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At midnight, the Saturday before last, Dan Barron left a pub in Bray to catch the last 84 service back home to Kilcoole, County Wicklow.
“I was there for about five to twelve,” he says, about 15 minutes early. It was dark, but the weather was mild and there were five or six other people waiting too, he says.
Barron watched the minutes count down on the Dublin Bus app. But at 12.10am, no bus appeared, he says, while on the app, the 84 disappeared as though it had been and gone.
“I waited about 20 minutes after that,” he says. “I could hear people saying, ‘Awwww, will we just get a taxi?’ I could just see them dropping off, one by one.”
It’s not clear why Barron’s 84 bus didn’t show that night, or whether his experience was an unfortunate blip or a more frequent blight on that particular route.
Bus passengers regularly describe waiting for buses that don’t show up. And data published by the National Transport Authority (NTA) shows the number of scheduled Dublin Bus services that didn’t run doubling over the course of last year – from about 1 percent to about 2 percent.
A spokesperson for Dublin Bus said on Friday that they couldn’t say how many services in the last three months have been cancelled, but cited absences of drivers due to Covid-19, sickness and annual leave, and traffic disruption, as reasons why they have been.
Some passengers say that, regardless of the reasons buses don’t show up, they would like much more of a heads-up, ideally via the digital signs at bus stops and the app, so they can better plan their journeys.
To get people using public transport, they have to believe that buses will show up, says Feljin Jose, spokesperson for Dublin Commuter Coalition.
“If a service does have to be cancelled, you have to let people know instead of leaving them on the roadside to figure it out for themselves,” he says.
The Dublin Bus app, website and on-street real-time passenger information (RTPI) signs do not inform customers of cancellations, said the Dublin Bus spokesperson.
But other apps, when they have the information, do.
Transport for Ireland (TFI), the brand the NTA uses to manage its services, runs its own app to communicate real-time passenger information, called Real Time Ireland.
On that app, cancelled services are labelled as “cancelled”, said an NTA spokesperson (unless Dublin Bus doesn’t tell the NTA when a bus is cancelled). On the Dublin Bus app, cancelled services simply don’t appear on the list.
The Dublin Bus spokesperson said the company is developing its website. “Which will fully incorporate all the features of the Transport For Ireland (TFI) Real Time app and this will also be available in mobile format,” they said.
They did not respond when asked whether the Dublin Bus app would also be updated. It was last updated in 2019, according to the Google Play Store.
But not every cancelled service is marked as such in the TFI Real Time app either, say passengers.
On Friday, Marcus Ring says he was waiting for 40 minutes in Swords, as three buses promised on the Real Time Ireland app didn’t show up. He and other passengers at the stop were very frustrated, he says.
“This happens constantly for me and I’ve been late to work multiple times cause of it,” he says. “I’ve found myself paying for taxis to work almost everyday now because the TFI transport system is just genuinely awful.”
On 9 July, Aoife Ní Nualláin says she arrived with four minutes to spare for the 151 in Clondalkin, which would take her into work.
The service, due at 2:41pm, never came, she says, and the next service, due at 3:03pm, arrived at 3:10pm.
“I think I ended up in at like half-four, or something, and I was meant to be there for half three,” she says.
Ní Nualláin had been using Next Dublin Bus, an unofficial app using RTPI data, which said the service was running.
Late or cancelled buses are so frequent that Ní Nualláin now opts for the Luas although that means she has to walk further, she says. “I actually kind of stopped going for the bus as much, because it’s so unreliable.”
It’s especially bad when the RTPI is incorrect at night, she says. Waiting at a bus stop in the dark when you’re unsure if it has already departed, hasn’t yet arrived, or just isn’t coming.
“It’s just really stressful,” she says. “I really don’t like being at the bus stop late at night.”
In Real Time?
All bus apps get RTPI information from the NTA, said the Dublin Bus spokesperson.
“Buses are equipped with an onboard computer, GPS navigation system and a radio which allows them to report their position to a central computer,” says the Dublin Bus website.
GPS data from a navigation system on each bus is beamed to automatic vehicle location (AVL) software, and matched with the daily schedule of the route, says Stephen McBride, an app developer who developed the Next Dublin Bus app in 2011.
The AVL software will then provide a predicted arrival time for the bus, he says. This data is released as a data feed of every route, stop and schedule, in an open data portal created by Google.
When there aren’t GPS coordinates showing the live location of the bus – either because it’s broken, or because the bus never left the garage – the RTPI will simply show the time the bus is scheduled to arrive.
To avoid this, cancelled services have to be manually removed from the RTPI, says McBride. “Each [bus] operator is responsible for marking a service as cancelled and they vary all the time in how diligent they are at doing this,” he says.
The NTA is going out to tender to improve its AVL system, which all its transport operators use, instead of using their own separate ones. “In recognition of the challenges in dealing with multiple separate systems and multiple data feeds,” said the NTA spokesperson.
The tender proposal says the NTA’s new AVL system should supply accurate arrival times to inform real-time passenger information, which could also be used to give buses priority at traffic lights, turning them green when necessary to keep the bus system flowing smoothly.
The new AVL system should also include a method of counting the number of passengers on board, so people know if the bus they’re waiting on is full, as well as wheelchair sensors, to show if there’s room for a person using a wheelchair to board a given bus.
The NTA has shortlisted five candidates, said Kim Buckley, communications officer for the NTA on Monday, “with a view to identifying a preferred bidder and awarding a contract in the middle [of] next year”.
A new AVL system, says McBride, “could well improve the accuracy of the timings and provide a richer dataset”.
Barron said if he’d known the last 84 had been cancelled that night in Bray, he would have arranged a lift home or gotten an earlier bus, he says.
Luckily, he was offered a couch to sleep on by a friend, he says. Otherwise, his options were spending hours walking home or getting a pricey taxi.
Dublin Bus should update their app with cancelled services, he says. “Put a little message beside, this service isn’t running, you know?”
Ní Nualláin, from Clondalkin, says to know 15 minutes in advance would be better than no warning at all.
“Why did you put it on the board?” she says. “They knew it wasn’t going.”
McBride says as far as he knows, the Dublin Bus app and on-street RTPI don’t have the ability to display cancelled buses. “Instead I think they can only remove the service from the system.”
Jose, spokesperson for Dublin Commuter Coalition, says Dublin Bus could do better at communicating cancelled services, even if it doesn’t fit in the app’s abilities.
GoAhead Ireland often sends a tweet in the morning with a list of cancelled services, he says. “They also get criticised for it when they do.”
Dublin Bus haven’t yet responded to queries asking why it does not find a way to communicate cancelled buses to passengers as soon as it knows a service will be cancelled.
At the moment, Dublin Bus doesn’t have to deal with public criticism that other companies do when they announce cancelled services, says Jose. “Announcing it draws attention to it.”
Ní Nualláin says it feels like Dublin Bus doesn’t care about passengers missing buses. “The drivers themselves can be pretty sound, like I’m not saying bus drivers are terrible or anything but Dublin Bus, like they, as an organisation, are abysmal.”