Transport Direct leaves a lot to be improved

It seems like such a simple idea: provide all public transport users with information encompassing all the possible modes of transport. That is the aim of Transport Direct, which was supposed to be a one stop shop enabling the public to plan almost any journey directly and quickly within the UK. It was to be a joint venture between local authorities, central government, and the bus companies which, when the idea was launched in 2000, was to be an important component of John Prescott’s Ten Year transport plan.

Now, however, the project is beset with delays, a controversy over the choice of supplier of the data and a lack of clarity about its aims. Most bizarrely, a web-based transport information supplier which even many of Transport Direct’s key players admit is better than the one that it is using, is about to go out of business for want of a small amount of running costs.

When it created Transport Direct, the Department for Transport reckoned it would take seven to ten years to see the project fully function. Its vision covers travel by any mode from air and car, to train or tram, but even including bike, coach and foot, together with information for disabled travellers. Tickets would be able to be booked and ultimately, the aim would even be to provide information on hotels and restaurants. At the moment, it is struggling simply to provide even basic A to B data.

While there is a phone line, the rather unmemorable 0870 608 2 608, the key delivery is obviously going to be the internet. Transport Direct works through Traveline, an existing regionally based journey planner which supplies information on public transport including buses, coaches, trains and the London Underground. The 11 regional Traveline contracts are let to companies by consortia consisting of local authorities, transport operators and, where they exist, Passenger Transport Executives. Each region collects the data and provides call centres with the help of capital funding from the government which, overall, has a £50m budget to create Transport Direct.

There is, though, a big problem. While the information within a particular region is usually – but not always – accurate, cross regional data is pretty woeful. Try, for example, getting from Dundee to Newport (Isle of Wight) and you will find that the latter simply does not exist, even though a Guardian story back in July 2003 highlighted this lacuna. There are plenty of similar gaps.

Public transport information expert Barry Doe, the country’s leading expert on timetables, is highly critical of the Traveline concept. He says: ‘The problem with Traveline is that it is a collection of separate regional operations which do not recognise each other.’ He reckons the system relies too much on information technology rather than local knowledge and the task of assimilating coherent information about, say the one million bus stops in the country, is just impossible by relying solely on computers. Traveline was supposed to be fully on line by now but critics like Doe reckon it will take another couple of years and even then may not fully function.

That’s where the rival system comes in. Xephos is the brainchild of Peter White, an evangelist for providing information cheaply and effectively, born, perhaps, of his previous life as a religious education teacher in Sheffield. He became a bus operator, running the Southern Vectis company on the Isle of Wight and then began developing a nationwide web-based public transport service which provides advice on point to point journeys.

Having tried both Traveline and Xephos, it is clear the latter is streets ahead. Yet not only did Xephos fail to win any of the 11 Traveline regional contracts – which all went to big and, apparently, much more expensive players – but as it only has two small local authority contracts, it is now at risk of going bust. Yet, White has offered to provide a complete data set of British bus timetables for Transport Direct for a mere £250,000. Xephos operates from a broom cupboard on the Isle of Wight with a staff of just four but they are now at risk of being made redundant.

Transport Direct, of course, reject the criticism from White, arguing that, despite the teething problems, Traveline will eventually perform as requested. Xephos, according to TD, is not using the right technology, something which White vehemently denies.

Certainly several operators are privately very complimentary about Xephos and yet have, so far, stuck with Traveline. There are, though, murmurs of dissent and according to one source, ‘if one operator cracked and insisted on using Xephos, then the whole Traveline concept might have to be rethought’. Meanwhile, local councils are at risk of getting into trouble with the government because much of the data being provided by Traveline on their behalf is proving duff.

This is a perplexing story because it seems incomprehensible that a system that is clearly the best and seems on the face of it the cheapest, is now facing abandonment, while its expensive successors appear unable to get to grips with the task. Barry Doe reckons that transport operators and local authorities have stayed with Traveline because that was a government initiative and they felt they had to stick with it.’ Local authorities, however, may well wish to take a closer look at an initiative which is being run in their name, and to which they are contributing – often providing the back office help – but which seems to be on the wrong track.

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