Surrey County Council’s Total Commitment to Passenger Information
Surrey County Council showed laudable commitment to delivering accurate real-time information throughout the pandemic. Senior Transport Officer Alison Houghton explains how it was achieved.
While the Covid-19 pandemic has taken a huge toll on local authorities and transport operators, it has also showcased some truly impressive outcomes as organisations work together to address this most intrusive and collective of challenges.
One of the most striking examples we have seen is at Surrey County Council, where the Passenger Transport Projects Team has shown unwavering commitment to maintaining the delivery of accurate information to support the local community in the face of literally unprecedented levels of change.
Realising the scale of change
On March 18, responding to the rapidly escalating Covid-19 emergency, the UK government announced that all schools would close, and just a few days later the country was told to stay home. This was the trigger for huge bus service changes: in Surrey there was a high percentage of reduction in services, with around 185 routes affected.
Alison Houghton, Surrey County Council’s Senior Transport Officer recalls: “Having to respond to a constantly changing situation was incredibly challenging. We were making so many changes – often several times a day. Operators were trying to match services to meet demand – an impossible task given the changes occurring as new information emerged.”
For Surrey the situation presented additional challenges, given the region’s large number of bus operators: “We work with over 20 different bus operators, including major commercial companies with dozens of routes, and smaller operators running single routes,” explains Alison. “Operators work in different ways, and some aren’t always able to respond quite so quickly as others, which presented further difficulty.”
Commitment to delivering information
From the outset, Surrey’s team committed to continuing to deliver accurate information in order to ensure ongoing service to essential facilities in the area, including the county’s six hospitals and major supermarkets. As a result of their efforts, passengers were able to travel safely, and crowds at bus stops were minimised.
Alison explains: “It was vital that passengers were able to plan safe journeys. We didn’t want to have people hanging around at bus stops waiting for buses with uncertainty as to their arrival, so information was central to enabling them to turn up and be on their way with minimal waiting and stress.”
Collaborating to deliver RTPI
By working alongside bus operators and Surrey’s passenger information technology partner, Trapeze Group, the council was able to adapt to the rapidly changing situation. Surrey’s existing data management service, provided by Trapeze, came into its own during this period, enabling required changes to be processed and made live the very next day.
Trapeze’s data management team interact with operators directly, receiving data via TransXChange wherever possible, and then schedule it for publishing across at-stop signs, media displays and downstream tools such as Traveline.
Alison explains: “Because each operator has their own way of working, service data can arrive in a variety of formats: some operators don’t have scheduling software, so do all their work by spreadsheet; others upload information to the Trapeze support community; and we have some partners who provide TransXChange data but without all the necessary information required for the RTPI system.
“In whichever form data arrives, the Trapeze team check it, find any errors and deal with bus operators directly where required, and then translate it into a schedule. With so many different operators, this can be a huge amount of work, and would be very long-winded and time-consuming to do ourselves.”
Plugging the information gaps
With the data legwork managed elsewhere, Surrey were able to think carefully about how to address information gaps. Recognising that people needed accurate information more than ever, they took the decision that ‘no data is better than bad data’. Therefore, the team informed operators that where they didn’t have the right data, they would remove route information altogether.
At the same time, Surrey focused on the ways in which they could better inform passengers. Jamie Beswick, Transport Officer at Surrey County Council said: “We were checking the accuracy of data being distributed, and developing large digital information posters for use on media displays at major stops, summarising changes and pointing passengers to additional sources of information to maximise visibility for the public.
“We also configured a master spreadsheet to track all changes. This was a mind blowingly complex process because nearly every single service was doing something different. This task, although painful at the time, proved vital as we were able to keep track of all changes – and is now hugely valuable to our team as services begin to return to normal.”
Taking a different approach
The path Surrey took – of obtaining, changing and publishing all service changes – is one that not all authorities could undertake. However, the team’s commitment to information quality, the infrastructure it had in terms of Trapeze’s data management service, and the level of support from the council management team, was the platform for delivering a truly impressive approach that has massively benefitted their community.
The team’s efforts have been recognised internally by management and also by local operators thankful for the steps taken.
Colin Urquhart, Novus Lead at Trapeze Group, says: “During this crisis we have all been struggling to respond to the sheer volume of registration changes and short notice of bus operators implementing emergency services. During high levels of uncertainty it is even more important that data is up to date. Surrey County Council have done a great job of recognising this and prioritising real-time information, ensuring excellent availability and accuracy for passengers throughout.”
We at Trapeze are delighted to have been able to support Surrey throughout this crisis, working in collaboration with the council and operators to ensure continuity of passenger information. This included putting in place additional guidance and training so the service provision would be consistent even in the event of staff sickness. Alison says: “Trapeze were very on the ball, and always thinking ahead.”
Through this difficult time, one of the bright points has been witnessing the way that many organisations have been able to mobilise quickly to make radical changes that benefit society at large.
Alison and Jamie at Surrey County Council, whose determination to continue delivering accurate consistent information at a time of great need, is an excellent example of this. We applaud them for their efforts and are proud to have been able to play a supporting role.