diamond geezer

 Sunday, January 21, 2018

In good news, TfL have made adjustments to London's most infuriating message.

Please hold on, the bus is about to move.

In bad news, they haven't turned it off. Nor have they changed the message, nor have they linked it to the closing of the doors.

Instead all they've done is tweak the timing, and so their misguided four week trial rolls on.

For the first week, the message played approximately 20 seconds after the doors opened, no matter whether the bus was about to leave or not. Most of the time the bus was already moving by the time the message played, hence it was plainly incorrect, which infuriated travellers almost as much as the interminable repetition.

The specific sequence of events was that the doors opened, followed by a gap, followed by an announcement of the route number and destination, followed by another gap, and finally the message to hold on. Like so.

What TfL did yesterday is to remove the second gap.

The message Please hold on, the bus is about to move is now played immediately after the announcement of the route and destination. This has reduced the length of the chain of announcements from 18 seconds after the doors open to more like 13. Technically it's an improvement, because the bus is less likely to have moved off before the message plays. But has it solved the problem? Hell no.

I've been out on the buses again to listen to new system in action, and can confirm that it's just as annoying and inaccurate as before. I rode the 205 from Bow down to Aldgate, and then the 25 back from Aldgate to Bow. At each stop I checked whether the message played before the bus left or vice versa, and by how much. Firstly, here's what happened on the 205.
No message » 10s early » 2s late » Perfect » 18s early » No message » 7s early » 8s late » 3s late » 4s late » No message » No message
On four occasions no message was played, not even 205 to Paddington, which I assume was just a technical glitch. Of the eight times there was an announcement, one was spot on, four were late and three were early. On the occasion when the announcement came 8 seconds too late, this was because only one person got on, without faffing, and the driver pulled off almost immediately. On the occasion when the announcement came 18 seconds too early, this was because the traffic lights ahead of us were at red. One unfortunate passenger did stumble on the stairs, but this was on a separate occasion when we braked at traffic lights, and obviously the message doesn't play then.

Here's what happened on the 25.
1s late » Perfect » 4s late » 4s late » Perfect » 2s early » Perfect » 1s late » 1s late » 2s late » 21s early » 46s early » 4s early » 228s early
This time there were 14 stops, and 14 announcements. On three occasions Please hold on, the bus is about to move was played just as the bus was about to move. On six occasions the message came too late to be of any use - even a one second delay is useless, because it's already wholly obvious that the bus is moving. And on five occasions the message came too early, on one occasion almost four minutes before we actually drove off!

It might be instructive to explain how those last four "earlies" occurred. 21 seconds early took place outside Mile End station, where a long queue of passengers was waiting to board. 46 seconds early took place at Coborn Road, where one passenger got off and then the driver simply hung around, like he really wasn't trying. 4 seconds early took place outside Bow Road station, where nobody was waiting and nobody wanted to get off, but the driver stopped and opened the doors anyway. And 228 seconds early took place outside Bow Church station, where bus drivers on route 25 change over, but the message still plays before the first one leaves the cab. This is why linking the announcement to the doors opening, rather than the doors closing, is insane.

Last week in a statement to the Evening Standard, TfL admitted it had "not quite got the timing right yet". "Clearly there are some adjustments we need to make and we’re working on that now," said their director of bus operations... which is why the interval has now been reduced by five seconds.

Yes, the updated version of the trial means that the bus is more likely to be stationary when Please hold on, the bus is about to move plays, which makes the announcement sound less ridiculous. But the announcement is no more likely to be accurately timed than it was before - all that TfL have done is move the goalposts.

Presumably it's not technically possible to link the announcement to the closing of the doors, at least with the software in its current configuration. Presumably the wording of the message can't be changed without damaging the set-up of the trial, despite only ever being intermittently correct. And presumably the trial is of such importance that nobody's willing to stop it early and turn these unrelenting messages off, despite the amended timings not solving any of the underlying problems.

Please hold on, the bus is about to move is so regularly incorrect that passengers now recognise it as a false alarm. "Oh, there's that stupid announcement again..." they think, "...the idiots, the bus is already moving!" All TfL really seem to be managing with this new trial is to increase distrust, and make us instinctively less likely to listen to more important announcements.

It's no use arguing that partially sighted passengers and the elderly appreciate these messages, because they'd only be of use if they were properly timed. Indeed there's already a more useful noise aboard a bus to warn people of imminent movement, and that's the beep of the doors closing. Instead TfL are simply out to remind us to "hold on" at every opportunity, because once in every two million journeys it might save someone from harm and make their statistics look better.

TfL don't care that you hate the messages. They've been tasked with reducing the number of injuries on public transport, and this relentless nannying announcement is their response. It's also why the phrase "hold the handrail" is being bandied about with smothering regularity on stations and escalators. It's also why we get warned to watch out for slippery surfaces "due to the inclement weather", even if it hasn't actually rained for the last twelve hours. Safety targets mean TfL are determined to continue with their bus trial no matter how flawed it is. Our only hope is that at the end of four weeks somebody has the sense to turn the nagging racket off.

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