How do you make trains and buses run on time?

I hear lots of stories about countries like Japan and Germany having impeccably on-time trains. I was in Japan recently and can confirm that the trains do indeed run on time, to the minute. Then I come back to the US and see how lousy my local buses run.

What’s the secret? What sort of logistic and planning techniques are required to ensure that trains and buses, which have to deal with variable traffic, run precisely on schedule?

Semi-WAG: In Europe and Japan, passenger trains often get their own rails or are given priority over freight trains. Not in North America.

First, maintenance. In those countries, trains are an essential service. In the USA, they are “poor stepchild” services and chronically underfunded and not making money. Just like highways, where that pothole can be patched for one more year instead of repaving, trains suffer from putting off maintenance and replacing worn out equipment.

The other problem is committment to service. Again, in other locations, the service is critical to the functioning of society. In the USA, not. So if something causes a delay, the attitude seems to be “ho hum, not my job” to fix it. In particular, if there is something that always seems to cause a problem, who chases down the problem and corrects it? How much clout do they have? This is probably the biggest issue; when you encounter a problem, what do you do to make sure it doesn’t happen again? What if it costs money, do the ultimate backers - the taxpayers, the politicians - want to spend the extra money? I.e. turn a level crossing into an overpass, bypass a freight yard, rebuild a roadbed where the track speed is unsafe.

Then there’s the “private enterprise” issue. In most countries, the rail service tends to be a single company (like Amtrak) responsible for most operations in an area. Those countries are small enough that trains are not seen as government competing with private companies like airlines. They are also seen as a national necessity whether they make money or not; as opposed to Amtrak, which is seen as a frivolous cost center, especially by people outside the Boston-Washington corridor where it makes the most sense to have trains.

First, there’s a huge difference between trains and buses in terms of the traffic that they encounter.

Buses have to deal with all the private drivers out on the roads and all the uncertainty that comes with it.

Most train traffic is scheduled such that there aren’t restrictions that aren’t accounted for, and I suspect also in many countries, a separate rail network for intercity and commuter trains than the usual freight network. Even if they share the same network, it’s all coordinated.

Subway trains and above ground trams are a different story; they’re not usually as on-time as the other sorts of trains- they have to deal with variable numbers of people getting on and off, and in the case of trams, usually have to deal with traffic as well.

I hear that Italian trains aren’t nearly as punctual today as they were in the 1930s, and yet most Italians that I’ve talked to don’t seem to mind. :smiley:

Fascism. It’s the only way.

Not! Park and Ride commuter buses in the Houston area run on time mostly, and the most used locals run so frequently it doesn’t matter if one is late. A late bus that gets overloaded will be lapped by the bus what was supposed to be behind it. ad both will get there pretty much on time. And the trains are pretty good too. The light rail system will be 4x larger in a year and a half and there will be more commuter rail out to the districts that tried to mess with the light rail within two years.

We really need a subway, and their are plans for a couple of underground routes, but that’s pretty hard to do in sand and clay soil at 40ft above sea level in a hurricane zone.

These problems can be alleviated by the use of dedicated lanes, as part of a bus rapid transit system

I work in transportation scheduling in one of the biggest metro areas in the US. Our overall numbers for buses are over 80 per cent, which ain’t bad.

As noted above, buses and street level light rail operations have to deal with traffic, both auto and pedestrian, and the consequent variability and irrationality. You could still have a bus service that ran on time as much as train systems in Europe and Japan do, but it would cost too much.

Primarily two issues are at play:

  1. a lack of enough reserve buses and drivers at the ready in case of accident, vehicle break down, or slow down due to construction or police activity. If you have surplus drivers and buses at the ready, and place them in central locations, they can be put into service quickly enough to keep any delay down to the immediate trip involved, and not affect any subsequent ones.

It’s standard practice to have one or two drivers and buses available as standby’s at a given bus garage, to cover for sickouts and delays like those mentioned above. Having more than a few spares gets expensive, though, so cost outweighs other concerns.

  1. the tendency of some (many) drivers to run their own schedule when they aren’t being closely watched. That is, they take more break time than the schedule allows, or they stop at unauthorized places in order to get food or meet people, or they don’t service parts of the route that they are supposed to.

We’ve tested this on many occasions. We get a report that our schedule for a particular line isn’t working. Our data tells us that it is working, or was when we first implemented it, so we go out in the field to make sure nothing’s changed.

We position ourselves at various points all along the bus route, so the drivers know they’re being watched. Surprise! The schedule that supposedly didn’t work now runs like clockwork. If people know they will get written up if they take too much break time, or deliberately lag behind to let the following bus take the passengers they would have picked up, or go off route to hit their favorite barbecue place, they don’t do it.

I’ve worked in various capacities at smaller bus agencies than the one I do no, and those agencies don’t have the resources or the inclination to do the large scale, on going data analysis that we do. Their schedules tend to be quite slow in adapting to changes in traffic conditions, ridership patterns, new schools and worksites that can change the demands on bus routes. So, delays in smaller transit agencies may be just a question of not being able or willing to change quickly enough.

And you still have the question of cost. Good transit can “pay for itself” in the sense that provides good value to a community and allows economic and social life to flourish. But it doesn’t pay for itself directly, immediately, the way that opening a new Target in the new suburb on the west side of town does.

The Boston area commuter rails are on time down to the minute the vast majority of the time. It’s a rail line and they have control over when the leave each station and when they arrive in the next one. There is a very small buffer built into the calculations for boarding issues so they tend to arrive about 1 minute early and depart exactly on time so they make it into the next station the same. The only don’t make it when there are issues beyond their control.

It is pretty damned easy in the overall scheme of things. If the Space Shuttle can be 75 miles over the Pacific Ocean and land within seconds of expected on the East Coast of the U.S. 20 minutes later, I expect anything operating on dedicated tracks to pull off the brain-dead easy consistently. Anything less is just bad management and operations. Buses are a different story because they have unpredictable traffic to content with.

Start with reasonable schedules that take into account variations of conditions, not just optimum performance.

For example, the scheduled transit time for my bus route varies by the time of day. Toward the middle of the rush it is a bit longer than earlier or later, and still less in off-peak hours. Rush hour traffic is such a serious cluster fuck in the two blocks between the first stop on the way home (where I get on) and the next stop a mere 2 blocks later that they allot 8 full minutes to get there.

That’s standard practice in our agency, and in bigger metro areas in general. But, adding extra time in route segments is frowned on because it adds cost. We try to strike a balance of course, but we won’t add much time if we don’t have the money to pay for it.

Another factor I left out is variability in driver skill. A skilled experienced driver can keep a full bus on time in heavy traffic. Less skilled and/or less experienced drivers will usually run late. I’ve been involved in field investigations where the problem was clearly based on a rookie driver being assigned to a rush hour express route that she simply couldn’t handle.

Really? Which line was this?

My wife took a job in the financial district last summer. She was taking the commuter rail and thought she would at least very reliably be able to get home in time to relieve the nanny. 11 times in 120 days she was stuck (train stopped for 15 minutes, train running at 5mph for 30 minutes, etc) on the outbound leg along. Which means I had to leave the office in an emergency and rush home through rush hour traffic (nanny went to night school, had to leave with 15 minutes of scheduled time.

There were numerous delays on the inbound leg as well, but since she was getting to work 20 minutes early if everything ran properly she would be a few minutes late at worst.

She quit after six months, because my boss couldn’t deal with me bolting out of meetings and having to leave my cell phone on even in the boardroom every afternoon.

They also kept claiming that she didn’t pay for parking, when she did. By phone. But they’d keep insisting that the spot she was parked in was not the one she paid for. My wife is nothing if not meticulous. It’s not the kind of mistake she would make again and again.

I used to be a huge fan of mass transit. Hell I used to take MARTA in Atlanta, and everyone would make fun of me. When I moved to Boston, I was so happy to have a real mass transit system, just like they had in New York where I lived many years earlier. I was done with the commuter rail in a couple of weeks. The train stopped stopping at the station near my work. So unless you were going all the way to South Station, it was useless.

How awesome that we do seem to have an expert for everything.

The idea of a bus driver going off route to visit a restaurant or taking an unscheduled break is so foreign to me that I have some trouble believing that this is happening in an industrialized nation. Are we talking city buses that run every 30 minutes or rather Greyhound style travel coaches? How would the passengers in a bus not keep the bus driver from going off course? I suppose they also might want to get out at a stop that the bus driver isn’t servicing.

I agree. Writing from Japan, if a bus driver tried something like that here, it would be so unthinkable as to likely make for a newspaper headline. If this was in Osaka, you’d probably have the (famous) mayor blow a gasket on tv and it would start a national debate about how the country is going straight to hell.

As far as private enterprise is concerned, all train companies are now private. The national railway, JR, was privatized and split up in five independent companies. To these, you need to add no less than 15 major private train operators. 8 of which operate in and around Tokyo and 5 in and around Osaka. The networks connect and are largely complementary. Despite being a seemingly impossibly complex system, it works out great.

Not in Spain, but here they all depend from the same company, so conflicting scheduling is handled by a single team, not by two dozen. Also, most of our trains (whether passenger or freight) are regular runs, so they just get the usual times: schedule shuffling only needs to take place if there are extra trains, if there has been an accident affecting traffic (from suicide by train to landslides) or if a train has run late (in which case the rest take precedence over the one that’s already late).
As for buses, traffic is variable, but not in unpredictable ways (rush hour is a known time, even if it varies seasonally), and in any city big enough to have multi-lane streets cabs and buses get their own lane. But mosly it’s knowing and taking into account when is there going to be more demand. Note that at least here scheduling is “end to end”: that is, you know when is the bus from Elíptica to San José going to leave Elíptica and when it’s going to be leaving San José, but the stops along the way have more variability and that’s accepted. Most towns now have a system where you can find out (either at the bus stop or via SMS) the current working schedule by the minute, and even data such as “next Line 33 will arrive in 5 minutes but it’s currently full; the following Line 33 will arrive in 7 minutes”.

Related to what’s already been said:

Density has a lot to do with it. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t trains commonly used by most strata in Japan and Germany? Public transit tends to make the most sense and be used by a greater portion of the population as density goes up.

In contrast, in the US, buses are often used by lower income people. Services for the poor and people with few other options tend to be of low quality.

Yes. To restate a point made above, the public transit system is the country’s vascular system. Any minor problem that occurs in large urban centers, by domino effect becomes a huge problem. A single bullet train arriving 10 minutes late in Tokyo will affect tens if not hundreds of thousands of passengers. It happens, but obviously great care is taken that it doesn’t.

The bus network, which is extensive and also excellent is much less important to the economy, though. A large portion of people on city buses are elderly, and long distance buses are used by people on tight financial and loose time budgets. As a result, highway buses have been in the news lately, with a number of serious accidents and near tragedies. There’s a lot of talk about overworked or under-experienced drivers.

I’m assuming the poster meant “city” buses, as that is what happens in my city. The drivers aren’t closely watched, and do whatever they feel they can get away with. If the drivers are running late due to tom-foolery, they often skip parts of the routes to arrive on time at the central depot. Sometimes, they’ll ask the passengers if they need to get off in the skipped area, but not always. And of course anyone boarding in that area is SOL. If no one complains (and remember that in the USA in smaller cities only the poor ride buses so they often don’t bother to complain), the behavior isn’t going to stop.

We take the bus into town. Our route just gives a time variable instead of a set time for the time table. During the morning and evening prime times, it will be one bus every 2 to 4 minutes, and then less during the middle of the day.

My late brother-in-law drove a city bus for a couple of years. He would smoke a joint on his break sometimes and after that, the bus might go anywhere. Maybe on his route, maybe not. One memorable afternoon, he wound up some 15 miles off course, cruising through a rich neighborhood. According to him, his passengers enjoyed their tour looking at the fine houses. He got busted because the rich people objected to the bus in their neighborhood. BTW, his punishment for this was a 3 day suspension.