diamond geezer

 Tuesday, October 18, 2011

When's your next bus due? It's not an official secret any more. Because yesterday, after several weeks of beta testing, TfL finally launched their full Countdown service offering Londoners oodles of live bus arrival information.

That's great news if...
» ...you're sat at a computer, because every London bus stop has its own webpage. Search for it, bookmark it, and you can instantly check all the buses due over the next half hour. Even better, the pages automatically update, so you don't have to keep pressing refresh. Fantastic.
» ...you have a web-enabled phone, because you can check next buses while you're out and about. Surf onto the TfL website and its free, or nab yourself a bus checker app and keep tabs the simple way. Marvellous.
» ...you're at a bus stop with a Countdown board attached, because TfL are adding 500 more of these. The original boards have been around for years, ticking over with details of upcoming buses, and no smartphone has ever been required. Don't underestimate the number of less well-off or older Londoners who'll only be able to access Countdown this way.

But, and there is a but, also just launched is an SMS version of the new Countdown service. Every bus stop has its own five-digit code, now displayed on a small board above the timetable. Text that five-digit number to 87287, and TfL will send you back a list of the next buses due. Indeed, if you're standing at a bus stop, there's no evidence of any other way to access the Countdown service. In particular there's no mention of m.countdown.tfl.gov.uk, where you can get this information for free, only the 87287 service with smallprint saying "Services and network charges apply, see tfl.gov.uk/terms for details." No matter that your phone may not be able to access these terms and conditions, just send your text and hope for the best. And it'll cost you, one text plus twelvepence.
3.1 We will provide the SMS Service to you at a charge of 12 pence over your standard network rate. This charge may change in the future, but any change will be noted here and publicised by TfL. The overall cost of sending a text may vary depending on the contract you have with your mobile network operator.
3.2 You will not be charged by us if:
3.2.1 you do not receive a text from us using the SMS Service;
3.2.2 we send you an error message.
So I've had a go at testing the SMS service, to see how it works and how it eats your money. Here are five local attempts...

1) The bus stop: Bow Flyover, eastbound (text "55457" to 87287)
The reply: 25 Ilford due, 25 Ilford 3 min, 25 Ilford 6 min, 425 Stratford 7 min, 488 Bromley-by-Bow 7 min, 25 Ilford 8 min, 276 Newham Hospital 11 min, 25 Ilford 12 min
The cost: 10p (text) + 12p (TfL service charge) = 22p
The verdict: Lots and lots of lovely information, which is great, although with such a regular bus service here it probably isn't worth 22p to discover how short the wait will be.

2) The bus stop: Bow Flyover, westbound (text "74025" to 87287)
The reply: Sorry we are experiencing problems with the service. Please try again later.
The cost: 10p (text) = 10p
The verdict: The Countdown system collapsed briefly last night, so I got this error message instead. True to their word in the terms and conditions, TfL didn't charge me 12p extra. So that's good.

3a) The bus stop: Hancock Road, outside Bromley-by-Bow Tesco (????)
The problem: Hang on, there isn't a Countdown code on this bus stop. If there's no sign, I can't text. But there is a five-digit number stuck to a label on the underside of the roundel, maybe it's that? (text "36763" to 87287)
The reply: Sorry no stop matches this query. To find your bus stop code check information at the stop or visit tfl.gov.uk.
The cost: 10p (text) + 12p (TfL service charge) = 22p
The verdict: If TfL make an error, I don't pay an extra 12p. But in this case I made an error, so I do pay an extra 12p. That's 22p utterly wasted because I entered a wrong number. Watch out for this, and make sure you type carefully. Looks like I'd better check the code online...

3b) The bus stop: Hancock Road, outside Bromley-by-Bow Tesco (text "76073" to 87287)
The reply: 108 Lewisham Stn 1 min, Thank you for using 87287
The cost: 10p (text) + 12p (TfL service charge) = 22p
The verdict: Just the one bus due in the next half hour, apparently. It won't be a long wait, hurrah. But I wonder what'll happen if I try again 2 minutes later...

3c) The bus stop: Hancock Road, outside Bromley-by-Bow Tesco (text "76073" to 87287)
The reply: Sorry no bus information is available for this stop. Please consult the bus timetable or visit tfl.gov.uk
Cost: 10p (text) + 12p (TfL service charge) = 22p
Verdict: Blimey, I've just spent 22p to be told nothing. Nothing, that is, apart from the fact that no bus is due in the next half hour. I wish the text message had expressed this more clearly, rather than some general apologetic waffle. Now I could try again in a few minutes, in case a bus is finally on its way, but there again that might be another 22p down the drain. Not ideal.

4) The bus stop: Hancock Road, bus stand (text "72227" to 87287)
The problem: Now this is strange. This is the last stop on route 488, so passengers never board here, they only alight. It shouldn't have a visible code. And yet TfL have still stuck a plate on the bus stop inviting passengers to SMS for next bus information. So I did, even though I knew it was pointless.
The reply: Sorry no bus information is available for this stop. Please consult the bus timetable or visit tfl.gov.uk
Cost: 10p (text) + 12p (TfL service charge) = 22p
Verdict: Anyone texting "72227" to 87287 will be charged 22p for an information-free message, because no buses ever depart from this stop. You could argue I was stupid for even trying. I could argue that TfL are stupid for putting a code on a bus stop that will only ever return a null result.

5) The bus stop: Hancock Road, the other bus stand (text "76073" to 87287)
The problem: Hang on, this is the other 488 bus stand, so no bus picks up passengers here either. And, hmmm, haven't I seen that number 76073 somewhere else? Yes, this is the code which should be on the bus stop outside Tesco, but instead some TfL contractor has attached it to the wrong bus stop, on the wrong side of Three Mills Lane, where it's no bloody use.
The reply: 108 Greenwich 6 min, 488 Dalston Junct 8 min, 108 Greenwich 21 min
Cost: 10p (text) + 12p (TfL service charge) = 22p
Verdict: Right information, but it's for a bus stop 109 metres away. Expensively hopeless.

And my conclusion? Countdown is brilliant, but try not to use the SMS service unless there's no alternative. Rest assured you probably won't experience the chain of woes I suffered above. But you will be charged one text plus twelvepence, even if you type a number wrong, even if the code on the bus stop is wrong, even if there's no bus due in the next 30 minutes, indeed even if there's no bus due until tomorrow morning. Countdown may be a game-changer on a smartphone, but text-wise it's a money-grabber.

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