As I sat at my bus stop yesterday waiting for the bus to turn up to begin its run, which finally arrived about 7-8 minutes after its scheduled time, my mind wandered onto thinking about the bus reliability and punctuality statistics reported on in every monthly patronage report. Surprisingly, while our train network struggles to get 80% of trains to arrive at their destination within five minutes of scheduled timing, the bus reliability and punctuality stats are supposedly “out of this world” impressive – even though they need to compete with other cars while trains have their own right-of-way.

For example let’s take a look at April’s numbers:

Punctuality is measured in a different way for buses, with the question of whether or not they start their run within five minutes of scheduled being the key performance measure – whereas for trains it’s whether or not they finish their run within five minutes of scheduled times. Goodness knows the reason for the difference, but despite that these bus numbers are just staggeringly good. Even though Ritchies were scheduled to operate over 26,000 services in April not a single bus was cancelled – wow that must be some kind of world record! Out of the 9,686 trips Birkenhead Transport ran, only 9 of them started more than five minutes later than scheduled – that’s utterly incredible.

Oddly, these numbers also make me feel like I must be the unluckiest person in all of Auckland. I’m pretty sure every week or so one of the buses I’m hoping to catch doesn’t show up or is so late it clearly wouldn’t have started its run within 5 minutes of the scheduled time. But these statistics suggest that only 3 in 1000 bus services are cancelled and less than 1 in 100 services are more than 5 minutes late in starting their run. Do the bus companies know that I’m catching the bus or something, and go out of their way to cancel or delay the very services that I’m on – just to annoy me?

Of course I’m being facetious here. If you read the fine print of Auckland Transport’s description of bus reliability and punctuality you come across this:

Service punctuality and reliability are self-reported for contracted services by the bus operators utilising bus drivers logs. Auckland Transport is in the process of developing an automated tracking and monitoring system to report bus reliability and punctuality and provide enhanced data to improve service delivery across all bus services (contracted and commercial). A review of the reliability and punctuality of all bus timetables has also commenced to ensure timetables continuously reflect operating conditions.

So the bus companies report whether they cancelled a run or whether it started late. And considering there are probably financial penalties for such things, it’s pretty clear the bus companies are being rather less than honest with their reporting on such matters. The insane thing is that this has been going on for years with no action, even though the statistics are just so laughably bullshit.

Brian Rudman picked up on these hilarious numbers in a column a month or two back:

Auckland Transport’s latest “good news” bus-service statistics read like the electoral results of some tin-pot dictator.

Indeed, they’re so fantastical any self-respecting dictator would have had them scaled down.

The transport overlords claim last month, Auckland’s public bus fleet scored 99.88 per cent for “reliability” and 99.24 per cent for punctuality.

In bus talk, “reliability” means a scheduled bus actually reaching its destination. To score on the punctuality scale, a bus also has to “commence the journey within five minutes of the timetabled start time”.

So AT’s transport number-crunchers are asking us to believe that of the 171,610 scheduled bus trips last month, just 206 failed to reach their destinations – and presumably didn’t start as well – and that only 1304 – 43 a day – failed to start within five minutes of their scheduled start time.

It’s time we ended this joke. Let’s measure bus punctuality the same way we measure train punctuality – whether it reaches its destination within 5 minutes of scheduled time. Let’s take the numbers from the HOP system, which is impossible to lie about and let’s make the results publicly available in a detailed way. I want to see what proportion of Dominion Road bus services reach their destination on time, I want to see how badly bunched the Outer Link buses get. The public spends a huge amount of money subsidising our public transport – we deserve to see the real picture.

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  1. Hear hear couldn’t agree more – it’s about time the bus companies explained what I am sure are absolutely atrocious reliability stats – or better yet they result in on the ground improvements such as bus lanes. The current stats te actually worse than none at all as they imply that the bus priority and bus system is perfect and further bus lanes are unnecessary.

  2. In the meantime, needs a voluntary disclosure regime like IRD? If AT find out you’re lying they’ll nail you, otherwise you can ‘fess up yourself and avoid the worst of the pain.

  3. Lets do it all publicly. None of the laughable excuses for hiding information about something that’s ours.

    Yes, I know they have to make a profit. But if they can’t do that, then they shouldn’t tender.

  4. Well once HOP is in place (along with the GPS required for RTI) I assume AT will have full access to all stats, which would hopefully allow them to plot where on any particular route buses are being held up the most. Even without the GPS details, they should at least know when the bus starts its run and what its arrival time at the end is.

  5. Couldn’t agree more with your thoughts Peter. It’s, putting it mildly, a utter disgrace how the bus companies can’t seem to honestly report on their performance.

    A few years back when I lived in Kohimarama, I actually kept a detailed record of the times my buses arrived at my stop for about a month. I worked out that well over 70% of the buses I caught to the city failed to arrive at my stop within 5mins of schedule. Several buses actually arrived more than 20 minutes late — often arriving in unison with the following service.

    I had been complaning to Stagecoach for several years previously about the poor on-time performance of their buses on that particular route only to get excuses. I decided to send my findings to what was then the ARTA who, I’ve been told, had a ‘chat’ with a senior manager at Stagecoach…

    Lo and behold the following week after their ‘chat’ every single bus was on time (i.e. arrived no more than 5 minutes late). I thought at the time it was a damn shame that neither Stagecoach or ARTA had the ability to monitor buses and pick up which services were experiencing issues — I had to collect evidence myself and pass my findings on to Stagecoach via ARTA for something to be done about it.

    I do hope that the new technology being rolled out will allow AT to quickly identify issues. It’s clear to me that the operators can not do this (the Stagecoach example above being a good example) so it is up to AT to take the lead and closely monitor performance standards using reliable data direct from the buses (and thus bypassing the operators).

  6. If there are financial penalties in contracts I wonder whether the bus companies could be nailed for fraud by not reporting correctly.

  7. I think it would be good to classify late as either late starting OR late ending. Outbound from the city it’s the start that matters most. Weekend Dominion Road buses from Civic are terrible for this, as they always seem to be late arriving inbound (because there are no bus lanes?) + insufficient contingency = automatically late for all the people waiting outbound.

    It will be interesting to see how AT will manage these numbers falling off a cliff once proper checks come in…

    1. Agreed. I might be stirring the pot a bit here, but I think AT should continue the current method of reporting, and kick in the GPS reporting system without letting the operators know (if that’s possible?). Then when they find differences between the two, confront the operators as to why there are (I’m going to assume) huge variances between the operator’s report and what the GPS reporting system says! I for one am looking forward to the shit storm that will hopefully follow the introduction of a proper reporting system…

  8. I wonder if using a smartphone GPS tracking service (such as GPS Tracks, which is free) could easily log our bus & train journeys onto a public website?

  9. Measureing the start time of the run is correct as the Bus companies have no control over the traffic. ATshould have the info from the GPS system to measure this independently of the Bus co’s.

    Late ending bus’s should also be measured but should be treated as AT fault as they need to get the timetabling right (ie. it takes longer during rush hour due to traffic, loading and unloading) or get bus lanes etc built.

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