Author: Gord Ker
Former Scheduling & Dispatch Supervisor at a Major North American Transit Organizataion
Running a public transit system is a balancing act. It takes skill and planning to respect government mandates, wisely spend taxpayers’ money, and ensure rider and driver satisfaction. Finding efficiencies, staying on budget, and making sure buses run on time shouldn’t come at the expense of service levels. That’s why you have to put the right people on the job and give them the tools to do it.
I used to work for a provincial transit authority that operates four different bus services. While we branded these services differently, they are all operated by the same team. We share drivers, mechanics, vehicles—and a single office. At the same time, we don’t have a central hub. Our main building was located at the south end of the city, and we operated four sub-hubs to the north for our public city and inter-city routes. As you can imagine, this operational set-up complicated routing and scheduling because our drivers and vehicles were working from five different starting points every day.
I joined the organization in 2012 after more than a decade in the hospitality industry. Transportation was a new world to me, but I accepted the job at the perfect moment. We had recently launched a transit system for our tourist visitors and adopted Enghouse Sched21 as its digital route planning tool. It was a new start both for our transit system and for me.
It would be fair to say I had an on-the-job crash course in the basics of transit scheduling. Then, I had to learn how to get our databases and CAD/AVL (Computer-Aided Dispatch/Automatic Vehicle Location) system to talk to Sched21. Fortunately, I received a lot of help from Enghouse. with a dedicated trainer whose assistance proved invaluable. I was looking at the platform up close, and my trainer had a bird’s eye view at 30,000 feet.
Tom was a big help, and soon the entire Enghouse team supported us as we rolled out Sched21 by August 2012. The initial scope comprised getting CAD/AVL data to customer-facing apps so our users could see the entire schedule and track vehicle locations in real time.
I spent that first summer learning to cut runs, block procedures, use the report module, and upload data to create our GTFS feed. In 2013, I spent a second summer deepening my knowledge of Sched21 and refining the system we created. We streamlined how we presented CAD/AVL data to riders and prepared for the next logical step.
In 2014 and 2015, we added our city and regional public transit system data to our database. We previously used different types of data sets and decided to consolidate all four transit services under our CAD/AVL system. Our goal was to give all our users real-time scheduling and route information no matter what service they were using. Enghouse shone in this area. We used Clever Devices’ BusTime as our real-time transit app, and Sched21 integrated seamlessly with this platform. We fed CAD/AVL data from all four services to BusTime and perfected the public-facing side of scheduling.
From there, I then shifted my focus to refining our schedules and finding efficiencies internally.
I’m a visual guy, so I appreciated Sched21’s graphical representation of our routes. I could see how bus trips intertwine, identify potential efficiencies from a passenger and driver perspective, and retime routes as needed. For example, if I saw that a 30-minute route took 20 minutes to complete, I could add a few more stops, whether that meant going into a new neighborhood or traveling further into a subdivision, all at no extra cost.
Eliminating service gaps and optimizing schedules increases safety and reduces excess costs, thus better serving the public—and the public purse.
One of our biggest challenges was getting drivers from our south-end building to our four decentralized hubs. With Sched21, we knew where our buses were at all times, and could better schedule shift changes, lunch breaks, vehicle assignments, and driver changes. I saw everything as a big block table where I could look for connections, optimize relief points and break times, and integrate driver feedback into our decisions.
By eliminating service gaps and optimizing driver and vehicle schedules, we increased passenger and driver safety and reduced excess costs, thus better serving the public—and the public purse.
Sched21 was a stepping stone to bigger and better things. In late 2019, we decided to tackle timekeeping with the help of TeleDriver, and it became my pandemic project after we scaled back service in the wake of COVID-19.
Previously, I was planning our drivers’ schedules on 8 ½” x 14” sheets of paper, and then a clerk had to code everything by hand. Every Monday, I spent four hours manually laying out weekly shifts, shift premiums, breaks, and assigning relief drivers. The clerk would then alphabetize and sort them by employee number and input them into an Excel file that I sent to payroll. It took the two of us 10–12 hours a week to compile and enter the information for 40–120 drivers depending on the time of year.
Automating scheduling saves up to nine hours a week of administrative work.
TeleDriver automated the scheduling process and reduced it to roughly three hours a week. Once again, it was very visual, so it was easy to digest and understand. TeleDriver takes CAD/AVL data from Sched21 and lets me see everything in blocks. Whether setting up weekly schedules or reassigning drivers because somebody called in sick, I could drag and drop a name into a slot and assign a shift in seconds. TeleDriver also integrates with our payroll system and accurately calculates salaried hours and premiums. TeleDriver was a godsend to me.
I started feeding live data to TeleDriver in May 2020, and by the middle of June, I had refined our workflows and integrated it with our payroll system. TeleDriver uses CAD/AVL data differently than Clever Devices’ BusTime and Sched21, but my colleague, Dave, tweaked that database accordingly. I also worked with Darren Crooks at Enghouse, who modified TeleDriver to automate the schedules of maintenance crews at our garage.
TeleDriver is a great partner as well. Their team showed me how to set up and upload a separate schedule for the garage, change all my settings and calculate the specific premiums that apply to our mechanics and cleaners.
Enghouse as a whole is incredibly responsive. Whenever I reach out to them for assistance, I typically hear back from them within a couple of hours. When I asked for a cut and paste function in Sched21, they built one for me and rolled it out to all users. I was impressed by their ingenuity and responsiveness, and they continued to exceed expectations.
Over the years, I’ve come to rely on Enghouse. They took me from a transit newbie to a transit expert in a matter of months, and they made my job easier for the last nine years.
They have helped the transit authority launch and optimize our tourist scheduling system, improve efficiencies at our municipal and regional public transit brands, address service gaps, improve the rider experience, and balance fiscal responsibility with driver and passenger safety. Their intelligent team helped us plan a more intelligent regional transit system, and made our city a better place to visit and to live.