There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Sunday, January 13, 2008

RT's disaster customer service

On Jan. 11, The Bee published a postmortem on the Jan. 4 storm and how well public service agencies handled the emergency, including Sacramento Regional Transit. Having spent too much time during that storm waiting for a bus that never arrived, I feel I have some perspective on the topic.

Mark Lonergan, RT's chief operating officer, gets a prize for understatement with his quote, "Our biggest problem was letting riders know what happened and where they need to be."

But the problem isn't just on rainy days. This happens any time a traffic accident or construction causes a detour on an established route. RT's dispatch center knows when detours occur; RT customers should, too.

When the entire downtown light-rail grid was knocked out by the recent storm, RT had the presence of mind to add an announcement about the outage as the first thing people who called 321-BUSS heard. But when localized flooding and a downed tree caused my regular bus, the No. 82, to skip the first two miles of its route -- which includes my stop -- nothing was said. When I finally got through to a live person at 321-BUSS, the customer service rep didn't know anything was wrong with my bus route. The service rep had to call dispatch to find out what was going on.

Obviously, the first thing to fix is the distribution of information.

Back on Oct. 22, my scheduled bus was unusually late. When I tried to get information from 321-BUSS, I was told that the service reps are not allowed to call the dispatch center until a bus is more than 15 minutes late.

Think about that a moment. The people RT pays to help customers are not immediately told when something happens. Why?

How big a deal would it be to create a Web page, for instance, that listed all of RT's 97 bus routes and its two light rail lines? Administrators of the page could click on a route and add a note when service is disrupted -- detours, bus breakdowns, traffic accidents -- and then everyone with access to the Web page can see where the current trouble spots are. There are any number of "features" that could be added to make this easy to administer. And imagine merging the trouble alert content with the Google Map and Google Transit service. Detour? See the new route displayed with the disabled route.

With a web-based centralized service status operation, once dispatch knows something, then the 321-BUSS operators know it. And once the information is in a database, then all sorts of opportunities follow.

Lonergan told The Bee that RT is experimenting with e-mail alerts. It is not far fetched at all to imagine a system that would allow regular RT riders to subscribe to alerts for specific routes. For instance, I would want to receive alerts for the No. 82, No. 30 and the Folsom to downtown light rail line. When an alert is posted to a route on the Web page, an e-mail could be sent automatically to subscribers with no extra work by anyone other than a computer.

This is so '90s technology. RT could even use '80s technology and add route information to the 321-BUSS automated system.

Imagine calling and hearing, "For information on current service outages and other important news, please press 1. (Systemwide announcements play such as the storm closure of downtown light rail.) For information about a specific route, enter the route number." No long waits on the line until you can get a live person to call the dispatch center.

Lonergan told The Bee that RT's efforts to expand customer service alerts have been slowed by lack of money. I appreciate that RT doesn't have extra cash to pay for innovation. But there's a point where customer service demands a certain level of investment. The storm outage demonstrated the need. RT needs to meet that need.

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