#phantombuses: How real are the Real Time Information screen announcements at bus stops?

While public transport authority Centro have said there are over 600 bus stops in Birmingham with Real Time Information (RTI) screens, information is not available on how many of them are functioning.

To find out more about the state of maintenance of these screens, recently Brum Transport tried out #phantombuses  – a crowd sourced experiment at gathering real time data on bus stops in the city.

We liveblogged our observations from these four different locations in the city:

These included:

  • Arrival times announced on the RTI screens


  • Mysterious disappearances of the bus numbers from the screens


  • Time when buses actually turned up at the stops


  • Faulty RTI screens at bus stops:

While some of these bus stops had the RTI screens, other bus users relied on the Network West Midlands phone app, some others had only the paper timetable at the bus stops to refer to.

The data on the number of bus stops was revealed through a freedom of information (FOI) request filed earlier by Brum Transport.

(The FOI figures here referring to ‘Birmingham’ include the city centre and the wider Birmingham area.)

Network West Midlands say they already have their data open for developers

Public transport authority, Centro have said that they already have their data available to open data users.

Reacting to a guest post on Brum Transport about Network West Midlands opening up their raw dataCentro spokesman Steve Swingler said:

“We make our data available in a number of ways. Data such as the NaPTAN bus stop location information is made available through data.gov.uk.”


The NaPTAN data “uniquely identifies” all points of access to public transport in Great Britain.

He further added:

“Bus departure information both scheduled and real time departures is captured in the TravelineNextBuses API which is available through NextBuses.

By making our data available in this way Centro is maintaining the national standard for the provision of this type of information.”

Through an earlier guest post from Simon Whitehouse on Brum Transport, we were trying to look at the possibility of opening up transport data in the West Midlands.

This could enable developers to build more applications, websites and mobile services and get creative with data.

Another round of #phantombuses due to traffic gridlock

A large number of commuters were left staring at bus stop Real Time Information screens and mobile phone apps as the traffic came to a grinding halt this afternoon.

About an hour later it was confirmed by the National Express twitter updates that there has been a gridlock in the city with the emergency landing of an air ambulance near the Birmingham Children’s Hospital.



Despite repeated attempts, there were no comments or confirmation available from the West Midlands Ambulance Service press office on this. Here is what commuters said on twitter:  

Most of the tweets and pictures today afternoon were sent by Lois Stanley, a commuter who has been a part of the crowd sources #phantombuses initiative for two weeks now.

Every five minutes? But timetabled every 10 minutes!


every five minutes Photo by Kate Gordon for the #phantombuses  – crowd sourced data gathering experiment started by Brum Transport on 25 July.

Liveblog for crowd sourced experiment on bus stops

We’re trying out #phantombuses – a crowd sourced data gathering experiment today.

Those who have volunteered for it are going out and monitor the buses and the time displays on the Real Time Information screens at bus stops and the Network West Midlands phone app.

The first round in the morning from 8-10am with @paulbradshaw, @nebolland, @Feltip1982 and me (@pupulchatterjee):

Brum transport makes it to the Birmingham Mail

The report by Brum transport on the perception of safety amongst bus passengers in the West Midlands was picked up the Birmingham Mail for its Behind the Numbers segment. It appeared on the web version on April 17. Here’s the link to it:

birmingham mail

West Midlands passengers feel the most unsafe

Bus passengers in the West Midlands feel more unsafe than in any other region, a recent report reveals.

It is the second year in a row that the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive (WMPTE) region has come out with the highest number of passengers feeling unsafe.

More than one in six respondents (17 per cent) to the Bus Passenger Survey 2013 said that the behaviour of other passengers had given them cause to worry or make them feel uncomfortable.

The independent watchdog, Passenger Focus carried out the survey for autumn 2012 in 22 regions in the country outside London. Data was collected between 23 September and 12 December, 2012 (excluding the half term holiday period).

However, with the fatal stabbing of a teenager on a bus in Birmingham earlier on 7 March, this perception of safety is likely to be even lower now.

At the second spot is the Greater Manchester region with the figure at 13 per cent.

The overall satisfaction of passengers with their journey has also fallen from 81 per cent last year to 79 per cent this year in the WMPTE region.

The number of female passengers experiencing anti-social behavior has gone up from 15 to 16 per cent. Figures about perception of security inside the buses are the same in the last two years.

Anthony Smith, Passenger Focus chief executive, has said in a press statement:

“Each year some 2.3 billion bus journeys are made in England outside of London. Passengers are not satisfied with around 375 million journeys. We hope this report will be a call to action for transport authorities and bus companies to better work together to improve things for passengers.”

Low level nuisance behaviour such as playing loud music, feet on seats, boisterous antics, smoking are some of the frequent complains, said a spokesperson from public transport authority Centro.

Phil Tonks, an independent transport consultant said:

“There is obviously work to be done on improving perceptions of local bus services. The Safer Travel Team also continues to reduce crime and anti-social behaviour on our buses. However, it is clear that other aspects of the journey experience need improvement.”


UPDATE: This post from Brum Transport was later published in the Birmingham Mail’s datablog Behind the Numbers



Audio: How much money and time do Real Time Information screens at bus stops cost?

The maintenance of bus stops in the city is carried out by the public transport authority Centro through maintenance contracts being given out to commercial companies.

Over 100,000 pounds is allocated annually for these maintenance contracts.

But are any records kept of the repair work? Is data collected to find out what needs to be changed to make the system work efficiently?

How much money and time does it take for repairing a single bus stop Real Time Information (RTI) screen? Where do the funds come from?

What are the ways in which you can contact Centro to get the screens in your neighbourhood working?

In an interview with Pete Bond, head of the ‘Transforming Bus Travel’ team of Centro, Brum Transport tries to find out the answers to some of these questions.

Waiting for answers…

In a journalism lecture, one of my teachers once said:

“A lot of a journalist’s time is spent waiting outside the offices of bureaucrats.”

Time and again I find this to be the most important lesson: patiently pestering people and not going away when they really want you to go away.

Chasing a story on the maintenance of bus stops takes me back to this lesson. Its been over three weeks now since I started asking questions to Centro – the Company that runs bus stops and the Real Time Information (RTI) screens in Birmingham.

The Big question that remains unanswered – who is really responsible for these screens?

The other questions that I’ve been asking are:

  • How much money is spent on these information screens?
  • What method is used to decide which bus stops in the city need the screens? Is it decided on the basis of the number of commuters using a bus stop or are they placed after certain distances or in high traffic routes etc? Is any survey or study carried out for it?

  • Have any complaints been received about this issue from commuters? How are complaints dealt with?

The first set of questions that I asked and their answers from the Press Office were these:

1. How many bus stops in the city have electronic display boards?

There are currently 54 bus stop totems* in the city centre which were installed as part of a transport information overhaul in Birmingham city centre in autumn last year. Currently 10 totems display full real time information with the others set to follow later this year after further electrical work is carried out.

*To clarify, the difference between a totem and an RTI screen, here are pictures of the two:

2012-10-29 17.27.43

A totem installed at the City Centre last year


An RTI screen at a bus stop on Birchfield road, Perry Barr

2. How often are the bus timings updated? 

Buses which are installed with tracking devices will allow the displays to be updated immediately. For buses without these devices, timetable information is displayed to show the time of the next scheduled service. All National Express buses now have tracking devices installed and once the technology has been tested more than 80 per cent of the region’s buses will be capable of showing this real time information.

3. How is data collected for them? For instance are any surveys etc carried out? 

Data is provided from each of the bus operators and is processed through Centro’s systems to ensure we are able to update the displays with the latest information we have.

4. In cases where the display boards develop faults/ stop working, who carries out the maintenance and how long does it take to get them working again?

There are designated maintenance workers who are tasked with repairing any faults to real time information displays. They aim to visit the site within three days. The length of repair can vary depending on the nature of the fault.

5. Have any complaints been received about this issue from commuters? How are complaints dealt with?

Any complaints relating to Centro’s services go through our Customer Relations department who aim to respond within 10 working days. We have recently received our first round of Market Research feedback since installing the new information systems. A sample of 200 passengers was taken and 81 per cent of those asked said they were happy with the accuracy of the electronic information. A further 91 per cent reacted positively to the location of the totems and said they found the information useful.

What I thought would be ‘not so difficult to obtain’ information and what began as polite exchange of emails and phone calls with the press office has now turned into a Freedom of Information (FOI) request and waiting for the 21 day period to be over so that I can take it further. I started working on this story on February 13 and I’m still waiting for answers.

Many more such queries revealed that the RTI screens are not directly maintained by Centro, but by private contractors for which tenders are invited. On asking about the annual budget for this work, at first unofficial sources revealed that it goes up to £150,000 per year. But no confirmation was available from Centro on this. The Press office said such information is commercially sensitive and cannot be disclosed to the media.

However, experts are of the view that most of the details I have asked so far are well within the ‘public interest’ domain. If a company or organisation seeks exemption, they need to justify the exemption of such commercially sensitive data against the public interest test, as per Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) guidelines.

An updated version of this information, (revealed by the FOI response from Centro on March 15, 2013) is available in my next blogpost. 

Audio: Are information screens at bus stops working?


Regional transport authority Centro, responsible for bus stops in the city, spends over 100,000 pounds annually on the maintenance of the Real Time Information (RTI) screens at bus stops. This budget covers about 1500 screens in the West Midlands region covered by Centro.

But are these screens functioning? I found out what the commuters think of them and what Centro has to say about the matter.