National Bus Trader readers were treated (or subjected) to three brutal installments about tight schedules in the transit, non-emergency medical and paratransit sectors. Apart from motorcoaches deployed in transit service, tight schedules are a problem in only a handful of motorcoach scenarios. Still, coping with them is challenging in Today’s economic and operating environments.
Geography, Regulations and Inflexibility
In the August, 2003 National Bus Trader article titled “Pi R Squared,” I argued for doubling the size of a single vehicle’s service area by simply expanding the hours-of-service to 12 hours on-duty, an 18-hour span and, most importantly, verification of a meaningful nap (and a few other convenient safeguards). We clearly have the technology to ensure compliance with this approach. And we have the biology: Remaining awake for 18 hours with a good nap sandwiched in between is easy for many drivers. The commercial benefits are obvious. Instead, we are left with trip length constraints we could reasonably exceed.
One consequence of this inflexibility occurs when operators squeeze long trips into the 10-hour on-duty framework. Six-hundred-mile overnights are a staple of charter and tour service. The passengers want safe, rapid movement to and from dawn-to-dusk activities. They have little interest in rest stops, particularly on coaches with rest rooms, on which they can bring snacks and particularly on night-and-owl trips during which they can largely sleep. But a nine- or ten-hour stint with few or no rest breaks is hard on the driver. It is particularly challenging during night-and-owl hours. And with poor driver assignment, particularly with assignment-by-seniority, it can be dangerous. While not excusable, it is understandable why some or many drivers may speed “just to get it over with.” The dynamics off transit, paratransit and NEMT services are different, with their short trips, tight schedules and ignorance of system design and efficiency. In motorcoach service, the drivers often make the schedules tight.
The reality, of course, is that driving for mostly 10 hours straight is exhausting. This exhaustion is compounded by shift inversion. When trips are provided is far more of a problem than where. When catastrophic motorcoach accidents occur, these are usually the dynamics that emerge. Rarely do tight schedules compromise motorcoach passenger safety. Instead, unregulated shift inversion and non-existent driver assignment do.
Work and Play
One often-overlooked consequence of the conflict between economic sustainability and regulatory compliance is that off-duty hours are often tight. This is particularly true for intercity/scheduled service. Eight hours between shifts does not translate into eight hours’ sleep, much less eight hours of sound sleep. Post-trip and pre-trip inspections, commutes, meals and hygiene make eight hours off-duty an illusion, even without any additional time for relaxation. Often, the sparsity of off-duty time triggers the fatigue which manifests itself during the driving which follows.
Oddly, tight schedules are rare in the most dangerous of motorcoach services – party buses. This is true of even the worst offenders: Five-hour, one-way out-and-back rolling binges to the French Quarter provide drivers with plenty of rest. And the drinking and partying on board nullifies otherwise passenger impatience that might otherwise induce drivers to run ahead of schedule. Of course, letting passengers do practically whatever they want is hardly a remedy to tight schedules. Otherwise, the absence of tight schedules among party buses is largely a consequence of the local or sub-regional scope of the trips.
Ironies and Incidentals
One interesting irony is that a common motorcoach industry omission – failing to spot and/or assist passengers onto and off of the stepwell – is not the result of a tight schedule. Many passengers can and will board and alight faster with a driver positioned to “catch them if they fall.” Failures to assist passengers in paratransit and NEMT services (particularly in wheelchair securement) are at least understandable, while hardly excusable. To a juror, such omissions may seem curious for a mode where schedules are not tight.
Of course, drivers operating motorcoaches in transit service often have tight schedules. And they rarely spot or assist passengers in boarding or alighting. Yet this convergence of two unfortunate trends is largely incidental. Motorcoach operators deployed in commuter/express service seem to mimic the rarity of passenger assistance provided by other transit drivers, even with the handful of stops and multiple boardings and alightings common to commuter/express runs.
Hastening the Inevitable
Plenty of foreseeable but unplanned things make schedules tighter than normal. A broad range of the obvious stretches from weather to wheelchair users. Improvements in technology continue to mitigate these constraints. A small sample includes better tires, ABS brakes, motion-sensing devices, cameras, night vision glasses and even the MCI D45 QRT LE. But sleeper berths and team drivers are rare while the robots are gradually taking over.
Throughout its evolution, public transportation’s failure to thicken ridership densities also deserves blame. Transit ridership has actually declined significantly despite the increase in poverty and transit-dependence. Oddly, the fragmentation of more-costly demand-responsive services like taxis and transportation network companies (e.g., Uber, Lyft) has sopped up much of transit ridership – although this counterproductive and traffic-increasing mode split comes with at the expense of more deadhead time and more lower paid drivers. The disappearance of imaginative system design has deprived the public transportation industry of a means of coping with these economics. Compared to this chaos and decline, the motorcoach community has fared well. The dynamics which trigger tight schedules in other modes have not engulfed motorcoach service.
A common explanation for the shift from transit to less-efficient modes of transportation is the decline in service: Depending on the mode, long headways, lack of capacity and overcrowding, inefficiency, traffic, dirty vehicles, uncaring drivers and woeful or barely-existent passenger service. Limousine and motorcoach services seem to be the only modes left where customers can access live Earthlings with knowledge who actually answer telephones. The vehicles are clean and deluxe, the ride quality smooth, and the drivers professional. With reasonable schedules, passengers are also not tossed around as much. The reality is that service matters. We are seeing increasing evidence of this all around us.
In a gleeful exchange in the original Dragnet, Officer Frank Smith berates Sergeant Joe Friday for this lunch choice: “I don’t get it, Joe. Who eats fish and ice cream?” Sergeant Friday retorts with something like, “Wait a minute! You had soup, two helpings of lasagna, coffee, and two servings of ice cream.” Officer Smith bites back, “Yeah, but I didn’t have fish.”
One could slough off the less-common tight schedules in motorcoach operations. I would not. Tight schedules are the most common underlying cause of public transportation incidents in most other sectors. Our industry should be proud that this is not nearly as true for us. I think it is a shame this fact is not marketed. “Leave the driving to us” is outdated. A more effective motto might be, “We don’t just get you there. We get you there safely. Because we take our time.”