Red Line issues are frustrating riders. Here's how IndyGo is addressing the problems
The Red Line's opening on Sept. 1 drew much fanfare as eager riders packed buses.
But once the honeymoon ended the real test began: How would the Red Line function on a daily basis, and could IndyGo deliver on its promises of frequent service, upgraded technology and increased reliability and comfort?
Throughout the first month there have been rider complaints of buses taking too long to arrive, real-time monitors not working, and buses passing riders by while they wait on platforms. One Indianapolis man even posted a blog detailing his frustrations with the Red Line.
"People may think of Red Line as a monolithic thing," said Bryan Luellen, vice president of public affairs for IndyGo. "It's a lot of different systems and components that have to work together and ultimately provide this experience. At the end of the day the frequency of service and amount of vehicles out there that are operating, that is our best tool for any kind of service."
Here are some of the major issues the Red Line is still wrestling with and how IndyGo says it's trying to address the problems.
Buses are arriving at irregular intervals
The Red Line promises 10-minute arrival intervals during the week and 15- to 20-minute arrival intervals on the weekends. But riders have complained the times have been irregular, especially on weekends. Some riders say buses are too close together, with one right after another. Others say they've waited 30 to 40 minutes or they wait so long and never see a bus.
The issue is what IndyGo has referred to as "bus bunching," and Luellen said it's not unusual on frequent service lines. Luellen said it also happens on IndyGo routes 8 and 39.
"We’ve got 14 buses out there on Red Line at any given time, and there are a lot of different variables," he said. "One is the bus hits a few red lights and is going slower than the bus behind it ... which is catching more green lights."
Other factors are driver behavior, such as driving speed and approaching stations, and the lack of a specific schedule for each stop. The operators work with dispatchers who Luellen says are still getting used to this type of system. Even seasoned dispatchers are adjusting.
Luellen said there is "continued improvement" to provide dispatchers and operators better tools, including technology improvements that might involve updating software. He also said IndyGo is operating 14 vehicles a day on the Red Line and plans to increase that number to 18 starting Oct. 27 to help with frequency.
Signal prioritization doesn't appear to help
With the new bus line came signal prioritization technology built into the existing traffic lights. The system is supposed to favor transit vehicles so they don't have to stop as often or wait as long at intersections as other traffic does. This essentially helps riders get to their destinations faster and keeps the buses moving.
"It's definitely a new layer of technology," Luellen said, "and frankly, increasing the bus priority is one thing that will come in the next several months."
He said the streets and lights are owned and managed by the Department of Public Works, so the two agencies need to cooperate with one another to figure out the best timing for the signals.
"We're working with the city of Indianapolis to identify some tweaks ... to hopefully gain a little more priority, particularly northbound on Capitol (Avenue) that has been slower than hoped for," Luellen said.
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He said the situation is a learning experience for the city because it hasn't managed this type of technology before and the closest thing to it is preemption for emergency vehicles.
Buses are passing riders by on platforms
Some riders have complained buses fail to stop at stations while they are waiting. IndyGo has said that if there are people waiting on a platform, the operator should stop.
"Dispatch and the operations division has used this (tactic) to help make up time," Luellen said. "If nobody has pulled the cord ... this is used to speed up and make up the gap to avoid bus bunching. We frankly have some logistical and consistency things to work out."
He said that riders should always pull the yellow cords to signal their stop, which also helps maintain the gap between buses.
At the September IndyGo Board meeting, CEO and President Inez Evans said there is a shortage of about 100 operators, which is contributing to some of the Red Line problems. There are about 80 operators in training right now, with 17 drivers who just finished class and about 30 more who will be done soon.
"It's a constant back-fill with retirements, people moving onto different opportunities, and the economy the way it is ... makes it hard to source folks," Luellen said. "The driver supply is a significant challenge for transit agencies all around."
He said being a bus operator is not easy, and candidates need to be prepared for more than just driving.
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"It's a unique job with some challenges that requires technical skills, focus and attention, as well as customer service," he said. "Finding people who are equipped to deal with the public and operate a vehicle safely is just as challenging now given different opportunities available."
He added that staffing levels were "pretty low" for September with operators on leave, on vacation or calling in sick, but it also wasn't out of the ordinary for IndyGo to operate under the budgeted amount of drivers.
Additionally, Evans said IndyGo implemented a "booster plan" for major weekend events such as Colts games in which buses and operators were added to help with the crowds.
Not enough bike racks
There are two bike racks on each of the electric buses. They're installed in the middle of the bus and allow cyclists to roll their front wheels into the rack to lock them in the place.
The problem is when the buses are crowded, the bikes take up a lot of space. And some cyclists have said they can't get onto buses when both racks are being used and they are forced to wait.
"Frankly this is a capacity issue, w is a great problem for us to be having," Luellen said. "Obviously it's a huge inconvenience for people on the platform."
He said the racks have been a "sticking point" for IndyGo since the beginning. Crews had to nix other approaches, including hooks that were placed high up where riders had to lift their bikes. The hooks proved difficult to maneuver for even seasoned cyclists.
"We’re looking at the options, and one of the options long term would be an overhaul of the inside of the vehicle, potentially on the next line, and make different decisions on configurations," he said.
The technology isn't working
The real-time arrival screens at each station have been unreliable. Riders have reported screens displaying inaccurate arrival times for buses. One rider encountered a screen that said the station was closed for the evening on a Saturday afternoon.
IndyGo has currently disabled the screens. Luellen said workers are still trying to identify the cause of the problem and believe the data coming from the GPS system might be sending bad signals.
"Sometimes the screens will show a bus is arriving when it’s not, and this is an area for continual improvement," Luellen said. "We're working with the tech provider on several components that drive real time screens and hope a solution will be found in a couple weeks."
Meanwhile, he said, riders should use the MyStop app, which he said is accurately showing arrival times.
Accidents with motorists
A number of accidents have occurred between Red Line operators and motorists. Some incidents occurred during training before the system began running.
Many of the accidents happened on Capitol Avenue, a one-way street running southbound for motorists but southbound and northbound in the Red Line dedicated lanes. This has caused confusion among motorists leaving parking lots and driveways who fail to look both ways for buses.
Another problem area is at 66th Street and College Avenue, the northern most stop on the Red Line, where the buses make a U-turn from the right-hand lane.
"Drivers still need to pay careful attention," Luellen said. "In the first week there were some signs added on Capitol for the parking lots and driveways. ... Pay attention to signals that are there."