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NXWM and CitySwift announce three-year partnership

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NXWM and CitySwift announce three-year partnership

Andy Foster, Deputy Commercial Director at National Express West Midlands, is excited about the challenges and opportunities that his company faces. He’s also looking forward to rolling out the CitySwift product suite across more of the National Express bus network as part of a newly-announced three-year technology partnership.

CitySwift are delighted to announce a three year renewal partnership with National Express West Midlands – the UK’s largest bus operator outside of London. 

Covid recovery presents a daunting and unprecedented challenge for public transport operators all around the world. It has driven home the need to find ways to deliver more cost-effective bus services while maintaining frequency and passenger satisfaction.

Chris Gibbens, Commercial Director at National Express West Midlands, comments: “The pandemic has meant that we need to restore passenger confidence and ensure we put the right number of vehicles on the right routes at the right times to get people back on board, and CitySwift enables us to do just that.” 

“The pandemic has meant that we need to restore passenger confidence and ensure we put the right number of vehicles on the right routes at the right times to get people back on board.”

But Covid-aside, the West Midlands also has other challenges and opportunities: Andy Street, the recently re-elected Metro Mayor, is eager to make a difference. A new Clean Air Zone in Birmingham was launched on 1st June. Coventry has the green light to become UK's first £50m ‘All Electric Bus City’. Work has begun on the first Sprint bus rapid transit corridor, with priority measures on the A34 and A45 in Birmingham. And finally, further enhancements are to be made ahead of Birmingham hosting the Commonwealth Games next year.

“It's a busy old time,” says Andy Foster, Deputy Commercial Director at National Express West Midlands. “And it's quite an exciting period to be working here. I think we've got to look at these new ways of doing things and different ways of responding. That's really what's being expected of us.”

“I think we've got to look at these new ways of doing things and different ways of responding. That's really what's being expected of us.”

One of those different ways of responding has been to pioneer the use of big data to make the operator’s vast 1,500-vehicle fleet run as smoothly and efficiently as possible.

National Express will use the CitySwift bus data engine to provide enhanced network planning and optimised bus routes across the West Midlands. This will support National Express Group’s mission to be the UK’s most sustainable bus and coach company.

“As an organisation, we plan to be net-zero by 2030 and CitySwift plays an important role in helping us achieve that,” explains Chris Gibbons. “By enabling networks to optimise routes, stay on schedule, and avoid crowding, CitySwift effectively increases the number of people using our buses as well as providing a safe environment for them.”

As lockdown restrictions ease, it’s hoped this will provide travellers with a viable alternative to using the car.

“Car congestion is nearly back to pre-Covid levels!” warned CitySwift CEO, Brian O’Rourke this week. “National Express rolling out CitySwift's specialist bus data engine will encourage people to make a modal shift back to safe ‘green’ public transport."

“Car congestion is nearly back to nearly pre-Covid levels! National Express rolling out CitySwift's specialist bus data engine will encourage people to make a modal shift back to safe ‘green’ public transport.”

National Express West Midlands first tested our platform back in November 2019 on a high frequency route where a number of reliability issues had been identified. Using our bus data engine, which draws data from a wide variety of big data sources, their schedulers and network planners were able to analyse specific information on what drives passenger demand, while also accurately predicting the running time between any two given points.

The pilot project, which was followed by a further refinement in January 2020, offered impressive results. “We saved bus hours and we also improved reliability. So it was all a win-win – a better service with less,” explains Andy. 

There were also signs that the improved reliability led to increased passenger numbers on the service, creating an additional benefit… but then Covid struck.

The bus industry was plunged into an unprecedented crisis. Passenger numbers plummeted as lockdown restrictions were introduced and bus networks had to be stripped back but maintained to a level that would allow key workers to continue to depend on them to get to and from work.

“The last time we had a full network recast was back in 1986 for deregulation,” says Andy. “We've just done it eight times in a year ... I think probably the first three or four months were the most intense and then things steadied a bit. The first few months were rather intense.”

“The last time we had a full network recast was back in 1986 for deregulation We've just done it eight times in a year.”

During this period, our bus data engine helped National Express to establish running times and speed up the scheduling process. Meanwhile, our newly-launched SwiftConnect API enabled the operator to provide bus load predictions to prospective passengers for every bus, at every stop, for any specific time and date – supporting social distancing and offering peace of mind in uncertain times.

Our products are continuing to support National Express as it navigates its way into the recovery period. As lockdown restrictions ease, it’s hard to predict the level of passenger demand. Who can say how many office workers will continue to work from home, for example? All bus operators can do is study the available data and make the best possible estimate.

“One of the big benefits that we get is from their SwiftMetrics module” explains Andy. “It's possible to very quickly look at trends on individual services in terms of passenger demand and punctuality and excess wait time, and see how all that has changed.”

“There's also the frequency tool which shows us how different categories of passenger can return post-Covid and allows us to look at the most appropriate frequency on some of the busiest services at different times of day.”

“It's possible to very quickly look at trends on individual services in terms of passenger demand and punctuality and excess wait time, and see how all that has changed.”

Andy believes that the newly-announced partnership with CitySwift is a sign that big data is coming of age in the bus industry.

“It's growing in importance,” he says. “Data alone is never going to give us all the answers. You will always need intelligent analysis of what it is telling you and that's why it's so good to be working with CitySwift – because they're asking us as many questions as we are asking them. So it's a case of the data experts trying to learn from us and our experience and us learning about the data.”

“That's why it's so good to be working with CitySwift – because they're asking us as many questions as we are asking them.”

“We've had lots of data available for a long time and always try to use it. But it's at the point where there is so much data that you can't just analyse it as an individual scheduler – it will take you so long to do it that it will have changed! I think the speed of the analysis is the essence and the ability to take into account lots of other factors such as weather, events, roadworks and so on and analyse that to get predicted travel times.”

Andy believes that CitySwift has a good blend. Our COO, Alan Farrelly, was born into the bus industry, his family having operated a large fleet in Ireland since the 1980's. Our CEO, Brian O'Rourke, is a tech-savvy entrepreneur and previously led big data and complex optimisation projects for CitiBank, specifically for the mobility sector.

“You are talking to people who understand the problem and can then translate that into a useful product,” says Andy. “It's not that you're just talking to a generic IT company.”

“You are talking to people who understand the problem and can then translate that into a useful product,” says Andy. “It's not that you're just talking to a generic IT company.”

Looking forward to the next three years, Andy sees plenty of opportunities to harness the power of our current product suite – and help us to develop it further.

“Our expectation is that we will achieve efficiencies in our operations so that there is less time wasted on excess layover and so on,” he says. “But I think there are also opportunities for the products to develop.”

As Andy says, “it’s a busy old time” for buses in the West Midlands. We are very excited to have extended our relationship with National Express. Our data-driven scheduling and planning technology will deliver insights that will help them make informed decisions, as we continue to work together to optimise the bus sector for a post-Covid world.

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