Coffs Harbour-based operator Nigel Tooth has developed the first real-time bus tracking app, ‘transportme’, for route services in rural and regional areas of Australia.
With deep roots in the New South Wales bus industry, Nigel Tooth knows too well the challenges faced by the clunky bus ticketing system.
Great-grandson of Ryans Bus Service founder Vic Ryan, who started the services in 1943, having been at the driver’s seat, selling tickets and speaking to operators about the daily problems they experience, Tooth realised it was time to shake up the back-end operations of the bus business.
He’s built a comprehensive system that has bundled ticketing, GPS tracking and a host of other features under one umbrella, enabling bus operators to use iPads in their buses to sell tickets and give their fleet GPS tracking, while passengers, school children and their parents can track any bus contracted to transportme.
The system has been a godsend for small bus operators who cannot afford to install expensive on-board ticketing machines or traditional GPS tracking systems.
Tooth came up with transportme in collaboration with his sister Naomi Geurts and their equity shareholder Appster in 2013.
There are currently some 200 buses outside Ryans’ services that use the system, and Tooth has won that business based on trust.
“It’s helped because I’m not an outsider coming into the industry. Because I’m already an operator and I’ve got a lot of experience, that helps straight away, and I was fortunate to be in that position,” Tooth says.
The system covers operators’ reporting, day-to-day compliance, and audit trail, while passengers can watch the bus travel the route on their smartphones in real time with a 10-second refresh rate.
Life before the app was time consuming for Ryans, with Tooth having to physically download ticketing information from machines before typing the figures into an Excel spreadsheet and then uploading it into a portal.
“It would be a two-day process to get that information back, and then a couple of hours’ work collating the report, printing and typing it. With transportme, it changed from a two-day situation into six or seven seconds.
“The paperwork has gone for driver compliance, field information and driver manuals, it’s not so labour intensive now, and everything can be handled electronically by the Cloud.
“The time savings in all aspects, from office staff down to drivers, is huge – it’s a massive improvement.”
Some operators use the system on one truck, while others have it running on hundreds of their fleet. The service is suitable for all, Tooth explains.
“We treat all operators exactly the same; it doesn’t matter how big or small they are, the level of service we give is generic across everyone,” he says.
“The cost to get it set up, and continue to run, works out to be a third of the cost of other systems.
“And then you’re coupling several devices into one; you’ve got a ticket machine, a GPS machine, a messaging machine, and an electronic driver manual – all these different systems that would normally be in two or three different machines are all under one streamlined, simple device, as well as offering other benefits that iPads can offer.”
To set up transportme, an operator needs an iPad and a printer, which costs around $1000. There is also a one-off purchase price dependent on the number of buses, including subscription fees that can be between $34 to $50 per bus each month.
“However, there is no yearly support fee – the subscription fee covers all of that,” Tooth says. “If there are any dramas, which we don’t have too many because it’s been built well and thought out, the subscription fee covers that.”
With the TransportMe system gaining traction in the industry, Tooth plans to further expand its passenger app.
“The current passenger app, as it stands now, simply allows for tracking of the buses,” Tooth says. “In the next couple of weeks that will be updated – so passengers, through a push notification, can know if buses are running on time or are delayed.
“Then, for each operator that has the app, we’ll link that to their own website and also have the ability for passengers to put in any compliments or complaints to what’s required to reporting operators.
“It takes out any grey areas and will allow an operator to get instant notification so they can respond back to the complainant.”
Passengers will also be notified of whether there’s wheelchair access on the buses they wish to travel on.
Tooth’s ideas are not limited; in fact, he’s come this far by working closely with the transport industry, taking operator feedback on board.
“Because we’re constantly dealing with an app, our system can be updated and developed pretty simply as new ideas, new reporting, and new features are thought of; we can just push them into both the passenger and the operator app so that the links just keep building and get better,” Tooth says. “It’s not really limited at all; it’s limited by ideas that people come up with.
“Because we’ve got all these great minds using it, we’re constantly getting new ideas from operators, so from where we were three years ago to where we are now is a huge difference.”
Working closely with South Australian operator Buslink, transportme developed a passenger list feature of school children, enabling the driver to mark kids off a list as they board.
“That way, if there’s ever an accident, they’ve got straight away a list of children that they need to make sure they’ve accounted for,” Tooth says. “That’s just one example of what we’ve developed with an operator that wanted that – it’s a big safety for them to have that ability to find out exactly who’s on the bus at any one time.”
For the system to be effective, it had to be user friendly and suitable for the ageing driver population, Tooth says.
“When we sat our drivers down and gave them a rundown of how it works, they picked up on it really quickly,” he says.
“Because everyone is moving to that age of smart phones, a lot of them have their own smart phones they’re used to; they’ve got that idea already.
“We’ve developed the system [and] kept it very simple for drivers to use. We’re not bombarding them with too much information – what they’re required to do is very straightforward and simple and repetitive. We’ve found drivers who are 80 years old have picked up on it perfectly.”
Transportme has moved to a new US app developer called Vinasauce, following its successful growth to date.
Tooth hopes to expand the software into other countries, saying he first wants to make sure the level of service is exceptional in Australia.
“We moved on to another developer only because of the fact we had a mutual decision that Appster was getting bigger and I wanted to have a smaller team that could focus a bit more on transportme, and they agreed,” he adds. “We’ve still got a good relationship with them, and they’re constantly checking how the system is going.
“I really want to focus on the Australian market, ensuring the level of service and product we give keeps improving and getting more operators on board.
“We’ve got plans to expand into other countries but one step at a time; we want to make sure we’re doing a really good job here before pushing out into other countries.”
Ryans Bus Service, which has served the Coffs Coast public and local schools for more than seven decades, was recently bought by Sydney-based company Forest Coach Lines.
Tooth, along with Geurts, will remain to manage the Coffs Harbour, Woolgoolga and Grafton offices and staff. Ryans Bus Services will continue to use its 32 buses that are subscribed to transportme.
Forest Coach Lines has already expressed interest in the software, Tooth says.
“Forest Coach Lines wants to keep running the system because they can see it’s a good system and there’s lots of benefits to keep it; in that sense it’ll stay in that bus company here and nothing really changes for me.
“I’ll just continue doing what I’m doing for Transportme; I’ll continue to run both businesses as it gets bigger and grows every month.”
The company was sold as Tooth’s parents, Sam and Jenny Tooth, had officially retired last month.
Having grown up in the transport industry, Tooth can’t see himself doing anything else.
Asked whether his great grandfather would be proud of his achievements, he takes a moment to respond: “I hope so, I haven’t really sat back and thought like that at all.”
“Having those family ties to the bus industry is nice to know our bus company has grown and we’re able to branch off to help our own company and other operators and the public; we’ve done well, at least we can leave a bit of a mark on the industry.
“The industry is my life, and a lot of family operators would probably say the same thing; when you’ve grown up in it, it just means everything to you.
“The industry is a great industry, and the people that are in it are all genuine – everybody works hard.”
Tooth spends three days on site, with the rest of his time spent at the Woolgoolga depot, taking more of a handle of the operations side.
His role has led him to take a specific interest in developing the patented transportme app – with the help from Geurts, who has handed over her share upon the sale of Ryans Bus Service.
The app has been developed to help rural and regional New South Wales and other states’ operators with their ticketing, GPS and reporting requirements. While e-ticketing system Opal is available in the state on most metro services, there is nothing similar available in rural and regional areas.
The app is run on an iPad and is primarily used as a ticketing machine – cash only at this stage – and a GPS to track buses. It also collects passenger information, which can be seen by operators in real-time, and regularly collates reports.
Eventually, Transportme will be able to support a model in which passengers and students can ‘tap on and tap off’ public transport services using a smartcard on participating services. It will also allow passengers and parents of school children to track buses in real-time when the consumer version of the app will be available for free download from early August.
“The aim is to get the connection from the passenger to the bus to the depot,” Tooth says.
“They’re not getting an approximation of time. They can actually see it as it’s tracking down. It refreshes every five to eight seconds.”
“We’re out in areas where we don’t have access to that sort of information. It will also take a lot of pressure off operators as well.”
The app is cloud based and a useful tool for operators to help with reporting for state governments.
Nigel says a monthly report, which has to be produced by bus operators in NSW, used to take hours but now takes five seconds. It is currently being trialled by Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales operators, as well as generating interest from other states and even countries.
“It’s not a system which is set in stone. It is a system that can be flexible, which is what operators like about it,” Nigel says.
Each bus is also equipped with an iPad to help with access to information and improves communication to the office. The drivers and the mechanics have access to this information, which can convey the status of a particular bus or be used to communicate safely with drivers on the road.
Driver Steven Young says the app has made his workday much easier.
“If there’s a problem on the highway, or Nigel or Naomi need to send a message to us, you can read it straight away,” he says.