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Why is my bus late?

Following 'Is My Bus Late?', some people wanted to know why. So I did some research.

This is not brownosing. I do not work for a bus company. When I'm angry, I moan on the internet about how bus and train companies couldn't run a piss-up in a brewery. I have nothing to lose by doing that here. But I wanted to find out (and share) the actual reasons why. I don't believe for a second that the mega-corporations who own our bus and train companies could have offices full of people who didn't know what they're doing.

This isn't meant to be interesting. But if you're going to complain to an advisor who doesn't really care, you ought to know your facts first of all. Only then can you rant.

  1. Traffic lights. Those screens which claim your bus is two minutes away are very clever, but if it has to get through a set of traffic lights then either it will get through on green (and be two minutes away) or it will get stopped (and be four minutes away). Put a few traffic lights together and you have timetable bingo.

    If you live on a frequent route where buses are supposed to be every five minutes, you only need some bad luck with traffic lights and two are together. We'll come to that later.

    Traffic lights in big cities are good for people crossing the road, statistically they're good for road safety, but they're terrible at everything else. Major cities have been taken over by them, and they make driving sluggish and unpredictable.

    Don't live in a big city with regular traffic lights? Substitute the traffic lights for an old person crossing the road, a car doing an awkward turn, a caravan driving really slowly. Whatever irritates you about the roads irritates bus drivers too.
  2. The little things you don't think about. Bus drivers are always being told they're too miserable - I would be too if I had to carry the moaning public around all day. But if they stop to chat to someone, they'll be a minute late and will be moaned at for that. If someone asks for help should you stop to help them or tell them to sit down and shut up? Some confused passengers can spend five minutes debating which ticket they need to buy, or (classic) looking for their wallet. Helping a wheelchair user use the ramp. Letting that elderly person sit down before you drive off (even if they want the back seat on the top deck). Picking up more people than you were expecting. It all adds up.
  3. Traffic. Car drivers aren't timed to the minute, yet they'll tell you sometimes the journey just takes a little more than normal. No-one knows why. Now imagine tackling that all day. Sometimes it's busy. Our cities are much more congested than they used to be. Accept it. Sometimes you'll have to slow down because someone's stood in the road, or parked in your way.

    If you can't accept it, ask a car driver to time their journey, and then record how often they are a minute later than their best time. It'll probably be three out of five times - same as the bus.
  4. There's no money. Despite their reputations, the big bus companies are turning over a tiny profit - 2% at best. The smaller ones are all going bankrupt at a depressing rate. There are shareholders who need to be pleased. You can't have a spare driver sat waiting to replace every driver you have. Sometimes, people will phone in sick, they will fall ill on the job, they will have terrible news from their family. You can't always replace them. If you can, you'd have no money left.
  5. Things just go wrong. Cars don't really go wrong these days, but they certainly used to. Buses are used all day, every day, bouncing around over every pothole. They are much better maintained than any car: how many cars do you see driving around at night with a headlight out (it's dangerously high)? How often do you see a bus in the day with a headlight out?

    Buses have more electronic gadgets than any car. They are designed by engineers working for manufacturer firms who don't live in the real world. Those people who put car headlights in places where the average person can't reach them are the same people who decided that if the sensor which checks whether the wheelchair ramp is pulled out isn't working, the engine can't start. Some days the engine will decide it doesn't want to be switched on any more.

    Sure, the bus has packed up, you've got a spare waiting, and a spare driver sat with it (because you're not running a major business and money is limitless). By the time your driver can get your bus to the breakdown it'll probably be too late to do any sort-of rescue mission, that job will instead be given to the driver behind, who can then enjoy a five minute delay plus being twice as busy as usual.
  6. People make mistakes. If you've been reading this far, you deserve a fun one. Bus company staff include the people who put the fuel in and check the oil level, the people who park them in the order they're needed, the people who set up the ticket machine, the people who decide which bus is driving which route, the people who set up the electronic screen, the people who organise the driver's diaries, the driver who sets their alarm, the driver remembering which way to turn or what time they leave, they will all make mistakes, and mistakes cause delays.
  7. There's a time limit. Bus drivers can only drive for five hours. Their hours are strictly regulated and if they exceed them both they and their employer could be in serious trouble. If you've been held up and you've only made it half as far as you were supposed to, you're going to have to pack up and go back. Which means sending a 'not in service' bus back to the depot while it goes to see whether there's a driver who can take over.

    Hard to believe though it may be, bus drivers have lives too. I'm sure we'd all like to think that if it was time to finish but we were running half an hour late, we would offer to stay on and pick up the minimal overtime. What if you'd agreed to pick up your daughter from the airport as she returns to England for the first time in a year? If it was your six year old son's birthday party? Be honest, you'd dump the bus as soon as possible and go home. This is what employers have to deal with just when they need as many wheels on the road as possible.
2012 London Olympics relay Streetlite

"This doesn't happen to my bus!"

How would you know, you weren't driving it? If you've ever thought to yourself "I can't believe we're only here" or "we've got here quick", then you clearly weren't paying attention to your journey, and you were missing out on these shenanigans.

"I waited ages for the bus, then three showed at once."

It's true! On frequent routes, this happens all the time. Sometimes, it's because one of the drivers wants to carry as few people as possible. The vast majority are not that cunning. Here's what actually happens.

Let's say the bus is due every 10 minutes. To keep it simple, we'll say one person turns up at every bus stop every minute. In reality it's much more random than that - which is part of the problem - but we can't blame people for not being synchronised with strangers.

For one of the reasons mentioned above, let's say one of the buses is running two minutes late. No big deal. There's now a 12 minute gap from the bus in front, and a 8 minute gap from the bus behind. People arrive at the stop every minute. The bus is now picking up more people than expected, while the one behind is getting fewer people. One person gets on and asks the driver why they had to wait 13 minutes.

The two are now gaining on each other. The bus stops are getting busier. The one in front is now finding two or three times as many people as it was expecting in each stop. The gap between the two is getting smaller until they meet each other.

Repeat it a few times and you can get three or four buses running together. After all, once the bunching has started, it gains momentum and becomes bigger and bigger. Sticking with the original example, if the bus is two minutes late it will find 11 people at the bus stop where it was expecting 9. But if it's five minutes late, it'll find 14 people at the bus stop where it was expecting 9. If it was ten minutes late, it'll find 19 people at the bus stop where it was expecting 9. The more additional people waiting, the later it gets. Say one of those buses broke down. Suddenly you're finding 28 people at the stop where you were expecting 9, you're 5 minutes late, and every passenger wants to ask you why they've been waiting 24* minutes for a bus that's supposed to be every 10 minutes (* - 24 minutes: that's 9 for the bus which broke down, 10 for the bus behind, 5 because it was running late).

How do you fix it? People will always want to get on the first bus which turns up, which means that bus will never make up for lost time. The only way to fix it is to cancel the bus and tell the driver to drive non-stop until they're back on time. But if you've been waiting ages for a bus, and then see one go past out of service, you'd be furious. You'd probably send an angry tweet, you warrior.

They don't care what you think

Customer feedback (what you have to say) comes in two forms: things the company are interested in, and things they aren't.

If what you have to say is news: a pole is broken, something new isn't working, then maybe it's worth sharing it. Your comments will probably be read by a teenager on minimum wage, but at least it will go in the right box and you've done all you can. In fact no, because the drivers should have all that information. So let's move on to the more likely outcome: they really don't care.

When people are angry, they fall into a trap of thinking anybody cares. Whether you think the company are competent or not, they already know what works and you moaning about how the service is terrible only makes a fool of yourself. The managers never read it, only said underpaid teenager who reads Twitter for a living, and getting angry at them is an introduction into why we have so many socio-paths around us these days.