not working or is not fitted for that bus and it is actually displaying the time that the bus is expected to arrive as per the bus timetable.

Like Auckland, if the sign says 3 minutes then this means that the bus is due to arrive at the bus stop in approx 3 minutes based on the information from the bus GPS (i.e. the RTI is working in this instance).

Greg Bodnar May 10, 2011 at 12:03 pm

When can we expect to see reporting of timetable vs actual? I can’t be the only who’s keen to see what sort of actual variance my route has.

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