Software provides a useful tool, but foundational knowledge is still required to develop schedules that balance efficiency and service.

As mass transit management looks to future industry innovations in technology, there is a cautionary narrative associated with the scheduling knowledge base. The decades of innovation and progress in computerized scheduling, automated runcutting and rostering has created a growing loss of the in-depth knowledge and understanding of these processes by the schedulers. There is a growing knowledge gap as it relates to the importance of scheduling and runcutting to the financial, operational and labor relations health of public transportation. This gap will continue to grow if the industry focus remains on believing that scheduling software packages are the knowledge base and not the tool they were intended to be. The software is designed to augment, not replace, the required understanding and knowledge of the scheduler.

Anyone who understands the operation of a transit agency and the role of scheduling recognizes that it is the driving force behind the schedule, runcut and roster. The larger question is what level of understanding management should have regarding these key functions, their impacts (financial and managerial health in particular) and the essential support required to achieve the agencies’ goals. Schedulers are not a commodity easily found on the open market, and if one is available, understanding their level of expertise is often subjective. In other words, you might hire someone who cannot optimize your schedules while ensuring the needs of the agency and customer are met.

The industry should recruit and thoroughly train appropriate staff in the knowledge base for the scheduler position. It is important that the scheduler has a complete understanding concerning the challenges of the agency and all facets of the operation. The addition of in-person traffic checks for service observations (along with analyzing APC data), observation time in the field and meet and greets with all staff to adequately understand the needs of the entire agency will provide valuable insight that can only be obtained with firsthand experience.

In all agencies, and particularly smaller systems, there should be the ability for ongoing mentoring. Even a veteran scheduler working in the field might benefit from a suggestion such as adding parameters to better define a.m., midday and p.m. runs for making a better schedule. Understanding certain mathematical equations that were never handed down can open other opportunities. It might be hard to imagine, but there are veteran schedulers who are extremely competent and, many times, self-taught who might never have been shown key parts of the job. As adults, this gets embarrassing and, many times, rather than admit there is a problem, they struggle, hide and fake their level of understanding through no fault of their own.

With this idea in mind, there should be a succession plan that includes education and training for someone who can step in whenever needed. We should ensure that the knowledge base does not rest with one person. Nothing can be more harmful to an agency as a whole than to start from scratch by losing invaluable industry knowledge that this inimitable position requires when someone leaves.

An often overlooked understanding in the industry is where to position the scheduling team in the organization. The scheduling task is often placed in departments such as Operations, Service Planning, Finance, Customer Service and Marketing, with each requiring different approaches and outcomes which often generate operational inefficiencies and poor solutions for customers and operators. Scheduling and planning are often paired together, with scheduling playing a secondary role. While they are separate functions, there should always be a common thread between the two departments. Each position serves a different function and if an agency is to be successful, there must be an equal distribution of input and cooperation from both divisions.

As the planners create their service innovations, it is equally important to understand if it will actually work. A competent scheduler can quickly and efficiently run service scenarios to uncover hidden problems before they become real issues. To be most effective, service planning (scheduling and planning), should be a standalone department without the influences of personal interest within the agency. This does not alleviate the need to work with each department to correct and optimize the outcomes.

Another issue to consider is whether a schedule is made for efficiency, the customer or both. There are times when optimization of schedules creates solutions that are not feasible. The scheduler must balance all the components of the process to provide the best outcomes. Quite often, management has a poor understanding of this and gives direction that is counterproductive to providing good service. A scheduler without the proper knowledge may think that making efficient schedules is the only solution. An artful scheduler will be able to balance these factors to achieve success. Poor scheduling can be detrimental to the agency and operation as drivers and customers will be dissatisfied with the service provided.

The advent of computers has made the overall scheduling processes more effective and inadvertently removed the most critical piece of the operation, which is learning and understanding each step and how they interact with each other. For a successful outcome in the specific environment of a unique operating agency, a scheduler must learn how to schedule first and foremost with emphasis on learning how to manipulate the software to achieve that goal.

Computer scheduling is a fantastic advancement, but it will require experienced schedulers to utilize the software only as the tool it was intended to be. Anyone interested in enhancing their knowledge of the scheduler position will find TCRP 135 a useful reference manual.


Mike Townes, a retired transit professional with agency and private sector experience, as well as past leadership positions in several transit and transportation associations, contributed to this article.

Read the Mass Transit article online here.