It was in August 11th of 2009 that Cheshire East Council launched a new and very welcome innovation: a real time bus tracker for two of the bus routes in the borough. One was the 130 between Macclesfield and Manchester and the other was the 27 between Macclesfield and Knutsford.
After more than three years, it seems that we are being relieved of this useful service from October 6th. It only ever may have been a pilot but it came in handy during many a disruption, particularly when I worked at a place based in the countryside and not in a town as I do now. As it happened, my bus home today was delayed by nearly twenty minutes and the Timeline (that’s its proper name) service proved its worth in keeping me posted as to when it would arrive.
Of course, it hasn’t been perfect. For one thing, streetside screens providing real time information were limited and ended up being installed in strange places: Alderley Edge instead of Wilmslow’s Green Lane, Fallibroome Road in Macclesfield instead of somewhere more central like Churchill Way. However, there was a screen installed at Macclesfield General Hospital so it wasn’t all unusual. However, these placements meant that it was the web-based service that came in most handy with being in possession of a smartphone allowing access to the latest arrival times while waiting at a bus stop.
Latterly, performance hasn’t been perfect either with parts being needed for the system earlier in the year and taking a while to be put in place too. Not every bus operating a service had the required tracking equipment either so scheduled times were what appeared for those and they could be very misleading when a bus has been cancelled because of a breakdown.
What has reduced my own dependency on the service in recent times has been timely running of services apart from tonight. The summer holidays have helped too as has the opening of the Alderley Edge bypass and the better performance of the M6. Getting home on winter evenings often involved a deal of uncertainty when traffic conditions clearly were far from ideal. There have been waits in the dark of around 60-90 minutes when road traffic accidents and winter storms, including snow and ice, caused chaos. November often turned out to be an eventful month along the A34 but January gales caused their share of disruption too when they caused electricity power supply failure that turned off traffic lights. Those events don’t seem to have intruded for a while but maybe I have other means of dealing with these.
Working from home is one option that has come my way and comes in handy when there’s a fall of snow or some other weather event. That it keeps me productive too during times when the road system doesn’t work as well as it should helps too. My workplace also has an urban situation as I mentioned earlier so evenings of catching buses on dark roads through the countryside are behind me for now; it’s not the best of circumstances when things don’t run so smoothly. In fact, it offers the fallback of going home by train should road traffic really become gridlocked.
Another factor could be that bus operators have got better at timing their services. Even the this year’s two week closure of the Alderley Edge bypass around the end of June and the start of July had little effect on service running for the 130, much to my surprise. That we have an economic downturn probably helps too because it cuts down on the number of cars on the road.
Even with more reliable bus services, it remains a shame to see real time bus tracking going from us in Cheshire East. Sadly, it looks unlikely too that it will be replaced for a while given the current constraints on public spending. While that makes me think about contingency measures, I am left wondering about how many were making use of the service as well. In the beginning, it got its share of publicity but that later waned. Also, the unreliability that it suffered and the changeover to a web based map interface made it less convenience for smartphone users unless you had links to parts of the older site like I did. Looking at it now, it probably needed investment to make it better and more comprehensive and it appears this is the wrong time for that.
So, could we manage without it by doing better than standing at bus stops in hope like before. Twitter seems an obvious candidate for such things and that may be something the council may wish to explore but it needs manpower and I am not sure that they have that. There has been a lot of talk about the “Big Society” and Cheshire East’s answer to Torbay Bus Routes would be commendable. It would take more than a one man effort though seeing as my own are limited as things stand.
Bus companies are active on Twitter too and High Peak have their own account. With the provision of delay information to the nearest minute, that could be a substitute but it needs an investment of time and effort to rise above the provision of general information. There is an unused Arriva Northwest Twitter account or at least it purports to be that with someone’s name attached to it. It would be good to see Arriva’s bus operation in this part of the world being as active on Twitter as those in the Northeast and Yorkshire and there’s room for bettering those too.
Real time bus tracking will be no more in Cheshire East on the same day that the Macclesfield to Knutsford bus service becomes a commercial enterprise without council financial support. The coincidence looks linked and is a sign of the austere times through which we are living. Would a more vibrant economy with stable public finances bring us better things, the ever handy real time bus tracking among them? It is hard to answer that but time could tell an interesting story.