When was your public transport delayed?

On Wednesday 29th February 2012, the 1045am X38 express bus from Exeter to Plymouth broke down outside Ashburton.  A replacement bus was sent from Exeter, as the breakdown was almost exactly midway between the two possible depots for spare buses.  And, as you will have gathered, I was on the 1045am bus.  Tina and I were on a day-trip from the smaller city of the county to the more populous.  There were about twenty passengers on that particular service.  We reached Plymouth about 45 minutes later than the schedule, having caught up time on the second part of the journey because there were no passengers to pick up.  Four of the passengers decided to walk the mile to Ashburton, and didn't wait for the replacement.  Another one phoned for a friend who collected her from the broken-down bus.

Afterwards, we shared memories of times when we had been delayed on public transport buses.  For each of us, despite having travelled to school by bus for most of our school lives, there were very few such occasions.  Tina had been on a couple of buses which had broken down when she was on her way to school.  I recalled the time when (aged 6) the older pupils (aged 10) on our bus organised a crocodile of pupils to walk the last mile to school when a bus broke down.  (Yes, we were unaccompanied by adults, and yes, it was the 10 year olds who led us.  Would it happen today like that?)  But generally, our bus trips had been free of breakdown or accident.  Delays were due to adverse weather conditions.  Tina recalled London smogs in the 1950s.  I recalled bus trips in snow during bad winters, and delays when the River Severn burst its banks in Worcester.  There were times when a road had been blocked by a serious accident, and once, on a journey from London to Exeter, slow traffic meant that the driver's rest period had to be taken before we reached Exeter. 

Then we compared this with experiences on the railway.  Again, it had been rare for us to be delayed because the engine had broken down.  But, far more often, we had been delayed because of another event on the rail network.  And that made us think about how rail and bus transport differ in their reliability.  The reliability of buses is slightly affected by problems of the reliability of other buses, and slightly affected by problems to the infrastructure.  The reliability of rail services depends much more significantly on a combination of the performance of other vehicles and the rail network. 

So here's an aspect of measuring the performance of two forms of transport.  You cannot simply look at the performance of the individual vehicles; having a closed system (like rail tracks, and limited access points such as stations, ports for ships, airports for planes) means that you need to look wider than the vehicles themselves. 

It is worth remembering that in terms of injuries per passenger mile, elevators (lifts in the UK) are the safest form of passenger transport.  But they don't run from Exeter to Plymouth.


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