Update on the 304, and other Limerick buses

This morning I had a 90 minute meeting with Bus Éireann’s national Network Manager Robert O’Mahony, and Limerick Services Manager Bláithin McElligott, to discuss my research and proposals to improve service on the 304 and other Limerick bus routes.

I had made three main suggestions to Bus Éireann:

  1. Introduce a separate Leap card tag-on machine, as Dublin Bus have;
  2. Change the route through Raheen to a one-way loop;
  3. Change the route the 304 takes through the city centre in the UL to Raheen direction, to cut out the Henry Stree-Sarsfield Street loop.

I got one out of three. Here’s what they said.

1. No Leap card tag-on machines.

I asked Bus Éireann to install standalone Leap card tag-on machines on all buses, as seen on Dublin Bus, to reduce driver interaction time.

Bus Éireann responded that although their on-board fare machines look like those of Dublin Bus, they have different software and back end office processes. This is a consequence of the same machines being used across all Bus Éireann services, including city services, Expressway intercity, etc. The Leap stand-alone tag-on machines are not compatible with Bus Éireann’s systems.

This is very disappointing. However, they do recognise that dwell time at bus stops is a massive issues – hard to deny, when my data shows that over a third of a peak-time journey is spent sitting at stops.

What they will do in the short term now is update the current machine software to halve the number of keystrokes the driver needs to make. This will be in place for the start of summer, and should start to reduce loading time.

The main effort to reduce loading times will be centred on increasing Leap card use. Currently in Limerick, Leap card use is only 36%. Efforts have been promised to try and significantly increase this proportion, which should speed loading up as less people use cash. They are particularly focused on increasing use of Leap card day tickets, weekly tickets etc, which are much quicker with the machines.

One of the roadblocks to increasing Leap card use is accessibility. I asked Bus Éireann to place Leap card machines – such as seen at Luas and Dart stops in Dublin – at key bus stops in Limerick, including Sarsfield Street and the Crescent. Bus Éireann responded that they could not place these same machines in the city, due to the cash boxes inside, but that they would consider installing cashless Leap Card machines.

They are also now considering copying the Dublin Bus ‘Exact Change, No Refunds’ policy, to further encourage Leap uptake.

Longer term, the NTA is working on a new ticketing system to include mobile payment apps and contactless cards. I will be contacting the NTA about this.

2. The Raheen loop through the housing estates will remain

The 304 currently does a loop through housing estates in Raheen-Dooradoyle-Ballycummin, reaches the end of the line, and then turns around and does the same loop in the opposite direction. I suggested making this one way, which would cut 15 minutes from total journey time, and allow a greater service frequency.

Bus Éireann rejected this suggestion. They made the case that loops are not best practice. I think this is a mistake, but they won’t budge on it.

In fact, they are going to add new stops to the loop; in particular they are now looking to add a stop opposite Cormac Byrne’s.

3. The city centre route going to Raheen WILL change

I suggested to Bus Éireann that instead of the 304 making a loop from Roches Street to Henry Street to Sarsfield Street to O’Connell Street, that the bus simply turn left from Roches Street onto O’Connell Street.

While they would not commit to following my suggestion exactly, saying that passenger destination data and the O’Connell Street redevelopment plans would need to be taken into account, they confirmed there would now be ‘movement’, with change likely in the summer. Raheen-bound services will likely not serve Henry St or Debenhams on Sarsfield St. after the change.

4. Middle Doors

I also suggested to Bus Éireann that all new buses have middle doors, and that these be used to exit the bus. Bus Éireann confirmed that all new buses WILL have middle doors, which will be used. 9 buses currently in the city have these, with more arriving in June. The plan is to roll out consistent use of the double doors once there is enough buses with them to service entire routes. At present, drivers may be changing from a bus without middle doors in the morning to one with middle doors in the afternoon, which leads to issues with inconsistent use. Some stops are also currently unsuitable for middle doors, due to street furniture (signs, bins etc), which Limerick Council needs to work on; and due to cars parking in bus stops, which we need the Garda Traffic unit to enforce.

5. William Street breaks

This was not one of my original suggestions, but Tom Dowling and others asked me to raise the issue of drivers taking breaks on William Street.

Bus Éireann responded that this is NOT just drivers taking a break, it is specific individual instructions from Limerick control on a case-by-case basis to reduce bus bunching (where buses end up with two or three moving together). It will always be the FOLLOWING bus which pauses, so if there’s two, get the front one. It is hoped the new timetable will end the need for this.

6. New Timetable

A new timetable is about to be introduced, and will take operation from the second week of April. This is based on long-term location and time data (of the kind I collected, if not at such high resolution) and they hope it will accurately reflect actual travel times. Every bus stop will have a specific timetable, at the stop. I had suggested moving to a service frequency model, but Bus Éireann feel specific stop timetables is a better approach.

I will of course be testing the new timetables after their introduction.

7. Broader changes to services

Once the new timetable is operating, bigger changes will be brought online over the summer. That will include:

  • EARLIER AND LATER BUSES, to facilitate those who start work early morning, and social activities in the late evening.
  • EXTENSION OF ROUTES to Mungret, Parteen, Ardnacrusha, and perhaps others.
  • AUDIO ANNOUNCEMENTS for visibility impaired passengers. This is waiting for re-naming of stops, such as the Xtravision stop near the St Paul’s Roundabout.
  • POSSIBLE FREQUENCY CHANGES, with the 304A a strong candidate for increased services.
  • Several other changes are dependent on the NTA and Limerick Council. 

Overall, I am disappointed at the lack of movement on the Raheen route and lack of Leap tag-on machines, which together would have cut around 25 minutes from a return journey. I am happy that they will be moving forward with my suggestions on the city centre routing, Leap card machines, and middle doors. I hope that the new timetable will be more accurate; I will be investigating, and if there are issues I may renew the rejected suggestions, or make new proposals for change.

If there’s anything you’d like to ask about now, feel free to add it in the comments below, or email breandan.macgabhann@greenparty.ie.

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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Have Your Say on the 304 bus

On Wednesday morning (13th), I will be meeting Bus Éireann’s Limerick Services Manager to discuss my research and recommendations for the 304/304A bus route.

I’ve had plenty of feedback so far, but the more the better. So, if you have any thoughts, experiences, or ideas to share for the route (or the 301 and other routes in Limerick), please let me know. Leave a comment below, or send me an email at breandan.macgabhann@greenparty.ie.

Data-driven solutions to the notorious 304 bus route

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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