Keeping on course

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Head of bus operations at Ilévia’s Sequedin depot Dieu Merci Yalala (left) and colleague Mohamed Ziane with TottUp’s Sales Manager Loredane Costa. JONATHAN WELCH

Jonathan Welch finds out about a new training aid designed to improve driver confidence and service reliability

Driver recruitment, training and retention are all topics which are at the forefront of industry minds just now, although they are never far from the minds of operators. The range of skills needed varies from coach to bus, but one thing is common: drivers need to know where they are going, whether that be on a regular route, an unfamiliar diversion, rail replacement or a continental tour. Whilst the latter might require some more in-depth planning, a lot of what most bus operators – and many coach operators – do revolves around fixed routes.

As someone who has over a decade of experience driving city services, including just about every variation and planned or unplanned diversion imaginable, and in a city I’d grown to know well, it’d be quite easy to forget how daunting a route can be for a new driver. Even with the benefit of a few weeks of route training – and a conscientious new recruit would be making suitable notes to support their first solo trips – it can be a daunting experience to have a bus full of passengers relying on you, trusting you to get them where they need to go, safely and on time. It can only take a few moments of ‘wait, is this the route that goes left or the one that goes right at this junction?’ to lead a driver into an unfortunate situation.

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Equally, I’m sure many drivers can relate to those school routes, the ones they rarely drive on their daily roster, but know they will have to do in six week’s time. Even for an experienced driver, the all-too-often given instructions of ‘it’s like the 22, but turn left here, right there, then left at the post box…’ can make it worrying. And who hasn’t heard stories of drivers on rail replacement being unsure of where a railway station is, when they’re on unfamiliar territory and far from base?

So what can be done? Satnav technology is nothing new, but doesn’t really hit the mark for the kinds of journeys we’re talking about here, ones with a fixed, prescribed route. French company TottUp recently invited me to view its product which addresses all of these problems, offering a digital version of an experienced driver to help keep the bus on the right route. I was, it has to be said, somewhat sceptical initially. Not so much of the product, but of how it might be perceived; would drivers see using it as being ‘nannied’ or fear what their colleagues might say? And would passengers react to a driver using a “satnav” to get them home? Is it a solution for a real problem, or a solution looking for a problem, I asked myself.

The device is based around a mobile phone, which is mounted on a base station containing a speaker and battery. JONATHAN WELCH

What is it?

Designed by TottUp, the device itself is based around a mobile phone, which is mounted on a docking station; the latter provides a large speaker to relay instructions, as well as a suction mount to attach it to the window or windscreen of a bus. For our demonstration drive, we attached it to the centre of the windscreen, but it is intended to be placed more discreetly in a real-world scenario.

The concept is simple: A driver signs out one of the units before their journey, and enters into it the route they are driving, selecting where on the route they will be starting from. Once done and activated, no further input is required en route, to prevent distractions. The TottUp unit then offers step-by-step instructions in a similar way to a satnav, with instructions which can easily be customised to suit operators. The screen provides a large visual icon to act as a quick, easy to view reminder, though its creators are clear that this is intended as a reminder only, for situations where the driver might not hear; when they are also receiving a radio message from a control room, or if a passenger speaks to them for example.

Instructions are kept simple, and on our demonstration run through Lille consisted entirely of things I would consider pertinent to our journey. Names and locations of the next stop, directions at junctions, and guidance on which lane to take or safety information for known hazards. In fact, listening to the instructions, and with the back-up of clear pictograms, I felt that I could have driven the route unaided. That is, though, not the point. TottUp’s Sales Manager Loredane Costa explained: “It is a support tool, not a replacement for thorough training. When we first trialled the system, some union representatives were worried. But once people saw how the system works, we’ve had only positive responses to it.”

The system is not designed to be integrated into the vehicles, Loredane explained. The units are capable of lasting up to 48 hours between charges thanks to a battery built into the base station, though in normal use would be returned to the depot office after a driver’s shift. “It’s not a simple GPS device,” she said. “Operators can configure it and add anything they think is relevant,” though added that it shouldn’t overload the driver. “You can use it to remind drivers of routes if they have been absent for a long time through illness, or programme in diversion routes when you know there will be disruptions such as demonstrations or roadworks. That will really help drivers who don’t know the area or the possible diversion routes.”

The system can also guide drivers on depot journeys, helping them take the best route to the start or end point of their trip.

One of the operators which has trialled the system is Keolis, which operates urban services in the metropolitan area of Lille in northern France under the Ilévia name. For our demonstration, we were joined by head of bus operations at Ilévia’s Sequedin depot Dieu Merci Yalala and interim depot manager Mohamed Ziane, who would be our driver for the trip. With over 80 routes in and around the city, and a workforce including 1,300 drivers across three depots, the case for a device such as this starts to become clear.

TottUp

I asked Loredane about the background to the company and the device. “Our founder was a manager at La Poste and had the problem that some postmen didn’t know the delivery routes,” she explained. “Letters were going missing, and he wanted to find a solution. He came up with the idea, and thought the model could work for a variety of users, such as waste collection, as well as the post office.

“He decided that the bus sector was the most realisable. He started off in Lyon, where the company is based. In addition to Lyon, TottUp is now also in use in Lille, Caen, Besançon, Aix-en-Provence, plus many other cities in France, Switzerland, Belgium and New Zealand. We work with big groups and public operators mainly.

“It’s very popular for school routes, so there’s no longer a need to rely on asking the kids, which can often cause problems! The system is very simple to use for drivers too, and they can rate the guidance from one to three stars after each trip. They can also record a voice note if they think there is something that could be improved or added.”

Produced in France, the name of the product derives from that of the ancient Egyptian god of education, Thoth or Thot in English, and pronounced ‘tott.’ In most markets, TottUp has established an ‘as a service’ model whereby operators pay a set fee per month for use of each device. “In New Zealand, we sell TottUp as a complete product. We could do the same in the UK,” Loredane explained, when I asked whether there might be a reluctance amongst commercial operators in the UK to commit to a monthly fee in a very cost-conscious environment.

Some operators may be reluctant to invest in a new technology, but TottUp believes that for operators willing to open their mind to a new way of working, the device could prove its worth very quickly, compared to lots of extra one-to-one training which also takes up the valuable time of a trainer. However, Loredane pointed out that the system can have a use where operators are bidding for tenders, and can help to assure the tendering bodies that routes will be operated correctly.

JONATHAN WELCH

Mapping

Based on Google Maps, the office-based software which supports TottUp’s in-cab device allows users to easily programme new routes, make changes and add in extra details. A range of visual symbols are available, and although text can be entered and displayed on-screen, TottUp says this is not something it would advocate, preferring to give priority to spoken instructions. To provide extra reassurance, these can be recorded ‘in house’ by a member of staff such as a driver trainer, whose voice will be familiar to drivers already. “We go out and train operators on how to use it,” Loredane explained. “We teach them how to best formulate the guidance and the best way to record voice instructions. We’ve gained a lot of experience from working with operators so far, so we know what works best. The focus is on safety, which is why we focus on the audio, not maps.”

Routes can be programmed remotely from a desktop computer, or via a phone app by simply mapping points using the phone’s GPS signal. For operators which don’t wish to expend the initial effort of setting up the system, TottUp can also provide a service to do that on their behalf.

The system is also capable of producing weekly reports to show use, including how many drivers have used it, and on what routes, which could help operators to further target their training in certain areas. “It was difficult to convince operators at the beginning,” Loredane conceded, “but we offered them the chance to try it with a limited number of devices and so far, everyone who has tried it has taken more.”

The company has taken a cautious approach to expanding, having initially focused on francophone countries, before moving into the New Zealand market, the English language version providing a springboard to the next obvious country; the UK.

A useful aid?

The visit was certainly eye-opening, and I can certainly understand the initial scepticism of operators for the product. Speaking to Dieu Merci and Mohamed after we returned to Ilévia’s smart, modern depot, which is home to a mix of CNG-fuelled single-deck and articulated buses, their enthusiasm for the product was noteworthy. Both spoke highly of the system’s usefulness as an aid to driver training, and they agreed that it had helped drivers in a number of ways. Covering shifts at the last minute was another example given; previously, some drivers might not have been willing or able to help out if unsure of routes, but with the back-up of a familiar voice in the cab, some had felt able to take on extra duties, they said, adding that at a time when drivers are in short supply, it also shows that the company is investing in its employees.

Having taken a look and seen it in action, what are my thoughts? It’s a system I’d never considered the need for, but I can see the advantages. The first hurdle, convincing operators, drivers and unions that it is a tool for good, not a replacement for proper in person training, is always going to be the biggest. Beyond that, if operators are willing to invest, then I can see an ongoing use case for at least a couple of such devices in many depots. For coach operators too, it’s not hard to imagine that if a regular driver on a long-distance scheduled service is unavailable at short notice, a driver who usually does local or tour work might be reluctant to step in if they don’t know the stops en-route; I can certainly empathise with that feeling, and can think of a few occasions I might have appreciated TottUp’s help. The devices have certainly been received with enthusiasm in Lille, where drivers appeared to recognise their value as a stress-reducing aid.

As TottUp gets to know the UK market, Loredane concluded: “We’re observing the market and seeing if we need to make any changes for the UK. We’d be happy to hear from operators who would like to know more about the product.”

In daily use, it is intended that drivers would mount the device discreetly in the cab, and rely on the audio guide. Pictograms on the screen are provided for back-up. JONATHAN WELCH
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