Computers solve rural transport problems

A pioneering transport system which uses sophisticated computer technology to provide buses on demand may help to solve rural travel problems.

Passengers using the new service benefit from flexible timetables, can influence the journey routes and may be picked up and dropped off on their doorsteps.

The University of Newcastle upon Tyne’s Transport Operations Research Group (TORG) and Northumberland County Council are jointly managing the three-year £750,000 pilot project, which is evaluating Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) services.

Early indications show that the Government-funded service, called Phone and Go, is proving to be a great success.

Phone and Go is an example of ‘transport telematics’, which means the application of information technology to provide travel solutions. Somewhere between a conventional bus service and a taxi, it differs from community transport schemes like Dial A Ride in that it is open to everybody, and the computer technology is a central element to facilitating greater responsiveness by allowing trips to be booked up to an hour before pick-up.

Two Phone and Go services are currently operating in the Allen valleys and the Lower Coquet area in Northumberland, areas which have few existing bus links.

The bright red mini buses boast wheelchair and pushchair access and air conditioning. They are currently making between 20 and 65 trips each day. One bus has also been coordinated to service a daily school run.

The only restrictions are the boundaries within which the bus routes are operated, and certain timing points which allow buses to connect with existing transport services run by other operators.

Passengers wishing to use Phone and Go must telephone its Travel Dispatch Centre (TDC) in advance of their journey, which is based in TORG’s offices in the University of Newcastle and is open from Monday to Saturday.

A dispatcher notes the journey details and uses the computer software to check how it fits in with previous bookings. If the dispatcher cannot offer the exact time or pick-up place the customer requires, several alternatives are offered.

The TDC then plots the most efficient route taking into account all of the bookings and sends the information to a minicomputer on the bus using GSM text messaging, which is similar to the technology used by mobile telephones.

Although several similar schemes are operating around the UK, the Northumberland project is the only one involving a University and is unique in that it is being fully evaluated. A team from TORG sourced and installed the vehicles and equipment, developed the TDC and is carrying out full monitoring and analysis to develop good practice for the future.

The Department for Transport is funding Phone and Go until 2004 but Newcastle University and Northumberland County Council hope to gain additional grants for it to continue beyond then.

Project leader Dr John Nelson, who is also a senior lecturer with the University’s School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences, said:

“Phone and Go is still in its early stages but early statistics show that it is increasingly popular.

“A large part of our challenge is to get rural communities relying on public transport again. So many people have become used to using their cars that a major cultural change is required.

“Most of our users are pensioners or mothers with children and young people but we hope all sections of the community will start to use Phone and Go within time.

“One of the benefits of monitoring the system is that we can quickly realise where our successes and failures are. Feedback from customers is a key part of the evaluation process. We need to find out how we can do better.”

Phone and Go was devised following extensive European research which developed an evaluation framework and a computer software package for transport systems which would operate according to community demands. Newcastle University played a leading part in that research.

Dr Nelson added:

“European Union policy is moving towards social inclusion and governments increasingly need to address the problem of mobility deprived people. We think Phone and Go can go some way towards achieving this.”

Councillor Mick Scullion, Northumberland County Council executive member for highways and transport, said:

“Northumberland County Council is proud to be at the forefront of this pioneering project, which we are sure will go a long way to alleviating many rural transport problems.

“Where Phone and Go services have been introduced in Northumberland they have been warmly received and readily utilised. For those people without access to a motor car they are providing accessibility and social inclusion. ”

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