Scheduling software specialist Omnibus is reevaluating its relationships with clients in order to build stronger relationships

It’s not that long since most bus operators’ scheduling functions were undertaken by a large team of specialists working with paper and pen for weeks at a time. During times of major revisions it would not be uncommon for it to take a couple of months to create suitable schedules in the quest to improve efficiencies.

Of course things have changed. Over the last two decades there has been a growing reliance on new technologies to help plan efficient schedules and, coupled with a growing shortage of skilled planners and schedulers, the computer has become a serious tool for both planning and day-to-day operations at bus operators across Britain.

Using traditional methods, scheduling can be a laborious process with a lot of trial and error involved in creating the most efficient schedule possible. However, with the right software, timetables and schedules can be produced in a fraction of the time that it would take using these manual methods. The latest generation in scheduling software products also benefit from being able to process a number of other functions, such as bus stop timetable displays, maps and travel guides, Electronic Bus Service Registration and real time information feeds, increasing the rate of return for operators.

But isn’t this process de-skilling the scheduler? Michael Meilton, business development manager at Oldham-based scheduling software supplier Omnibus believes that good scheduling software packages will allow novice schedulers to pick up the concept and produce reasonable results. “But this doesn’t replace experience,” he says. “Skill still comes into it in order to get the very best results. The software is more of an aid – an extremely useful aid.”

Meilton adds that driver costs can routinely account for between 40 and 50% of total operator costs. “That’s a significant cost for any operator,” he says. “Schedulers are a real asset as they can really help cut those costs. Even a 0.1% saving in the resource bill can in actual fact lead to considerable savings.”

For any company looking at using software, a primary consideration will be money and it perhaps comes as no surprise that Omnibus has designed products that are designed to assist schedulers, rather than dictate to them, in getting the most out of the resources that are available to them. In addition, the company also believes in building a firmer and longer lasting relationship with its clients.

“We have increased the size of our commercial team over the last year as we want to get out much more and meet our clients,” says Meilton. “We want to go out and build a relationship with them. We know how busy these people are and we want to be able to be in the position where we can provide real, first-hand support.”

With its larger clients, Omnibus has already set up a structure based on an annual review, creating a two-way flow of dialogue between the company and its clients. Now this process is being extended to all customers. “We want to be in a position where we can demonstrate the latest developments, get feedback on the products and that sort of thing,” Meilton adds. “We’re actively seeking out those views as that’s how we can make the products even better in the future.”

This change will also have positive benefits in that it will allow clients to easily flag up any issues that they are experiencing. Meilton says that in the past it has sometimes been the case that the Omnibus team would provide initial training for a client’s staff, but apart from when a new software installation was required, subsequent training would be conducted by those existing users. “It’s proved to be a case of Chinese whispers in some cases,” Meilton believes. “You can go on the most amazing course to learn everything about Microsoft Word but the chances are that you just won’t take it all in. There’s just too much information for you to absorb and so you’re just going to become really familiar with the basics. We want to be able to provide continuous training so that our clients really do get the best out of the software. It’s in their interests and also in ours too.”

But there’s also a growing industry-wide problem looming – the continuing skills shortage amongst scheduling staff. “The great problem is that the schedulers we have are getting older,” says Meilton. “There hasn’t really been any formal scheme to train up the new generation. More and more of them are retiring and there isn’t really a new generation coming through. That has to be a concern for the industry as a whole.”

With pressure being placed on this resource, the Omnibus team are being called on by more and more clients to assist at times of great workload. One recent example was at council-owned bus operator Network Warrington which requested assistance late last year. With just a few weeks to meet the service commencement deadline, which, of course, coincided with a print deadline for timetables, and with a Christmas break in between, Omnibus stepped in and provided no fewer than three experts to meet the deadlines.

Omnibus staff helped to prepare timetables using the OmniTIMES software package to meet Network Warrington’s deadline for the production of publicity. This data was then used to create bus workings in OmniBASE, to prepare duties in Crewplan and to create rosters in OmniROTA.

The assistance offered by Omnibus proved to be invaluable. Phil Pearson, Network Warrington’s commercial manager, says: “Without the assistance of Omnibus we simply would not have met our deadlines. They sent specialists in each of the three main areas of operations who knew our company well and by working together we delivered everything on schedule.”

For the future there’s still plenty to do. Omnibus is keen to demonstrate to operators the benefits that Electronic Bus Service Registration can offer. “Most operators now have ticket machines which are compatible with the data set,” says Meilton. “The industry has not bitten the bullet on this one. Operators don’t use as much paper as they did to create schedules, so why are we still using paper to register bus services? To me it seems the next logical step.”

 

Reading makes EBSR switch

Council-owned bus operator Reading Buses is a long standing user of the OmniTIMES software tool from Omnibus to create timetables and by adding the OmniMAP and EBSR modules they were fully equipped to make the switch to Electronic Bus Service Registration.

It is planned that EBSR will replace the current paper-based registration process, where operators physically produce registrations for VOSA and the local authorities. EBSR provides the information required for a registration, including the timetable element, in a TransXChange XML format file. The route must be sufficiently detailed to enable it to be electronically mapped and details of the registration (with service and operator information) need to be included.

As a part of the Omnibus TransXChange software, the EBSR module is designed to provide an efficient answer to the provision of EBSR. Once a user has input details of the operator, service and registration, the module will extract all registration journeys from OmniTIMES data and create TransXChange format registration documents ready to be sent to VOSA.

Initially Reading supplied in electronic format all the current registrations that had previously been submitted to VOSA on paper to enable them to conduct an audit to check that the same information was contained in each. Having completed this process Reading Buses have been given approval to submit all future registrations electronically.

The introduction of the new software was a fairly straightforward process and Omnibus was on hand to provide full support for the transition, but in total Reading Buses staff received just one day of training to use the new modules and had ongoing technical support, perhaps illustrating how easy it is to use the electronic system when compared to its paper-based predecessor.

Steve Bell, operations support manager for Reading Buses, comments: “From the first time I was shown the OmniMAP system I was very impressed. I knew that it would take us forward towards EBSR and save us a lot of time and money. It has proven to be very easy to use and we have now made 75 registrations, which previously would have taken us several days, in a matter of minutes.”

 

This article, and many others, appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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