When the driver of a 68 bus stopped on South Circular Road near Clanbrassil Street recently and announced that he was going to stay there for six minutes, some passengers – muttering under their breath – decided to get off and walk.
The Dublin Bus driver explained he was running ahead of his schedule and needed to wait at that stop for a bit to get back on it.
This was all part of Dublin Bus’s system to make sure low-frequency buses stick to their schedules, and high-frequency buses stay evenly spaced and don’t get all bunched up, leaving big gaps in between packs of buses travelling together.
“Passengers arriving at a bus stop where a service has already left ahead of a scheduled time, may have to wait for extended periods of time for a later bus service,” said a spokesperson for the National Transport Authority (NTA).
“That would not be not be a positive experience for the customer,” he said.
But this system for keeping the buses on schedule makes an already stressful job even more stressful, four Dublin Bus drivers said recently in interviews.
Driver Julita Stachecka said she doesn’t like the controller “constantly” calling her on the radio while she’s driving. “It is really annoying,” she says.
For months, Dublin Bus has been struggling with a shortage of drivers – and, as a result, it’s been struggling to serve the passengers on its bus routes.
The bus operator says it is running what it calls the biggest recruiting drive in its history, but an NTA spokesperson said last month that Dublin Bus still didn’t have enough drivers and wasn’t meeting reliability targets.
The PressIt Box
One reason behind the continuing shortage of drivers at Dublin Bus? “The stress that’s involved in the job is extremely high,” says driver David Murray.
There’s the normal aggravations of driving in the city but in a massive bus while dealing with sometimes very aggro interactions with passengers – and then there’s an internal Dublin Bus system that adds to it all.
“The level of bullying that’s going on because of the PressIt box – it’s ridiculous,” Murray said.
The PressIt box is “an on-board driver console, enabling drivers to manage their daily tasks, maintain schedule adherence, communicate with Central Control as needed, and play on-board announcements for customers”, a spokesperson for Dublin Bus said.
The stakes are high, explains The Press-It Drivers Guide, a booklet from Dublin Bus.
“In January 2021, we moved to a Gross Cost Contract, which means we only receive payment for the service we deliver as per our contractual obligations,” it says. “One of our Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) under this contract is punctuality.”
The Press-It system is meant to keep drivers punctual, for customers’ sakes, but also to make sure Dublin Bus gets paid as much as possible for operating the buses.
The NTA spokesperson said that “Punctual bus services provide significant benefits in allowing people to better plan their day in advance, and this is why the Authority through its contract with Dublin Bus, sets minimum performance standards for punctuality, which is common practice on bus networks internationally.”
The PressIt booklet says that, as per part of “Pay Agreement 2022, it was agreed that drivers would use new technology such as Press-It and the updated practices, processes, and procedures, such as timing points, to meet our NTA contract and customer service/safety requirements”.
Don’t Leave Early
For low-frequency buses the goal is to be at specific stops at specific times.
“Do not leave your bus stop early,” the booklet says. “Stop departures should be within the ‘on-time’ range of 59 seconds ahead and 5 minutes and 59 seconds behind.”
If the bus is running early, the driver should stop at a “timing point” for a bit, and press the console so it’ll play an announcement for passengers explaining the situation.
A timing point is just a bus stop that the company has designated as a safe and not-too-obtrusive spot to wait for a few minutes.
If the bus is late, “At its terminus [after the passengers get off] the controller will get you to take the bus out of service and skip the bus stops until you are back on time,” Murray said.
For buses on high-frequency routes, the system is the same but the goal is to “Maintain an even gap between buses at every stop along the route and keep as close to scheduled bus stop departure times as possible”. This can also involve using timing points.
A spokesperson for Dublin Bus didn’t directly answer a query as to whether the driver of a Dublin Bus bus shown in a November video going down a footpath and cycle lane to get around traffic was being pressured to get to a certain stop on time.
“For clarification […] the bus was not in service,” the spokesperson said.
Murray and Stachecka said the controllers tell them to slow down, but they never tell them to drive faster.
However, the main problem with the system is that trying to keep a bus on a strict schedule while it’s operating in Dublin city traffic doesn’t work very well, said Thomas O’Connor, assistant general secretary of the National Bus and Rail Union (NBRU).
“Buses aren’t trains and you can’t run a bus system the same way you manage trains,” O’Connor said.
Reducing the Pressure
The NTA referred a query about whether bringing in the Pressit system had met its goals to Dublin Bus. Dublin Bus did not answer it.
When asked about the stress it puts on drivers, the NTA spokesperson said that, “This system or similar, coupled with an operational control room where controllers can contact drivers to ask them to adhere to schedule, particularly if ahead of schedule, is a standard arrangement for larger bus operators in Ireland and worldwide.”
While driving the H1 or H3 routes through busy north-side streets, Stachecka says she’s had controllers tell her to pull over in spots where she didn’t think that was a good idea.
“I said, ‘I can’t stop I’m on a busy road!’,” she recalled of one such incident. So she kept going, but just very slowly, she says.
She was still ahead of schedule though. “He said he was going to report me, that he was going to write me up,” she says.
Feljin Jose, chairperson of the Dublin Commuter Coalition, said he could see where the bus drivers were coming from with their complaints about the PressIt box.
“While we want good punctuality, if the bus drivers are stressed over this, maybe it’s time to think about making this a bit less stressful,” Jose said.
“Better bus priority and enforcement of bus lanes and bus gates across Dublin would make bus journey times more predictable and would solve a lot of the issues with buses getting caught falling behind or being ahead of schedule,” he said.