Headway Versus Timetable – How Real-Time data provides great customer service!

Published March 29, 2021 in Blog

Why are some bus and tram services right there when you want them, and others seem to be either too far away, or come so infrequently that you are better off getting a taxi? Asking customers to show up at a time determined by the transport company, when even they cannot arrive at the stop on time, conflicts with the principles of modern customer service.

Transport companies want to deliver high-quality services to all customers. In a perfect world, that means they can plan for regular arrivals all day, and passengers do not have to wait too long for a service to arrive and take them to their destination. But whilst running nearly empty buses, trams or ferries at a high frequency is great for customer service, it never makes sense fiscally.

What’s The Status Quo?

Pragmatically, services are usually reduced during off-peak periods and increased during peak times. For example, in the Australia/New Zealand region, and many others around the world, this has been addressed with a mix of bus and tram services. We have seen how adding light rail into a transport mix can be an outstanding success, with locations like the Gold Coast, Newcastle and Canberra all building patronage and delivering on the transport promise.

Typically, we run light rail as the main spine with buses used as feeders – extending the catchment zone of the light rail into the suburbs. Within this mix, we see two types of services – high-frequency and low-frequency services, on both buses and trams.

Low-frequency services are almost always based on a timetable, with services every 20, 30 or even 60 minutes. They are less convenient but provide some community access.

During off-peak times and in the suburbs, there are generally lower levels of traffic, so it is easier to adhere to a fixed timetable. As a customer, you don’t want to miss your selected service, so you feel you have to show up five minutes ahead of the planned arrival time. Usually, having arrived early, the service is on time.

When there is a disruption, such as unusually heavy traffic, the wide service spacing means only one or two services are affected. Passengers will have a longer wait, and then two or three services will arrive at the stop in quick succession. The first will be standing room only as it has picked up all the passengers, and the last will be empty as passengers are not going to risk waiting another 30 minutes for another service.

High-Frequency Services

High-frequency services can solve these issues – however, the term ‘high-frequency’ can be open to interpretation. High frequency in Perth, Western Australia, is a bus every 15 minutes1. This is the same for Brisbane2, although there are some routes that run every 10 minutes, with some five-minute peak hour services3. A Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, such as those found in Pretoria and Cape Town, can provide very high-frequency services – some BRT systems may have buses arriving as frequently as every 90 seconds. It is generally felt that a 20-minute service is the upper limit of what can be called ‘high frequency’.

For high-frequency services, passengers just turn up at the stop. They will wait on average for half the service frequency. For example, an average five-minute wait on a 10-minute service frequency.

This low wait time is highly desirable, and if passengers have confidence in the services, they will not use a timetable – preferring to arrive at their stop when it suits them, rather than when it suits the bus, tram, or ferry.

So how do we deliver this confidence? If high-frequency services were managed the same way as low-frequency services, then the same disruption will see four or five services all delayed, with bunching and crowding an even bigger issue as services aim to meet their timetables.

A better way is needed. And data is required to provide that better way.

Headway Management

That better way is known as ‘Headway Management’. Rather than focusing on the vehicles’ planned arrival time at the stop, it focuses on the wait that the passenger experiences. Heavy traffic may delay the services, but if the separation between the services is maintained, then passengers’ expectations of average wait times will be met.

Headway managed services are great news for bus, tram, and ferry users, with the higher capacity of light rail making it popular for even more travellers. But how is it delivered?

It is not possible for a driver to know how far they are from the service in front or behind unless they are using a modern vehicle tracking and control system that uses real-time data – such as Intelligent Transport Systems. These systems assess the overall picture of the services, determining the time between vehicles and comparing this gap to the planned gap for that time of day.

They then empower drivers by informing them of this difference and allowing them to stretch out services (for example, by staying longer at a stop) to avoid bunching. Back-office reporting captures the system performance and enables transport authorities to monitor performance in real-time and analyse historical data. In London, this customer-focused performance goes further and is a key driver of payments to the operators.

Passengers are then not worried about making sure they reach a stop at a certain time. They simply arrive at their stop when convenient, knowing that a service is not far away. Irregular, unreliable services discourage public transport use and make passengers unsure and uncomfortable.

Regular, reliable services make people want to take public transport because they know it will take them where they want, when they want to. Accurate real-time data enables this outcome.


For commuters, time is precious. Having decided to use public transport, no one wants to waste their time waiting at a stop. Headway managed high-frequency services are a great option. If we know that a service arrives on average every five minutes, then the experience becomes seamless and predictable.

We don’t have to worry about the timetable. We leave when we are ready and are assured that a service will arrive within a few minutes.

Happy Days.

Mode of Transport

Bus, Trams/Light Rail, Ferry


Intelligent Transport Systems

Meet the author

David Panter

Industry Solutions Manager, ITS

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