The Impact of Digitalization on the School Bus Industry’s Service, Operations and Profitability

Coverage from the BUSRide-sponsored panel at the Busworld Digital Summit, curated and moderated by Tim Ammon

By Emma Green

Friday, June 4, BUSRide sponsored a session at the 2021 Busworld Digital Summit, focused on the impact of digitalization on the school bus industry, the services provided, and the operations and profitability of the providers. The session was moderated by Tim Ammon, student transportation consultant, accompanied by industry experts Andy Ptak, CIO for National Express; Maureen Cosyn Heath, Southwestern Ontario STS chief administrative officer; and GP Singh, CEO and founder of Bytecurve.

Ptak opened the session by discussing the impact of digitalization at National Express and their focus of digitalization within the school bus and transit industries.

According to Ptak, National Express is currently focused on six core areas of digitalization: customer-facing, operational excellence, driver-facing, vehicle facing, routing and analytics.

“With these core areas we are really trying to answer a few questions,” Ptak said. “How can we increase customer satisfaction and retention? How can we increase ridership in the transit area, and how can we make it easier for our customers to do business with us?”

National Express is addressing these issues through various service implementations such as providing access to wallets and fare payment, providing transportation services using portals or mobile apps, and recruiting and retaining drivers through increased driver engagement and improved driver safety. The recent installation of tablets in vehicles assists with driver connectivity by enabling drivers to view schedules, utilize in-cab coaching, view driver behavior footage, speeding events, and examine performance metrics.

Ptak added that when it comes to driver facing, National Express is focused on reducing service failures, maximizing utilization of vehicles, and reducing the cost to operate, all through data captured via vehicle digitalization. 

“We are also looking at how we can better utilize data to improve our preventative maintenance and routing procedures,” Ptak said. “Using fault codes directly from the engine or even using our data collected from the vehicle to schedule work orders.”

Through use of modern software, providers such as National Express are able to shrink route timetables, increase efficiency, and perform route optimization studies.

“We can see accident frequency and traffic flow through intersections and through the routes and then reroute around dangerous areas,” Ptak explained.

Ptak is optimistic that by the end of 2021, all school bus routing will be done electronically utilizing software to import data from sources, such as the Department of Transportation and various transportation entities.

“The data that we’re collecting at all these end points is really the foundation for these core areas,” Ptak said. “We are using this to see how we can reduce risk and improve safety, reach our customers better through surveys, and use our data to reduce waste and achieve operational excellence.”

According to GP Singh, however, with the accension of so many different technologies and data comes a severe lack of actionable information, which can result in an undeniably overwhelmed customer base.

“There has been so much hunger and demand for the digitalization and the data,” Singh said. “And what’s happening is they’ve added all these technologies and sometimes it feels like these customers are working for the technology rather than the technology working for them.”

However, with the demand for change came the inevitable response. Vendors began rapidly adding technology to vehicles. First came pre-trip and post-trip inspections, then GPS devices, event-based video cameras, vehicle-tracking applications, remote programming with respect to vehicle diagnostics, predictive maintenance, and driver tablets.

With a severe lack of connectivity and actionable information, providing actionable analytics and integration was a key gap within the transportation industry that Singh’s company, Bytecurve, was looking to fill.

Singh explained that the main purpose of Bytecurve was to build a single operating platform offering a multitude of functionalities such as scheduling, dispatch, time management and payroll.

“The main objective with our platform is to bring all these data sources together so that they can make their passengers safer, they can get the bus on time to school as planned, and they can stay within their managed budget and maintain their profitability,” Singh said.

Maureen Cosyn Heath’s managerial perspective provided an insight into how utilizing data and analytics within the transportation industry might be done effectively. 

“We focus on contracting and procurement and bridging the policy gap between the contractors and the service delivery,” Cosyn Heath explained. “When I think about using data to drive decision-making, I tend to look at it in a couple of different phases. The input, the integration, the output, and then finally the outcome.” 

Cosyn Heath noted that while the data is readily available through the utilization of GIS, student databases, and bus registration forms, it is the raw integration of how that data is used that helps to drive the business processes forward, turning the data outputs into useful snippets and influencing the customer-stakeholder experience.

“At the end of the day, the most important data driver is the outcome,” Cosyn Heath said. “It’s aiming for self-actualization that we are using our data to drive good business decisions, to set effective operations, environmentally sustainable transportation, that we’re fiscally responsible, and that we are able to create good public policy based on the data that is available in our systems.”

In the province of Ontario, consortiums are the midpoint between the boards, the school districts, the students, and the policy engine, with the province utilizing a wholly contracted model of operation. When a consortia is considering data, STS is both a generator of data for end users and a consumer of data from the contractor. 

“When it comes to all the good high caliber data that they’re able to harness on drivers, safety, and vehicle performance, we don’t necessarily generate it,” Cosyn Heath explained. 

With different perspectives on what constitutes necessary data integration, Cosyn Heath noted that there can be a significant disconnect between the needs of the consortium and the needs of a contractor, creating a lag in student transportation technology compared with what is normally seen in public transit.

While the demand for student transportation is increasing, capacity issues and a reduced or fixed supply in drivers and vehicles due to COVID-19 create a continuous constraint on
the industry. 

“It’s when contractors and the consortia start working together in terms of data analytics and integration to help solve our common problems that we can use the data to collaboratively assist how we drive effectiveness and efficiency in this sector and influence the outcome,” Cosyn Heath said.