A tour de force: new PostBus timetables in record time

Work on a new timetable usually takes as much as nine months. But due to the coronavirus, the 60 planners at PostBus have created several new versions from scratch within just a few weeks. Chief planner Marc-Andri Leuthold provides a glimpse into the highly specialized domain of timetable developers.

“I hope and believe that we will achieve even stronger interconnectedness in everyday public transport operations as a result of the coronavirus”, says Marc-Andri Leuthold, Head of Planning at Postbus. (Image: Kelly Müller)

The 2,400 Postbuses together drive eight times around the world – every day. The network comprises 916 routes with 3,700 drivers at the helm. These raw figures alone show that creating a new timetable, deploying drivers and scheduling vehicles requires a lot of groundwork.

The coronavirus pandemic is raising new challenges for the seasoned Swiss public transport planners. The process has always involved and still involves adapting the timetable in stages within a few days: from 19 March it was moved back slightly, then reinstated by 11 May – in intermediate stages. The individual links of the transport chain are meticulously coordinated throughout Switzerland: passengers should be able to transfer from train to bus and vice-versa easily and without a long wait. Swiss public transport has been built on IT-supported planning tools since the early ‘80s. The timetable information from all transport companies is gathered on a joint platform.

A first for this road systems leader

As a so-called road systems leader, PostBus plays an important role as a coordinator on behalf of the Swiss Confederation during this crisis situation. PostBus is the point of contact for all buses, trams, boats and cable cars, and has been in continual dialogue since the end of February with 150 transport companies, which jointly operate 1,500 public transport routes. Right in the middle of all this is the trilingual Marc-Andri Leuthold (47). He is Head of Planning at PostBus and a sector-wide advisor and coordinator for timetable creation during the coronavirus crisis and says: “We have always understood the role of system management, but now it’s truly coming into its own.”

Normally there is time from March to December

Marc Andri Leuthold came to PostBus four years ago via SBB, RhB and the logistics company railCare and now also knows road-based public transport like the back of his hand. There is no dedicated course of study for timetable developers. A geographer by trade, Leuthold learned the craft of timetables hands-on from the ground up. It all depends on the network map, frequency and time period: once the network map (all routes in a region) is decided, the next steps are to determine the frequency (how often the Postbus operates a route) and the timeframe (e.g. from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.). “The greatest challenge is then to put this all together”, says Marc-Andri Leuthold. By this he is referring to the task of operational planners. What does a particular day hold for a vehicle and a driver? When are the breaks to be taken and where? Which vehicles are needed for the expected number of passengers? These are the questions that occupy operational planners. Planning and operation come together as a team. This is key to the success of public transport.

A major change in timetable usually only occurs once a year in December. Every March, it’s decided which Postbus will arrive and depart from which of the 13,000 stops and when. This task is carried out by a total of 60 specialists at PostBus headquarters and in the five regions. Due to coronavirus, there were only a few days available for planning instead of the usual nine months. But this singular feat could be achieved for the first time thanks to working around the clock. Despite the speed at which it was put together, passengers can still count on the punctuality of the coronavirus timetable. This should also be the case once the timetable comes into effect on 11 May, even though the “old” timetable information cannot simply be reactivated at the press of a button. This is due to the continued restrictions on night buses, leisure routes and probably school transport services.

The corona effect on public transport

The repeated modifications to the timetable in record time necessitated by the coronavirus are only possible thanks to the planners’ many years of experience, the good links between public transport companies and the increasing intelligence of digital assistants. “These assistants are able to do more and more, which also leads to increasingly individualized and rapid solutions”, says Marc-Andri Leuthold. A route network can therefore be thinned out for the summer holidays or modified short term around a construction site. The main programme at PostBus is called PlanBox, and this tool can be fed the new data relatively quickly. But for dispatch planners who create timetables for the vehicles and drivers, even small changes often entail an array of measures, which ultimately impact the drivers’ working conditions.

Even closer contact between the various stakeholders in Swiss public transport has come in the wake of the coronavirus: PostBus and the SBB act as representatives of the 250 transport companies, the cantons and the Confederation. “I hope and believe that we will achieve even stronger interconnectedness in everyday public transport operations as a result of the coronavirus”, says PostBus chief planner Leuthold.

Contact: Media unit PostBus 058 338 57 00, infomedia@postbus.ch

PostBus coronavirus info page: www.postbus.ch/coronavirus

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