Brunel ends pain in Spain on buses

August 30, 1996

Mussolini's trains ran on time in the 1930s Italy, much to the chagrin of the Spanish. Now Brunel University is helping them rival Il Duce's achievement on an arguably more recalcitrant public transport system - the buses.

Researchers from Brunel have been working with a Spanish company to produce a powerful piece of software that can cope with every variable associated with running buses on time. It can allow for the staff's propensity to take tea breaks and the myriad rules governing bus crew shifts.

Ken Darby-Dowman, senior lecturer in the department of mathematics and statistics, said: "For 25 years people have proposed using computerised optimisation to solve such problems. The difficulty is to compute the practical problems and model them."

He and his research fellow, James Little, have found that the software can take 500 equations and that the whole model can "explode" into 60,000 different permutations of bus crew duties. Until now computer power and algorithms have not been good enough to find the optimum path through the maze of choices. Now the researchers have produced a system that can churn out a solution within half an hour.

The result is Superbus, which is being tested in Seville and in Porto in Portugal. In Seville it should cope with the vagaries of 550 drivers on 40 bus lines catering for 92 million passenger journeys per year.

But Dr Darby-Dowman, who worked with the Spanish company Grupo Etra, a traffic control systems company, as part of the European Union's Esprit programme, also hopes it will be a commercial product in the United Kingdom within a year.

"Until recently most scheduling in the UK was done manually by experienced schedulers. Many are retiring and their expertise is not being handed over. You need to be pretty intelligent to do them and to like puzzles," he says.

As for the elusive political dream of making the public transport run on time, Dr Darby-Dowman believes that a fascist dictatorship such as Mussolini's is not the only requisite political climate.

He says there is a "large market in Europe" because there are many publicly financed local authorities.

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