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‘The trick is to make a difficult job look easy’

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‘The trick is to make a difficult job look easy’

Richard Sherrat has spent most of the last four decades in the bus industry and last month the energetic Trentbarton scheduler was named as the very first winner of the prestigious Joe Wood Scheduler of the Year Award at a special online ceremony.

Richard was one of five finalists for the award, which was inspired by the career of rising star and former bus scheduler Joe Wood, who sadly died last year. The award judges, which include Bus Users Chair Ben Colson MBE, Go North East MD Martijn Gilbert and Passenger Transport's Andrew Garnett, reviewed all the entries and selected Richard as the winner. 

They praised his work, energy and talent in playing a key role in planning how Trentbarton’s services run day-in, day-out across the East Midlands of England.

59-year old Richard joined what was then Trent, part of the sprawling government-owned National Bus Company, in 1979 straight from school.

“I had an interest in buses, and wanted a career in the transport industry,” he admits. “I joined as a Traffic Trainee, so I got to experience all the various roles of the Traffic Office.”

However, Richard left the business for a short period of time with a management consultancy. When he was made redundant from that role, he discovered there was a job as a scheduler open at Trent. He leapt at the opportunity, applied and subsequently rejoined the company, by now in private hands, in 1991. 

So with his long experience in the role, what in his mind makes a good scheduler?

“The ability to manage data, working under pressure to meet deadlines, knowledge of the network to know what will work and what won’t,” says Richard. “It’s about making your assets sweat and the drivers relaxed.”

“The ability to manage data, working under pressure to meet deadlines, knowledge of the network to know what will work and what won’t. It’s about making your assets sweat and the drivers relaxed.”

He adds that a key skill of the role is in providing the best possible service for passengers with the least amount of cost falling on the company. 

Richard continues: “Drivers’ wages and vehicle costs are the two major areas of expenditure for a bus company, so these need to be regularly reviewed and kept under control.”

But he admits it is sometimes challenging to meet the aspirations of directors, passengers, drivers and depots – and that’s where it pays dividends to remain flexible by “getting a feel for the schedules and knowing what will work and what won’t work”.

Richard notes there have been added challenges in recent years as a result of the effects of traffic congestion and the introduction of departure slots at bus stations and city centre bus stops in some parts of the Trentbarton network.

“The provision of 24/7 services present their own challenges, having to consider refuelling and cost-effective night shifts,” he says. “Indeed, I have just achieved a first in scheduling – a 25-hour bus board (I did remember to refuel it!).”

Of course, the world of bus scheduling has changed rapidly in recent years with the introduction of new technologies and innovations that aim to assist in the art of scheduling.

Richard welcomes this move.

He continues: “I remember looking through driver waybills to get passenger loadings and collecting our MAP data from the National Bus Company Birmingham Computer Centre in a coach! 

“It is certainly a lot easier today with scheduled deviation, to identify the effects of congestion, and the almost instantaneous ticket machine data, which has been adapted so operators can ensure social distancing.”

But he believes that when it comes to crew scheduling, things are less clear as there will always be difficult pieces of work left to cover and that’s where the uniquely human skills of the scheduler come into play.

“We believe in the human touch, which reinforces our team spirit,” he says. “It’s about giving depot teams that little bit of flexibility, so it relieves some of the pressure on them when things do go pear-shaped.”

“We believe in the human touch, which reinforces our team spirit. It’s about giving depot teams that little bit of flexibility”

He also thinks that there needs to be a better interface between the various computer packages being used by operators, local authorities and government departments – much of this information is driven by and relies on the outputs of scheduling databases.

Richard believes the role of the scheduler will change as emerging vehicle propulsion technologies, such as battery-electric and hydrogen, come to the fore.

“The range of some of these vehicles is currently 50-100 miles under what most of our buses do each day,” he says. “Having to build in time for vehicles to be recharged will mean additional vehicles are required, especially for the inter-urban operator.

“It will also become more difficult to design timetables with the increasing use of departure slots at terminals, especially where you have them at both ends of the route.”

Richard also sees increasing volumes of data being utilised to inform these schedules, but he thinks the skills of the scheduler will still play a key role in reaching a meaningful conclusion.

“The holy grail is still how to identify whether dwell time at stops is due to the number of customers or too much running time,” he says.

“The holy grail is still how to identify whether dwell time at stops is due to the number of customers or too much running time.” 

But for now, Richard continues to work hard keeping Trenbarton’s buses on the road. And he’s a little overwhelmed to have been named as Joe Wood Scheduler of the Year.

“It’s an honour and a privilege to have won, and I have been humbled by the number of kind comments,” he says.

“It is good to recognise the hard work of schedulers throughout the country. Not many people appreciate what is involved in getting the bus to the bus stop – it simply turns up. In any role, the key is to make a difficult job look easy.”

“It is good to recognise the hard work of schedulers throughout the country. Not many people appreciate what is involved in getting the bus to the bus stop – it simply turns up. In any role, the key is to make a difficult job look easy.”

Watch a recording of the Scheduler of the Year Award ceremony to see Richard receive his award.

The Data-Driven Bus Operator