Satellite communications are becoming an increasingly important technology for the smooth running of public transport systems. London Buses’ plans to evaluate GPS technology to replace its existing real-time vehicle tracking system is just the latest innovation. However, it is felt that the US government’s ownership of the technology could be a problem – a decision to turn off all GPS reception was narrowly avoided at the onset of the conflict in Iraq. GPS will also face its first competition in a few years, when the European Space Agency launches its Eur3.5bn euro (£2.4bn) Galileo satellite positioning system, with promises of a much more accurate system.
The organisation has spent £40m on the system so far, installing radio systems on its 8,000 buses, microwave-based roadside beacons, and electronic ‘Countdown’ screens at bus stops. Despite the fact that the project was approved in 1996, full roll-out is not yet complete. London Buses has been faced with moving targets as the fleet expands and London Mayor Ken Livingstone increases services and pledges to introduce new technology. The organisation will have spent £50m on the AVL system when it finally installs 2,000 more Countdown signs across the capital, bringing the number to 4,000 by 2005/6. Presently, the location of every bus on London streets is pinpointed by roadside beacons, which communicate their location to control systems at the capital’s 80 garages and a central control system in Chingford.
Operators can regulate bus movements if they are too bunched up, ensuring the smoother running of services. In addition, information about when the bus will arrive is sent to some bus stops to alert passengers. But, Melanie Alexander, business manager of the Technical Services Group in London Buses, says the system needs to be updated if it is to withstand increased demand.
GPS will be there until Galileo gets up into space. It’s the only thing out there that will provide that level of precision as the mobile operators come onboard,’ he said. Galileo is expected to be operational in 2008, and in the meantime the continued swing towards GPS in the transport sector is expected to continue. For London Buses, GPS represents a potential next step for its Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) application.