TransLink Podcast: What’s the T on making buses more reliable

TransLink Podcast: What’s the T on making buses more reliable

A bus on a priority lane, in traffic

What are some of the reasons why buses can be late and what are we doing to make them more reliable, for you? Listen and find out.


HOST JAWN JANG: Hey, welcome to What’s The T, the TransLink podcast. I’m your host, Jawn Jang. And on this episode, we talk all about this.

[FROM CLIP]: “Move that bus!” [inaudible screaming]

JAWN: What are we doing to improve bus reliability for you? Let’s tap in to What’s The T?


VOICEOVER 1: The next station is…

VOICEOVER 2: Welcome to What’s the T, the TransLink Podcast.

JAWN: Here’s the understatement of the year. Our busses are everywhere. Stand on a street corner, Metro Vancouver and it’s very likely that you’re going to see us within minutes. To help put that into perspective. Here’s Mike McDaniel, President and General Manager for Coast Mountain Bus Company.

MIKE MCDANIEL: Every day at peak service, we have about 1500 busses on the road. Weekly, we drive about 2 million kilometers and have about 4.5 million customer boardings.

This level of service is not possible without our 3700 bus operators behind the wheel and our 1000 maintenance staff that keep busses running smoothly every day. Our behind-the-scenes players such as our control centre employees, we call T-Comm, our depot staff, among others, are just as important as those frontline staff out on the system. It’s the perfect choreography of our service and it’s amazing and it’s happening right now, today.

JAWN: Today, that control centre Mike mentioned is the beating heart of our bus operations, tying the entire system together by providing real time updates to our staff and adjustments to bus service on the ground. Today, we get to step inside that control centre.

JOE GOSAL: We manage all the bus service on the road. We deal with any kind of emergencies arise, any kind of MVA’s, blockages, any kind of emergency situation that occurs on the busses as well as any of the TransLink properties.

JAWN: This is Joe Gosal T-Comm Duty Manager and Acting Assistant Operations Manager for CMBC. And we’re also joined by Rob Woods.

ROB WOODS: Former Transit Supervisor, current Mobile Duty Manager. Out on the field. So, I’m on mobile.

JAWN: One for those that just don’t know what is a corridor how would you explain that? I’ll offer that up to both of you gentlemen, whoever wants to take a stab at it.

ROB: Well, there’s actually a lot of preliminary work that goes into determining what routes we’re going to focus on in any particular month. This, being fairly new initiative this year, we consult with various depots where the service operates from. The management of that group, operations supervisors, and that’s based on the transit operator feedback that they’re putting in. They fill out, they’re called service comment sheets. They go back to operations. So that’s one of the first steps that we’ll take. We also because, we, in T-Comm, we collect all the information through records, daily records and incident records. We’ll, we’ll data mine the CIR’s and pull out a lot of service adjustments that happen on a particular route. And we, we factor in all of this together to sort of determine what the next month’s focus of route of the month will be for each garage. And so a corridor is, is basically a particular route.

JAWN: Makes a lot of sense. And with that in mind, what is the Corridor Deployment Project and what is it designed to do to make just general commuting along those routes efficient, faster, maybe just all around better for maybe not just the customer, but also operators and staff at CMBC?

JOE: Essentially, it’s to improve the service reliability and enhance the customer experience. So, with the corridor management process, we will look at safety items, We look at you know, the service that’s along the route. The transit areas will come out, they’ll drive a route, identify any kind of safety issues or and then identify any areas of improvement, for example, shelter, glass, you know, is there enough shelter for the customers, Is there adequate lighting?

And they’ll report all that information back, and that information is stored in a database and ported off to the appropriate departments. If there’s any kind of an immediate issue that’s been identified, the Transit Supervisors will radio up into T-Comm and have the appropriate departments come out and deal with the issues in real time. But essentially, they’re out there, Transit Supervisors, they’re out there monitoring the service, looking for service delays, trying to manage the service as best as possible to provide the headway that we’ve promised to our customers.

JAWN: Alright. Let’s pivot really quickly and use a real world example. And for this, we’re heading over to Joyce Collingwood station for a chat with Mark Moore, a transit supervisor who’s managing the 41st Avenue corridor, which includes the R4 41st Avenue RapidBus.

MARK MOHR: The R4 runs along 41st Avenue in Vancouver, east-west, and it runs express service along with the 41 line that runs stop-to-stop regular service. 41 line was reporting that the R4’s were often missing or overloaded, causing overcrowding on the 41. So, after talking to operators, passengers and looking at the numbers because of corridor management allowing me to have the time and the resources, I talked with scheduling to have them analyze the data.

And sure enough, they found that what the operators and passengers were reporting was true. And because of this, we were able to change the running times from 4 minutes to 3 minutes over the AM and PM rush hours Monday through Friday. And that should help alleviate the 41 line overcrowding. So it’s a win-win. Customers are better off served, and the operators on the 41 lines are not being overloaded.

The location that I’m going to enter today is going to be on 41st Avenue and I’m going to be putting it out on diversion at Victoria Drive. The issue type that we’re doing today is there is congestion and delays due to an accident at Knight Street. It asks for actions taken. I usually speak this into my phone. I called transit communications to have them put a diversion in for the R4 line routing westbound to UBC, period. The routing for the reroute is left on Victoria, right on 49th, right on Fraser, left on 41. Then regular route. Once we have that in there, I hit next.

Corridor management is really important because it gives us the ability to take the time necessary to do detailed looks into certain runs that are having problems, analyze and then suggest actions that we can take to alleviate bottlenecks and just improve customer experience overall, especially in regards to transit efficiency and reliability.

JAWN: It’s true what they say. Knowledge is power and being able to quickly share information on what’s happening on a particular route is instrumental in improving bus reliability. And that’s really what corridor deployment is all about. All right. Let’s head back to the T-Comm control centre.

[whoosh sound effect]

So, when we’re trying to talk about identifying corridors, I think it’s great that operators kind of get to input that because they know better than most, right? They are the ones servicing those routes. They talk and deal with the customers who get on and probably have some opinions to share when things are, you know, very busy on a particular afternoon in the sun and maybe the AC, you know, it’s not good enough for them. There’s a lot of reasons why operators just have that innate knowledge.

So, with that in mind, is it any surprise to you that there are probably going to be certain corridors that just kind of consistently pop up in these reports? Do you gentlemen, like, areas that we know have historically been high traffic areas?

JOE: Absolutely. So, you know, one area that is along 41st, right? The R4 is delayed, bunching, right? And then we know of other areas like, for example, on Scott Road with long term construction projects. So those areas are where we kind of deploy our Transit Supervisors and try to manage the service as best as possible. Now, our transit supervisors are not only talking to the operators, but they’re also talking to the customers and they’re listening to their feedback and providing that feedback to the Transit Supervisors who ultimately report it back and send it to the appropriate stakeholders.

JAWN: I actually used to live off of 41st Avenue. I was on Victoria and 41, so I was there maybe about six, seven years ago now. And, I can tell you, yeah, it is a busy artery and I believe that was before the R4 was a thing. But clearly the R4 was developed to make again commute along 41 that much more reliable, that much faster for customers.

This corridor development project, or, sorry, deployment project when we’re taking it taking a look specifically at like 41st Avenue in Vancouver, what are their things are kind of designed to make such a route work a little better for customers?

ROB: Again, there’s, there’s a lot of factors that play into it. As Joe mentioned, there’s, there’s construction, there’s simple little things that might not have been picked up or detected on the regular day-of just because everybody’s so busy. But simple little things where a fairly large school might have adjusted their lunchtimes or their, their end of school times, and it all of a sudden has a huge impact because we had already predetermined having overload specials to arrive at a certain location to, to accommodate to the higher than normal volume of people.

So we’ll pick things like that up through the corridor management in addition to all the other obstacles that, that come up on a regular basis.

JAWN: I know one of the key terms that I’m still learning myself because I’m a, I’m a I mean, I’m a, I’m a rookie really in the big picture of TransLink, in all is a timing point. So how does timing point sort of work into the equation? What does it mean for you, Joe, at T-Comm, and for you as well, Rob, does this timing point have any sort of meaningfulness to the customer?

JOE: Absolutely. So, it’s to basically to space out the service. So, if something is running ahead of schedule, it allows the operator, or the, the customer to have the opportunity to catch the bus from a certain point. So, for example, if you’re on a 49 going for Metrotown, the first timing point is at 49th and Cambie and so it allows the customer an opportunity to actually be able to catch, or have a reliable time, which the customer will have, be able to reference in terms of a timetable to catch the bus.

All the stops in between are approximate times that are published in the time in the timetables.

JAWN: How does it happen where we see a number of the same busses or at least servicing the same route, get all sort of bunched up together? I mean, we generally like we love going to the grocery store, buying bunches of grapes, bunches of bananas. We do not like seeing bunches of busses. So, I want to ask, how does that happen and when it is happening, how do we correct it as soon as we can?

ROB: The prelude to the deployment management formal program that we’re under now, we were testing certain areas on the effectiveness of focusing on certain routes along a corridor. So out in Surrey, along Fraser Highway, right up from Aldergrove, Langley, to Surrey Central, we had a number of busses coming in and by the time they reached a sort of midpoint or a little bit more in the midpoint, around 156, 152nd, there were large trains of busses coming through.

So, the first one was packed, the second one was pretty full. The second, third or fourth was pretty empty because they had caught up to each other. So one of the things that we discovered was if we put a timing point at 168th and made sure that we’re holding busses and forced the space in between busses, so we, we effectively found and discovered that through our focus is on, on that corridor, put in that timing point and it 100% fixed the problem that kept the spacing when it got into the more highly populated area of Surrey along 160th, 156th down towards Surrey Central there was, there was sufficient space between busses and and more balanced loads on the busses.

JAWN: Let’s pause here for a moment and just take a deep dive on this. How many times have you asked yourself, why is my bus running late? To that end, we bring in our good friend David Cooper, the principal at Leading Mobility Consulting for yet another Scoop with Coop.

DAVID COOPER: When you look at customer satisfaction surveys and you talk to your friends and, at parties, I’ll give you an example, you know, you work at transit and people sometimes at a holiday party, or a birthday party will ask, “what do you do?”, if they don’t know you, and one of the first complaints I’d always get when I worked in transit was something like, “Why is the number 81 bus always late?”

And, and sometimes I’d be able to answer that question or sometimes I’ve had friends that, you know, are traveling and they’ll text me because somehow I know why they’re busses are late, which is not always the case, but there’s a whole bunch of reasons. And I have a high patience for this, as someone who’s worked in transit for so many years of why busses are late, it could be anything and it could be a combination of all the things at the same time too. It could be anything from traffic in a local area, it could be anything from there’s construction that, that you didn’t know about and it’s navigating through a construction area. It could be things such as the busses overloaded because the previous trip was cancelled, everyone’s carrying themselves on to the current bus and the busses taking additional time to, to get people on and off because it’s running later.

The previous bus running earlier didn’t come, there could be an onboard emergency sometimes that just puts the service out of out of schedule or delays the service or could be an accident on the road that causes delays or could be fare payment issues where sometimes people increase the dwell time because they can’t figure out how to navigate the system. Sometimes, you know, it could be the bus leaving the, its terminal late, so there could be a whole myriad of reasons of why busses are delayed. I find when customers know the reason why, it’s much more tolerable. And also, customers know the reasons why and they know what alternatives are available for them. Usually, it becomes a non-issue.

JAWN:  Things like the Corridor Deployment project are designed to improve bus reliability and performance for our customers for now, let’s get back to Joe and Rob.

[whoosh sound effect]

It seems like, based on what I’m hearing from you gentlemen, like the early stages of the results of doing this is that it’s actually working very effectively.

ROB: You’re right in the background, when all this data is being collected from the transit supervisors using their, their phone apps and filling in these forms, we summarize it in real time. We look at it on a week-to-week basis as we upload the most recent data that’s been collected and we compile it all together and we’re able to determine, okay, there’s a packet of information that needs to go to scheduling, packet needs to go to long term planning and where to where to put those, those resources and where, where that information goes.

So, it’s an important tool that augments what we had all along. But it’s a, it’s, it’s a new step to react a little bit faster to, to certain demands. As you pointed out, a lot of new people coming to Metro Vancouver, we have to be ready and we have to have the tools and the ability to react, sometimes sooner rather than later.

JAWN: Final thoughts, Joe? I’ll go to you. Like for T-Comm. What are you excited about at T-Comm moving forward, knowing that there’s projects coming that are designed to make lives of operators and transit supervisors and customers a little bit easier.

JOE: Yeah. You know, new technology is exciting. We’re looking at new functionality within our software, which will give us the ability to manage service on the road a lot better than what we are right now. We will have opportunities to basically have a one stop shop and you know, with the transit supervisors, they’re out and about there. You know, we want them out of their cars, in the field, talking to people, right? Talking to operators, talking to the customers and enhancing that experience, right? Listening to what concerns are reporting those concerns back and so that they feel that they have a voice to be heard, right? And their voice is being heard. And, you know, that information gets back and we want to be able to provide them with an answer, right? So, transit supervisors are out there giving out their business cards, you know, responding to customers in real time, right? Addressing any concerns. It ultimately will bring down complaints and make the service more reliable.

JAWN: In a perfect world, our busses follow its schedule to a tee every single time. Unfortunately, that’s just not how things work in the real world. And as we learned, busses can be late for a variety of reasons. That’s often beyond the operator’s control. Such as traffic. But there’s so much work being done behind the scenes to keep busses as reliable as possible for you. Projects like Corridor Deployment help us identify and overcome challenges with reliability in our system, because we know at the end of the day you depend on us. Now here’s the best part. You can be a part of the solution. We’re always looking for your input through our customer feedback form at My thanks to Joe Gosal and Rob Woods for their time and insight and all of our friends at the Coast Mountain Bus Company for their help, David Cooper for another Scoop with Coop, producer Allen working tirelessly behind the scenes as always, and you for listening and subscribing. I’ve been your host, Jawn Jang. Until next time. Have a safe trip.