Beta Tested: Cooee Busways On Demand Public Transport Service

Updates at the end of the articleBusways has launched the Cooee Busways – The Ponds, Schofields and Kellyville Ridge site with further details.

Residents in the Hills district have much to celebrate, as after many years of promises, the North-West Metro medium-capacity rail system is close to being finally commissioned for service. Areas previously neglected by public transport will now have a high-frequency service into Chatswood, north of the city.

While in many areas, the introduction of this new service would pull in customers who might drive to their nearest metro station and park their car there for the day, this poses problems. For one, parking spaces are limited and the traffic this would generate may crowd local streets, generating pollution as well. Existing route-bus services may not be ideal either – low frequency, inconvenient times, distant stops and circuitous routes are deterrents.

Might there be a solution? If you’re lucky enough to live in the suburbs of Schofields or The Ponds, or the adjacent suburbs, you may have caught a glimpse of the future of public transport.

Cooee Busways

The name of the service is Cooee BuswaysCooee from the Aboriginal call for “come here”, and Busways which is the name of the local bus operator of our region who is also operating the service. A very appropriate name for on-demand public transport buses which are booked via a mobile app. It appears this service was trialled in a number of areas, and is now being introduced to meet needs of customers connecting with the Sydney Metro.

For those who like videos – I filmed a brief overview video for this post. Apologies for the “shakycam” as I wasn’t quite sure whether I was going to make a video or not – it’s my first project in Adobe Premiere as well …

The Buses

At present, the fleet consists of six new Hino Ponchos outfitted in the blue-and-white on-demand livery.

These buses are operated by the local bus operator, Busways, with drivers specially trained for these smaller buses. On Tuesday 16th April, a few of these buses were seen circling the Schofields area doing driver training in preparation for the beta test which began on 17th April.

Each of the buses feature a clear number on the outside to identify which one of the six buses is pulling up. Depending on your pick-up and drop-off points, the app will allocate you to the bus that makes most operationally suitable by this number and registration plate. The livery also serves as a good advertisement for the service itself.

I believe the buses seat 14 passengers in air-conditioned comfort with a space for a wheelchair. The service is administered through a tablet interface which the driver uses, with an NFC reader mounted near the door for payments made on-board.

The seats are very similar to the seats used in regular buses, with the bus having quite a low floor for the majority of the seats with a step upwards for the rear bench seat above the engine. From what I can tell, they appear to be regular diesel engined buses, so no fancy electric bus unfortunately.

The App

To book one of these services requires the Cooee Busways app. The app is available for Android and iOS and uses the Via platform. At this time, since the service is in beta testing, there may be a few changes between now and when the service launches.

When opening the app for the first time, you must sign up for an account to get started. You will need to provide name, e-mail and phone number. Optionally, you can store a payment method to pay for your trips, or select pay with credit card onboard.

Once signed in, you are alerted to the fact the system is currently in the beta testing phase. If you are lucky, after playing around with the app for a few minutes, you’ll receive a few SMSes and potentially become a beta tester:

In order to use the app, it’s as simple as setting the number of passengers, pick-up and drop-off locations using pins on the map. Your GPS location is shown for convenience as well. The service area seen in the screenshot below serves Schofields and The Ponds at this time.

When starting from anywhere in the service area, the drop-off points are currently restricted to Schofields station, Tallawong Metro and Rouse Hill Metro/T-Way to facilitate connections to public transport. When starting a trip from a public transport station, a drop-off anywhere in the service area can be nominated. This avoids the system being used for anywhere-to-anywhere rides, although this could still be accomplished as long as it is taken as two rides – A to “any station” to B. Once the booking is valid you can search for a ride.

During one of my tests, the app froze at this stage and would not continue until it was closed and re-opened. If it works correctly, a list of services will come up with a price. Sometimes there will only be one service, depending on how many buses are on the road, but the waiting times are very short – normally three minutes in the case of light loading.

Pressing on the side arrow allows us to see the fare breakdown – the fare is currently $2.20 according to the app which would correspond to the minimum adult fare band for a bus – but this may change upon service introduction. It’s important to remember that Opal is not current accepted, so Opal benefits (such as day/week caps, travel reward and intermodal transfer discount) do not apply. I’m not clear as to whether concessions will be honoured.

Once happy, you can book the ride and the app will contact the driver. If you have not been chosen as a beta tester or selected to pay by credit card on board, you will get a little warning –

Assuming you were successful in booking, you can watch the progress of the bus coming to pick you up on the app.

You will also receive SMS messages as to the progress of your bus when it comes close – in this case, I experienced being “shifted” from one bus service to another for operational efficiency reasons –

Boarding the bus, the driver has a tablet where a list of passenger names are shown and can be swiped to confirm. When boarding, you tell the driver your name and that will register your trip as being started. Not long afterward, an e-mail receipt is sent for your ride – handy for reimbursements or claims.

The app also has a bit of a cute message when you try to exit …

… but I suggest you do this and ensure it is closed, otherwise it appears to nearly continuously poll for your location which can be a privacy issue and consume battery needlessly.

On the whole, I experienced no trouble aside from a transient freeze on my first booking – but someone else at Schofields station was left with an “endless” loop of 10 minute waits, appearing to be allocated to a bus that was not operating at the time. Unfortunately, the system is rather inflexible – drivers are expected to follow the app instructions directly and cannot pick-up or drop-off aside from the planned route to avoid causing problems with scheduling for others.

That being said, I was sitting smugly in the comfort of the Cooee on my way home from Schofields, having pre-booked while on the train pulling into Schofields and not having to wait for a route bus like the others. Some people did notice the Cooee bus and asked the driver whether it was going their way – but there’s no way for them to get on unless they book it first via the app.

Conclusion

Aside from a few minor glitches, the Cooee Busways app and fleet seems to be doing a good job. With six buses serving the relatively small area, pick-ups are dispatched swiftly with wait times of three minutes being very common, especially with the light loading that is currently experienced as people start to learn about the service. Being free during the beta testing phase is also a bonus. The buses themselves are comfortable, with the new-bus-smell and friendly drivers.

I think the system shows very much promise for being a future direction for our public transport system, alleviating the load on car parking near stations and providing better convenience for users. Real-time booking data allows for better time management, especially when bookings are swiftly attended to. A large number of buses also ensures quality of service remains high. Best of all, having the fares regulated by Transport for NSW means that the cost should remain fairly reasonable (even though, at this stage, it doesn’t seem Opal cards are accepted and thus Opal benefits do not apply). As a result, one can receive UberPool-like service for a public-transport-like price, at least to-and-from public transport stations. Only time will tell in regards to usage figures, coverage area, operating hours and final fare pricing. The present coverage is not very wide and operations on Monday to Friday from 5am to 9pm excluding Public Holidays may not be ideal for when you’d want to go out any other day.

While it is a step towards modernising public transport to better meet the needs of its users, it won’t immediately fix the problem that is vehicular access to the Schofields station interchange – cars waiting to pick-up and drop-off cause massive delays for bus services (including Cooee) due to constant queues and heavy traffic exiting the interchange.

Perhaps if all those drivers were riding a Cooee home, we wouldn’t have such a problem in the first place! For those living in the area, beta testing continues to 3rd May 2019, so get the app and give the Cooee Busways service a try. You might find it quite convenient!

Update: 23rd April 2019

I had another chance to use the Cooee Busways service on Tuesday 23rd April, and met another friendly bus driver who had read this very page. He informed me that Busways now has a specific page for The Ponds, Schofields and Kellyville Ridge with fare band based charges of $2.20 for <3km and $3.66 for >3km. Concession fares are available, $1.10 and $1.83 respectively – with Opal card payment coming soon and potential transfer discount. That’s potentially great news for everyone!

As for whether the zones might increase in the future is still unknown, but with six buses, five operate in peak time with one spare and three in off-peak. Loading is still quite light, no doubt due to the school holiday period, but next week it is expected to pick up.

It was another successful journey using Cooee, this time with my father using the multiple-passenger feature which allows you to book and pay for up to seven passengers in total from a single Cooee login. Upon looking carefully inside the bus, it seems a total of nineteen passengers can be accommodated, assuming no standing allowance and no prams or wheelchairs.

Update: 24th April 2019

I managed to use Cooee Busways again, this time to get to and from Schofields station on my way to and from work. I noticed that the link to their website now redirects to a “coming soon” page, but due to the subpages not being covered up, if you follow this link to the Via subpage, you can at least see parts of the navigation structure to parts of the site which is supposedly coming soon. Unfortunately, I did not archive the segments with the fare band charges and Opal card “coming soon” as mentioned earlier – so you will have to take my word for it at this stage.

Of interest is the terms and conditions and privacy policy. A lot of this stuff is boilerplate, but what caught my attention was the ability for the drivers to rate their passengers. The app does allow the users to rate the drivers – just keep the app open after completing a trip and you will be asked to assign a star rating and flag the ride as being “direct route”, “smooth ride” etc. But I wonder what the drivers are asked? At a guess, I’d probably say “noisy passenger”, “vandal”, “argumentative”, “causes delays/perpetually late”?

Another key observation to make is the possibility of having full fare charged for uninformed cancellations (i.e. not turning up at the appointed place on time) or running too late. As a result, it is best to book when you are in close proximity to the pickup point and incur any wait whatever that may be – say three, six or nine minutes. Frequently booking and cancelling prior to pickup or not turning up can get you red-flagged by the system and that could cause you to lose your rights to use the Cooee Busways system – all sensible rules if you think that other commuters will be relying on you to be there on time. The system works best when everyone cooperates.

It was another smooth day, although I did encounter a bug this morning where I tried to book a trip but it showed no options for buses. Closing the app and re-opening it allowed me to proceed normally, so it was probably a transient glitch. It’s very similar to the first transient glitch I had where it was constantly looking for a ride but never found one after three minutes but worked fine after the app was restarted.

For those who are interested (e.g. train-spotter types), from my rides on the Cooee buses, the registration plates are seems to be as follows:

  • 1 – MO6791 (boarded)
  • 2 – ?
  • 3 – MO6615 (boarded) / MO8049 (sighted driver training)
  • 4 – MO6613 (boarded)
  • 5 – MO6616 (boarded)
  • 6 – MO6616 (implied by SMS message & conflicts with 5, reassigned prior to arrival)

It is also interesting to speak to the different drivers – some of whom are regular faces. The drivers have slightly different names on the app – e.g. the driver Busponds5 C has been extremely informative and helpful, but so have the majority of other drivers. It seems that Busways are not particularly looking to advertise the fact the service is in beta testing, but at the same time, allowing early adopters to get in and give it a go. It makes sense, as sometimes trend-setters and influencers are the ones who get in first, but also technical minded people like myself. In this sense, we are a little more accepting when things go wrong and we often will exercise different features (e.g. booking cancellation, multi-passenger booking, booking to/from different places).

The loading on the service still seems to be fairly light with respect to the maximum capacity – I was the only person onboard both rides today, but apparently the drivers are seeing a good stream of rides come in which keeps them busy roaming about the service area. Passenger numbers were estimated to be within the teens for a shift, although I did hear of the possibility that weekday public holiday operation may occur when the system is fully commissioned.

Speaking of which, it seems nobody knows quite when the North-West Metro is coming online, but it can’t be too far now. Yesterday’s visit to Rouse Hill saw the station seemingly close to completion (I missed out on a community tour date earlier due to no spaces), but there were trains running back and forth at a “reduced” frequency. The indicator board appeared to be functional with destinations and estimated departure times. As a frequency-based service, it makes sense that the Cooee system doesn’t seem to be too concerned with precise pick-up and arrival times (it’s hard to predict traffic, future pick-up diversions, etc) as the Metro trains would come often enough that you just board the next one upon your arrival. This isn’t quite the case with Schofields and the heavy rail, where 15-minute intervals for stations common to T1/T5 and 30-minute intervals for T1/T5 exclusive stations are the norm.

However, once the Metro comes online, Cooee Busways should be ready to roll. In fact, I can see myself getting used to using the system especially if Opal is accepted and transfer benefits maintained. I even find myself saying “I’ll just Cooee to the station” as a verb for catching an on-demand bus. I’m extremely thankful to have been given the privilege of using the service, which has been a big time-saver over waiting for 30-minute interval route buses which (despite their best intentions) often run late due to passengers, traffic jams, roadworks, etc. I actually would prefer it – hands down, even if it was packed with other passengers. Just being free of the rigid route-bus timings prevents the issues of the “well meaning” timetabled connections with trains always being missed due to late running.

Update: 26th April 2019

I didn’t ride the Cooee today, but my Father did and had no issues going out on Bus 4, but when coming back in, the bus driver’s tablet in Bus 6 didn’t register the booking and it seems the radio base did not answer the drivers’ call. Regardless, after a few minutes, he was able to complete his journey successfully.

The updated number plates based on the SMS notifications are as follows:

  • 1 – MO6791 (boarded)
  • 2 – ?
  • 3 – MO6615 (boarded) / MO8049 (sighted driver training)
  • 4 – MO6613 (boarded)
  • 5 – MO6616 (boarded)
  • 6 – MO6615 (boarded)

The registration number of Bus #2 is not known, and as for the duplicate #3, is a bit of a mystery.

Update: 29th April 2019

This weeks marks the final week of beta testing for the Cooee service and it’s been a great privilege to have the chance to use Cooee to make getting to and from public transport easier. Today’s trip to and from work was completed with the help of Cooee, but not without a few minor hiccups:

In the morning on the way out, despite closing and restarting the app three times and even rebooting the device, trying to book a ride showed none of the bus options that normally come up. Since the ‘Book This Ride’ button was not disabled, I clicked it anyway and the booking was dispatched accordingly. This might mislead some other users into thinking there is no bus available – at the time, all five buses were servicing the morning peak demand. Service was, again, swift but because of my expectation the app would work first time, I made it to the station with just 90 seconds to run from the bus to the train. I made it though … so that’s a big tick.

The way home was a little interesting. I had made it to Schofields with Cooee #2 sitting at the rank and booked it immediately. However, the app said that the driver (Driver 2 C) would have to circle around and some back in … very logical.

I boarded the bus anyway, but my name was not on the screen. According to the driver, this is to be expected as the orders take about three minutes to come on. Then, a light-bulb went off in my head – of course – they would have to guard against a short booking and cancellation as the no-penalty cancellation window is about 90 seconds after booking. As a result, the drivers are not going to be bothered about such book-and-cancel events. After the time was up and I had showed up, another person was also showing so we waited a short time for them to show up as well.

Because of this, a slightly longer route was taken … but then things took a slight turn for the worse because for some reason, the driver had acknowledged the first drop off but the system didn’t register and was trying to route the bus back to the first drop-off location. As a result, the system lost guidance to my intended stop and I had to provide the driver with some verbal instructions to the intended stop.

This seems to be a potential teething issue, but I did see the driver make several attempts to acknowledge the drop-off. Perhaps he was moving too quickly and the tablet locks-out any user actions while in motion, but whatever the case may be, if the bus had more drop-offs to handle, this would not have been a good outcome.

No word on when the Metro will open, but we’re all waiting. This driver also let me know that the app controls everything including dwell times at particular locations in case of having other pick-ups. Adjustment to dwell times could help better utilise capacity and is something they’re looking to optimise. The system also gives aural guidance in the form of beeps and spoken guidance similar to navigational GPS systems.

Having ridden bus #2 at long last, the updated number plates are as follows:

  • 1 – MO6791 (boarded)
  • 2 – MO6614 (boarded)
  • 3 – MO6615 (boarded) / MO8049 (sighted driver training)
  • 4 – MO6613 (boarded)
  • 5 – MO6616 (boarded)
  • 6 – MO6615 (boarded)

Perhaps the duplicate #3 is intended for out-of-region service and was “borrowed” from another region where the service is planned to be established. I’m not entirely sure.

I have been asked by some whether such services will appear in their area – the answer is a qualified “maybe not”, but for those who are not already aware, several other on-demand transport systems exist in Sydney and surrounding areas, and some of which are Opal Pay (i.e. without cap, transfer discounts):

  • Keoride Northern Beaches is a two-zone system covering North Narrabeen to Mona Vale and Mona Vale to Palm Beach. Fares are set at $3.10 standard/$1.55 concession one way, operated by Keolis Downer since November 2017.
  • Ride Plus is a service operated by Transdev since November 2017 covering the Manly area. Fares are set at $3.10 with bookings between 1 hour to 1 week prior to the trip.
  • Keoride Macquarie Park is a distance-based on-demand service servicing a 7.5km radius around Macquarie Park station. Fares are set at $2.60 for <3km, $4.30 for 3-8km and $5.60 for >8km.
  • Bridj Inner-West is an on-demand service that runs a number of set routes at $3.10 with concession fares of $1.50. These set routes include Newington to Lidcombe, Cabarita and Mortlake to North Strathfield and Sydney Olympic Park, Rhodes, Concord, Mortlake and Cabarita, and Mortlake, Cabarita, Burwood and Strathfield station. The service, operated by Transit Systems, appears to target areas which are poorly served by existing services.
  • Bridj Eastern Suburbs is an on-demand service similar to the above but covering Dover heights, North Bondi and Bondi Beach.
  • OurBus operated by Hillsbus began in January 2018 covering the North Rocks, Carlingford, Beecroft and Epping areas. Fares are set at $3.10 one way or $1.50 for concession with bookings up to 14 days prior. At the moment, if you download the app, there is a free ride on offer.
  • Interline Connect operated by Interline began in January 2018 with one-way fares of $2.60 and concession fares available. The service covers the Edmondson Park area.
  • Newcastle Transport is currently trialing an introductory on-demand service in the Lake Macquarie area including Didley, Whitebridge, Mount Hutton, Windale, Tingira Heights, Eleebana, Warners Bay, Gateshead and Charlestown that that can be pre-booked up to three months in advance. The trial is expected to run for 12 months, having commenced 14th January 2018 with a $3 introductory fare. At this stage, it appears to still be in service.
  • Moree On-Demand trial run by Reynolds and Fogarty charges $3 for a single trip or $6.90 daily, with $1.50 and $3.40 concession fares.
  • CoastConnect is operated by Community Transport Central Coast, beginning operations Thursday 31st May 2018 with fares of $3.10 for up to 3km and $4.10 above that, with concession fares available.
  • Premier Illawarra On Demand run in Thirroul and Shellharbour charging the same fareas as CoastConnect.
  • Transdev Link is a service for the Sutherland Shire that covers the area surrounding Miranda including Jannali West, Sylvania, Caringbah and Gymea. Fares are set at $2.60 for up to 3km and $4.30 over 3km with concession fares available.
  • Regional Buses is another service, covering areas of Albury, Burrumbuttock, Walla Walla and Jindera in the Riverina area since 11th February 2019 with fares of $4.90 or $7.20 depending on area, and concession fares available.
  • LiveBetter services the Central West area and commenced early March 2019.
  • Busways On Demand Mid North Coast commenced operations 16th January 2019 with standard fares starting at $4.40, concession fares available. Bookings must be made the day before.
  • Macphersons Coaches On Demand services Moore Creek to Tamworth on weekdays with a $4.40 standard one-way fare, and half-price concession. Bookings must be made the day before.
  • B-ConX covers the Northern Rivers area and is operated by Buslines Group, launched 18th March 2019 with distance-based fares ranging from $2.30 up to $7.20.
  • Orana on Demand services the Orana region, operated by Ogden’s Coaches Pty Ltd.
  • Sapphire Coast on Demand services are operated by Sapphire Coast Buslines and Flexibus.
  • Rixon’s On Demand covers the South Coast to Canberra area with fares starting at $35.

It was also interesting to find the following:

  • Wetherill Park – operated by Bridj but ceased operating on Friday 3rd August.

It seems that TfNSW is happy to brand a lot of services as “on demand” even though they vary quite dramatically in service set. Prices for fares differ, but also the means of booking with many of the city areas using apps and having the convenience to book immediately as required, whereas some other areas require one hour prior and more rural areas operate on day-before bookings. Other areas seem to operate more a book-able scheduled route service rather than a truly on-demand service, while some others offer a true anywhere-to-anywhere service. The fragmentation in the on-demand market may make finding the services a little more difficult, but it seems that almost all large bus companies have taken the time to operate (at least, on a trial basis) some on-demand services to see if it is sustainable. Many of these are still marked as trials, thus they may not become a permanent fixture is patronage is not sufficient.

Judging from this, it seems likely that Cooee may well also be Opal Pay which would be a premium for most users of route buses owing to the lack of Opal benefits. The pricing may roughly fall in-line with this, with the other services generally charging higher rates than route buses for each fare band – for reference, the current Adult route bus rates are $2.20 up to 3km, $3.66 for 3km-8km and $4.71 for >8km.

FINAL Update: 3rd May 2019

It’s been a few days since my last update, but as of 9pm today, the Cooee Busways on-demand beta test has concluded. I feel very honoured and fortunate to have been part of this beta test which has given us a glimpse of a potentially bright future for public transport that better meets the needs of commuters. It is my hope that the service is introduced with economical fares, such that people choose to leave their cars at home, reducing issues with congestion, parking and helping out the environment.

But for that to happen, I think it will be important to balance the fares and possible Opal benefits with the quality of service, which won’t necessarily be easy when it reaches full revenue service when the North-West metro comes into service.

Thank you to all the friendly drivers who have given me chauffeur-grade service on the seven days I have used the service – they have set a high bar which will be difficult to maintain and have been very open about talking about the service and how things are going.

That being said, I should still reflect on the last few days of Cooee use, which was mostly trouble-free. It was interesting upon leaving the house and switching networks that there is a rather cheeky error message –

While trouble-free, the rides on Wednesday and Thursday on the return leg really showed just why I am so thankful to have had access to the service, but also, the inaccuracy of estimates.

On Wednesday afternoon, booking a pick-up from the train resulted in an estimated pick-up in eight minutes. At that time, interestingly, the route bus was not far away and claimed to be arriving within four minutes.

In this situation, the general temptation may be to cancel the Cooee booking, especially within the grace period where free cancellations are permitted. However, instead of doing this, I decided to have a race between the two – on the understanding that the free ride on Cooee would probably be more comfortable.

To my unexpected surprise, the Cooee bus arrived prior to the route bus, and left the rank ahead of the route bus which only continued to get even later! That was not expected. Part of the reason was the eight-minute estimate was a bit long, and Tripview’s four minute estimate was a bit short.

Repeating the same scenario on Thursday afternoon, I received a booking that was to be picked up in four minutes. This one was a slight underestimate, I suppose due to the traffic lights and potential traffic load on Schofields Road. However, today, the Cooee won again!

The reason? The scheduled route bus that was 25-minutes late was cancelled, with the following bus without any real-time information, so we didn’t know if it would even run. At this rate, the certainty of the Cooee was a big win. Once the bus pulled up to the rank, I could see the desperate eyes of the stranded route-bus commuters asking if this bus was “going to the Ponds”. But by then, it was too late … most of the time you don’t get beta privileges immediately on installing the app!

As I worked from home on Friday, I didn’t partake in the final day of beta operations, but my father did and had no trouble at all. That proves just how easy it is to use.

In the final days, I also heard that the beta had around 100 users towards the last few days with the drivers doing nearly “continuous” runs without much in the way of dwelling. The opening date for the metro is still not known, even though train maps have already been updated (as above). The drivers were not certain as to what they would be doing in the interim, but knew that Cooee buses would not be on the road. Decisions as to fares, service area, and more are yet to be finalised.

Users of the beta may have received the above e-mail today, soliciting feedback on the beta test program. I implore all users fill in and provide their honest opinions and suggestions as this will likely be a service they will benefit from in the future – making it better for the community as a whole is in our best interests. Giving up ten minutes to fill it in is the least we can do to thank Busways for the free rides.

Now that the beta has concluded, I hope that the finalised Cooee service is priced competitively. If so, you might be seeing me using this service … a lot. Even though the beta test period was relatively short, I’ve already found myself getting used to its convenience and flexibility. I suppose I will miss it while we wait for the Metro to commence service.

About lui_gough

I'm a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!
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