We’re probably all familiar with the notorious 304 bus route at this stage. I’ve been complaining about it on Twitter for months, as have many many others.

However, I’m not just a commuter, I’m a geographer, which means I can do a bit more than complain.

Last Monday 18th February, I spent a few hours taking 304 and 304A buses from Raheen to UL and back again, tracking the location of the buses over time with GPS. I collected over 13,000 data points, and analysed the results using GIS (Geographic Information Systems) software.

The data shows that there isn’t a single simple solution to the 304’s problems. In fact, analysing the data shows four different problems: dwell time at bus stops, road layout, timetabling, and route selection.

Dwell time is one of the biggest issues. The 0750 Raheen-UL 304 spent a full 25 minutes out of a 70 minute journey sitting at bus stops while passengers got on and off. That’s over a third of the trip. It’s not just a rush hour issue, too, it’s throughout the day. Even a lunchtime service spent nearly 20 minutes at stops.

Of course, that doesn’t account for all of the delays, and the bus was much slower in rush hour traffic. But it wasn’t consistently slow: there’s actually a small number of key points where the road layout holds the bus up considerably. Coming from Raheen, the bus is held up at the approach to Ballykeefe roundabout at the Crescent, and again where the bus lane ends just before Punches Cross.

Yellow is the 1520 304A, pink is the 1310 304, green is the 0750 304. Watch where the green line is held up.

Coming from UL, the approach to Groody Roundabout is a major bottleneck. Along with actually getting out of UL, those three spots add around ten minutes to a return journey.

Blue is the 0900 304A. Yellow is the 1410 304 (which skipped the city centre loop because it was 20 minutes late). Green is the 1710 304. Again, watch where it gets held up.

The surprising thing is why this isn’t reflected in the timetable, when Bus Éireann has the real time data. But the issues go even deeper than that. The 0750 from Raheen was five minutes behind timetable by the time it got to the hospital, after the initial loop through the housing estates. There was virtually no traffic to hold it up – but it spent 5 minutes picking up passengers in that time. That wasn’t unique. Basically, the only way the bus could actually keep to the scheduled timetables is to not pick up any passengers. It’s no wonder there’s constant delays, they’re literally trying to do the impossible. That’s not fair on passengers or drivers.

The good news is that there’s some easy corrections to be made which should lead to significant improvements.

First, put a second Leap card reader in buses, which passengers can use to tag on themselves. Dublin Bus has these readers just inside the doors, just tap the card on your way in, and you’re good to go. Right now, Leap cards actually add time to getting on; the driver’s machine scans for a day ticket, and when none is found the driver needs to manually enter the information – with a lot of waiting. The tap and go machines could cut dwell time in half.

Dublin Bus Leap card tag-on machine

Second, look at the routes. A 304 going to Raheen does a 15 minute loop through the housing estates, gets to the end of the line, and then turns around and does it again immediately in the opposite direction. Why? Anyone getting on during the first go around is going to be sitting on the bus as it takes half an hour to go back past where they just got picked up. Make it a loop, go around in one direction only, just like the 304A does through Monaleen after UL. That would save 15 minutes every trip.

Current (left) and proposed (right) routes for the 304 in Raheen

And why go down Henry Street and Sarsfield Street inbound and outbound? If Raheen-bound services just turned left onto O’Connell Street, that would save at least 5 minutes, more than enough time to walk from Roches Street to Debenhams.

Current (left) and proposed (right) routes for the 304 in the city centre

Make those changes, and you’re looking saving a full half an hour on every return trip – that’s around thirty hours of travel time per day. That allows you to increase the service frequency. But rather than change the timetables – just ditch them. Guarantee service frequency, and have average peak and off-peak journey times listed on the stops. There’s zero point to a timetable which is never kept to.

Longer term, I’m calling on Limerick Council to change the road layout at the Crescent and Groody roundabouts, and where the bus lane ends near Punches Cross. That would save another ten minutes, bringing the total time saved up to 40 minutes per return trip. Bus Éireann should also consider buses with middle doors when replacing rolling stock, to further reduce dwell time. But even the short term solutions would have an immediate impact, and I’m calling on Bus Éireann to introduce these measures as soon as possible.

If you would like to see more data-driven and evidence-based solutions for Limerick, I would really appreciate any support you can give for my campaign to get elected to Limerick Council in Limerick City West.

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Breandán MacGabhann

Dr. Breandán Anraoi MacGabhann is a Geography lecturer at MIC and UL, and is the Green Party candidate for the local elections in Limerick City West

15 Comments

Abdul · 27 February 2019 at 13:01

Amazing work…

I firmly believe data driven design and policy making is the way forward.

maria · 27 February 2019 at 15:21

do you know an email for complaints? I had a horrible situation today on 304 in the morning with a bus driver. I would apprecite it.

Liam Caffrey · 27 February 2019 at 15:47

Hi Breandán, nice work… I wondering what kind of GPS setup you used to collect this data, i.e. device and antenna? The trackways seems to be pretty good quality: are they raw data or post-processed? Liam

    Breandán MacGabhann · 27 February 2019 at 16:31

    Hi Liam, thanks! I used two devices as a quality check on the data. One was a Garmin eTrex Vista HCx, and the other was a Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 running the app Strava. The latter was actually the better data, so that’s what I used for most of the analysis. I didn’t modify the trackways other than fixing the start and end points. The fact that you can get such good data from an app on a smartphone is testament to how far tech has come, and also should be a massive source of shame to Bus Éireann – if I can get this data so easily, they really have no excuse for not doing this themselves. I mean, this should be basic quality control of the service they’re offering.

      Jimmy · 27 February 2019 at 20:21

      The bus needs to go out to the industrial estates in Raheen and Castletroy at work start and finish times so a bus /cycle lane is needed from UL to Vistakon roundabout. You would lose some of the green margin but the road is wide enough. Bus needs to be a viable alternative if we want to get cars off the road

      Liam Caffrey · 4 March 2019 at 07:27

      Fleet telemetry systems tend to deliver positions typically every 2 minutes. Not as useful for analysis like yours. Some can be configured to deliver 30 second positions but you’ll struggle to find a service better than that. Once you have the trackways, then validating them is the next step because they can contain noise. Doing your kind of fine-grained analysis on a systemic scale is probably something that Bus Éireann is not geared up for.

Eoghan MacAogain · 28 February 2019 at 15:30

Hi Breandan, congratulations on your work. I’ve been in touch with the NTA and Bus Eireann concerning the 304A: according to the operations manager of Bus Eireann there is a new timetable coming in “in the new year” — this might improve things. The app Real Time Ireland is also useful.

    Breandán MacGabhann · 28 February 2019 at 17:39

    Thanks Eoghan. In the “new year”? I doubt a new timetable alone would have much impact, it’s the dwell time, route selection, and bottlenecks that make the real differences. Hopefully they will make some of those changes along with the timetable.

steve white · 28 February 2019 at 21:46

so did you send this to Bus Eireann?

    Breandán MacGabhann · 28 February 2019 at 23:01

    I did, and I’m looking forward to hearing their response!

Jose · 2 March 2019 at 19:56

After years using this line, I can say a big part of the responsibility can be assigned to the drivers, in many cases allowing that two or even three buses circulate one behind the other, impacting the overall frequency of buses of the line. The reason? It is far more “comfortable” for a driver to go behind other bus that “cleans up” of tens of passengers waiting. This, also will ensure they complete their shift on time, while people waits longer for buses… One question: have you ever seen 304 drivers arriving late to the stop where they end their shift? That’s a hint to me of their behaviour.

Pat · 6 March 2019 at 22:28

“A 304 going to Raheen does a 15-minute loop through the housing estates, gets to the end of the line, and then turns around and does it again immediately in the opposite direction. Why?”
I happen to live on that route. Last year BE decided to unofficially change the loop to a single line. What happened was that bus drivers didn’t collect passengers on the outbound route and then skipped the loop on the inbound route. What should have been a service every 20mins became an intermittent one of no shows, it was more practical to walk into town than wait for the bus at least you got some physical exercise for your time.
So, this didn’t work before, what makes you think it will work a few months later?

    Breandán MacGabhann · 6 March 2019 at 22:49

    Pat, thank you for the feedback. Can I ask why the drivers didn’t pick up passengers on the outbound route? Also, was there any communication with residents regarding the change?

      Pat · 8 March 2019 at 17:48

      I would presume that drivers didn’t collect passengers on the outbound route they would have been waiting on the other side of the road for the inbound service. Its also possible that the drivers presumed passengers waiting on the other side were someone else’s responsibility and not theirs.
      As regards communication with residents, hardly, you were only aware of this was happening when several outbound buses passed without ever returning. One evening after the 2nd bus passed without return a fellow waiter told me she had finished work over an hour before and had been waiting at the stop since, she just wanted to get home but was left waiting at an unsheltered bus stop. The unofficial change of route was done by either HQ phoning the driver requesting him to go directly or vice versa.
      Btw That original route was as inbound only route which is why there are no bus stop signs or time tables on the outbound route, they’re all on the other side of the road.

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