Extraordinary times, extraordinary tasks?

It’s been a whirlwind week. The carpet has been swept out from beneath us and everyone is scrambling to work out what next. The new norm of sit inside and wait until the pandemic has passed has its own profound implications – not least how do we as a society look after our children and vulnerable people?

QRoutes is primarily used for planning home to school transport. So, you would think in these extraordinary times, when schools are closed, that there would be little call for it. But extraordinary times sometimes throw extraordinary tasks our way.

One of our customers has been using QRoutes in earnest this week to contingency plan the delivery of free school meals to vulnerable children during the school closure.

Free route planning from QRoutes

For at least the next three months, we’re offering free of charge advice and support to public bodies faced with extraordinary tasks. If the current public health crisis has thrown you a routing problem – such as deliveries or transport where normal services aren’t running – we would very much like to help.

QRoutes is cloud-based, ideal for remote working, and we could be delivering route plans within an hour.

Please, reach out – we’re here to help.

Tom Thomson joins QRoutes

profile picture of Tom ThomsonWe are delighted to announce that Tom Thomson has joined our team.

The number of local authorities realising significant benefits from QRoutes on their home-to-school transport planning is growing at an unprecedented rate. And to keep providing those customers with our trademark level of support, we need to keep expanding the team.
“Tom’s methodical approach and focus on exceeding customer expectations is an excellent match for us.” says Business Development Director, Jeff Duffell.
Tom adds, “I am delighted to be associated with the Team at QRoutes. There is no doubt that their Home to School Transport Routing and Scheduling solution is fast becoming the benchmark for School Transport planning within Councils and Unitary Authorities throughout the UK”.
Tom will be covering Scotland and parts of Northern England.

Election fever

In case you hadn’t noticed(!), we’ve just had another vote. And while in the run up pundits analysed polls and predictions, others were getting on with the practicalities of preparing for an election.

The booth that you step into to cast your ballot doesn’t live at the local church hall or primary school that has been transformed into a polling station for the day. Nor do any extra lighting or heating, additional accessibility ramps, or barriers that are needed for the day.

All the election equipment has to be delivered to the polling stations ahead of time. And the Transport Team at Sheffield CC support the Election Team by planning the routes for delivering that equipment efficiently and on-time. And, you guessed it, they use QRoutes to help them do this.

Once the Election Team have booked and confirmed all the polling stations, they send the list of addresses to the Transport Team, who get to work sorting the list into schedules for the delivery of equipment before polling day and collection shortly after.

First, they convert the list into a QRoutes file, validating the addresses within the application.

Next, they enter the available fleet and create different consignment types for the equipment, allocating the time it takes to load and unload it.

And then they begin planning. There are two types of deliveries – manned and unmanned.

Unmanned buildings are part of ‘key’ routes and these are planned first, using QRoutes’ skip function.

Manned deliveries are organised separately, with care taken to ensure the delivery at each venue will be when someone is there to meet it.

There are 190 stations within the Sheffield boundary. In theory, these deliveries could be arranged in 190! ways (which is a very big number). But QRoutes helps the team find the best solutions quickly.

Mike Keen, Senior Transport Officer, says the “speed of QRoutes is useful for bulk processing”.

QRoutes’ GIS interface means the team can switch visibility of routes on and off, seeing the overall picture or drilling down for detail when they need to. And the speed of processing means they can quickly recalculate schedules if they need to.

In fact, this time around because of the threat of bad weather, the team opted to deliver much of the equipment the week before the election, rather than the Tuesday or Wednesday of election week. So, getting the job done quickly was extra helpful.

And once it was over and pundits were pondering about the results, the teams were out collecting the election equipment for storage until the next one.

Why didn’t we save money after spending so much on a new Transport Management system?

In the last 30 years, many local authorities have invested large sums of money purchasing and implementing systems to manage their data for transport services, such as home to school. But, it seems, most of these authorities continue to wonder if the cost savings they hoped for are ever realised.

So why aren’t the savings obvious?

Pie chart showing the proportion of transport costs associated with contracts compared to planning overheads

The savings aren’t obvious because traditional systems aren’t good at optimising the majority of the spend.

The chart shows how the cost of providing transport (for mainstream school, SEN, SC& H etc.) is split between that directly associated with transport contracts and the expense of overheads, such as offices and people managing the contracts.

It may not be exactly 95% relating to the contract costs for all authorities but it is of that order.

The quality of service provision is essential; the consequences of error can be dire – e.g. leaving a vulnerable child stranded without transport. Many functions within transport management systems relate to ‘getting it right’; making the workflow of planning and managing passenger data and services secure and robust. This may save some money by creating smooth processes and reducing errors, but the savings aren’t obvious because the proportion compared to the total budget is so small.

To save money in school transport target the highest costs

Where authorities need to save money, the focus needs to be on reducing the number of contracts and ensuring that the remaining contracts are as efficient as possible.

Time and again, authorities tell us that the routing component within larger systems, if there is one at all, isn’t as good as an experienced human planner. This is because routing problems are complex. The best technical solutions are based on advanced algorithms and machine learning that are beyond the scope of the development of a database system.

This is where specialist, automated GIS based route planners, like QRoutes, step in. Our customers regularly report a reduction of between 10% and 20% in the cost of their contracts as a result of using QRoutes. Cost savings that are often six or even 7 figures.

QRoutes is a stand-alone tool which interfaces with, rather than existing within a big system. So, authorities can gain the benefit of advanced routing functions, saving money without the pain and expense of replacing their systems.

QRoutes focusses on the improvement of contracts, reducing them in number while ensuring the remaining stick to operational policies. We target development effort at making QRoutes the best tool available to your planners without having to also continuously develop another database system.

Challenge us

Challenge us – is your routing solution giving the best results? Test QRoutes against your current routing solution, for free, using your data, at your site by booking a visit now

Leeds City Council provides better travel experience for SEN children (and takes the sting out of rising entitlement and falling budgets) by using QRoutes

A recent review by Leeds City Council found that by using QRoutes to plan SEN home-to-school transport, the number of children who were in-vehicle for more than 75 minutes fell from 19% (July 2017) to 16% (September 2018).

QRoutes also helped the team reduce the daily number of vehicles being used to deliver services from an average of 200 per day to 175 per day. This helps the authority keep costs down and reduce the impact on traffic congestion.

Transport planning for children with mixed and often complex needs is a balancing act. Between the opposing pressures of rising entitlement and falling budgets are the clients. These children and families often rely on home-to-school transport as a vital bridge to friends, learning opportunities, and respite. QRoutes helped Leeds CC get more children to school in less time for less money.

“We found some interesting results” says Dylan Owen, Application Manager Leeds CC, “a 12.5% reduction in the number of contracts used and a 5.84% increase in vehicle occupancy utilisation. We also started the planning and tender process later than we would normally and that allowed us to wait for the last-minute changes which often hampers the planning effort.”

QRoutes helps transport planners by taking the legwork out of devising plans, producing optimised results in seconds rather than hours (or even days), giving them more time to apply their local expertise to finessing final plans, liaising with families, and operator contract management.

“This is the first year we have had a whole team of eight planners making use of a route planning tool because the QRoutes software is so easy to use” continues Dylan.

Although transport planning for home-to-school transport is usually done with authorities’ transport teams, the budget is often owned by Children’s Services or Education. Alongside an improved experience for children, QRoutes regularly saves its customers up to £1m per annum. In a climate of rising demand and squeezed budgets, the passenger experience might be expected to be a victim. The Leeds CC example shows that does not need to be the case.

The Parent’s Perspective

This week I listened to one of the most difficult presentations of my life. I feel it is something I should comment on but I hardly know where to start.

At QRoutes we sell market-leading software that helps school transport planners plan home to school transport for special educational needs and disabilities children.

We boast that our product helps find efficiencies that mean more children can access educational and social opportunities for lower per-passenger cost and that the quality of the planning ensures those children complete their journeys within the recommended time.

We like to believe what we do delivers value in human as well as monetary ways.

And that’s all true. It’s just that when the mother of a disabled young man stands up and tells their stories, hers and her son’s, it’s humbling and gives urgency to the process of helping planners find the best solutions.

Mike (not his real name) was born with severe disabilities but he went to school, met other children, and got out and about. That gave Jane (also not her real name) the space to get her ‘A’ levels, then a degree, and finally to become an English teacher. Jane felt life was on the up and dreamed of moving out of rented accommodation and buying a house.

But when Mike turned 16, his home-to-school transport was withdrawn and everything changed for them both.

Jane’s salary didn’t stretch to paying for the assisted transport Mike needs but she couldn’t take Mike to school herself and keep her job.

So Mike had to stop going to school. At a time when the world is opening up for most teenagers, his world began to shrink.

And Jane had to give up her job to look after him. She can’t earn more than £250 a month as that jeopardises the benefits she relies on. Tragically, she believes she’ll never be able to work as a teacher again – a job she loved.

The decision to withdraw transport for 16+ is a policy choice because of pressure on budgets.

It’s a choice that is devastating for families like Jane and Mike; I hope it wasn’t an easy choice to make; it can’t be easy for the officers who have to enforce it.

While QRoutes is a market leader in finding the best solutions for routing home-to-school children with complex needs, listening to Jane, and the impact Mike’s transport has had on their respective lives, writing a clever piece of software sounds like the easy bit.

Planning with Confidence and Clarity – notes from the QRoutes User Group

Earlier this month we welcomed 40 QRoutes Users from as far afield as North Tyneside and East Sussex to our User Group Meeting in Birmingham.

QRoutes User Groups are an opportunity for the community of school transport planners to compare notes, and share challenges and successes. And this, the third, was the biggest and best yet.

The day started with a presentation from Adrian Weissenbruch of Wiltshire County. Adrian gave an overview of the context in Wiltshire, a rural county with 1112 SEND clients attending 153 different schools and 290 passenger assistants. The team first applied QRoutes to Wiltshire College, a post-16 college, and was able to reduce the contract by 3 vehicles (23%) with initial savings of around £60k. Initial results suggest QRoutes will save them 37% of vehicles for a second school.

Another key outcome for the team is the time saved. QRoutes helps them get the planning done quicker, leaving more time for contract management.

How much could you save? Find out with our savings calculator

We followed with a summary of QRoutes 2.0. Customers have been slowing migrating to this new version over the summer. It has an updated look and feel with improved functionality and new features including peak and off-peak road speeds, mainstream bus stop allocation and improved scheduling to multiple schools.

Before lunch delegates took part in a hands-on challenge to use QRoutes 2.0 to find the most efficient way to deliver given journeys using bus stops and avoiding roads which often flood and low height bridges. Well done to Kyle from Barnsley, who was first to find the result!

Two other companies summarised their products designed to help QRoutes users.

  • Esoterix introduced JourneyBatcher, a tool to identify which students can travel to and from school by existing public transport. Watch a short video about JourneyBatcher here
  • Pax introduced their contract management database system.

After lunch, members of the QRoutes team presented on the findings of other local authorities, including the process Pembrokeshire had followed developing new routes from scratch that differed according to the day of the week, coped with exceptions, and grouped schools for efficiency.

User Groups are also an opportunity to ask our customers for guidance. It’s all too easy when developing software to make assumptions about what is useful rather than taking the time to understand what is needed. So at these events, we get Users to vote on features in the development ‘backlog’. We use these votes to prioritise the work to make sure we deliver the most useful features first.

The day closed with a presentation from Dylan Owen, Leeds. The Leeds team has several drivers for change, including rising per client costs, a need for improved passenger experience, and a need to standardise the planners’ approach across the team for more robust plans with fewer last minute changes.

Dylan’s initial comment was, “This is the first year we have had a whole team of eight planners making use of a route planning tool because the QRoutes software is so easy to use.” And QRoutes has helped them deliver on their targets too

  • Average vehicle occupancy is up 5.94%
  • Complaints about lateness are down 36% suggesting more robust plans
  • Number of clients on board for more than 75 minutes is down 84%

Improved passenger experience by keeping ride times down was a fitting note on which to end the day. All the talk of efficiency and budgets can obscure the fact that planners enable children to get to school; among their clients are vulnerable families coping with difficult situations. Transport is the vital link for opportunities for children and respite for carers. It’s good work and should be recognised as such. Big up the planners!


Thank you to everyone who got up early to join us. The QRoutes User Group 2108 was attended by

  • Barnsley
  • B&NES
  • Bedford
  • Birmingham
  • Buckinghamshire
  • Coventry
  • Dudley
  • East Sussex
  • Leeds
  • Leicester
  • North Tyneside
  • Nottinghamshire
  • Pax
  • Somerset
  • Suffolk
  • Wiltshire
  • Kent sent apologies

 

Jeff walks a circuitous marathon for Cancer Research

Shine Walk for Cancer Research mapJeff, our Business Development Director, recently completed a marathon! He did walk it (literally!) so you might think that’s not so difficult. But he recoups kudos because it was overnight.

He and his group set off on The Shine Walk at 9.30pm from Southwark Park and wending their way through Fleet Street, Pentonville Road, Park Lane, Knightsbridge, past Buckingham Palace, down The Mall, Strand, Whitehall, Birdcage Walk, along Millbank, past the Houses of Parliament and a scaffolded Big Ben, along the South Bank and over London Bridge just after 7am to finish. QRoutes could have found a more efficient route but in this case that wasn’t the point.

He was, in his own inimitable words, “knackered”.

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Jeff at the finish line of the Shine Walk
We did it! Jeff at the finish line of The Shine Walk for Cancer Research

As a group they raised a whopping £2,000+ for Cancer Research. You can still donate to his individual effort here

Miniplus mentions QRoutes

Miniplus ran a short article about Kent County Council’s use of QRoutes recently. You can read the article here

Look out for their longer feature in the September issue, to be published 20th August.

QRoutes Helps Address Sheffield’s Special Transport Needs

A planner using QRoutes Sheffield City Council has turned to the latest mapping and routing technology to improve Special Educational Needs (SEN) transport.  The council, which provides transport for 1000 children to around 35 schools, has deployed cloud-based software from QRoutes to work out the best routes and optimise resources.  The SEN fleet comprises 160 passenger vehicles and there are 300 drivers and passenger assistants on hand to deliver the service.

Special Educational Needs transport is one of the primary services managed by Sheffield’s Transport and Facilities Management Department. Managing the service is particularly complex because of the varied requirements of passengers and the need to satisfy schools, parents and pupils, but within budget constraints dictated by the People/Schools Services Department.

Sheffield’s SEN fleet includes a range of minibuses, as well as large specialist wheelchair lift vehicles that carry up to 16 passengers.  The council also relies on outsourced taxi services to meet the service needs of around 130 passengers that fall beyond the scope or reach of the council-run fleet.

In the past Sheffield had used AutoRoute to plan SEN routes but the software had become outdated and no longer supported.  In 2016 the decision was made to find a replacement and an appraisal was carried out of available systems.

“We spent a long time trying to find software that could handle the complexities of Special Educational Needs transport. We just couldn’t find anything and the solutions on offer were very costly,” said Mike Keen, Sheffield’s Senior Transport Officer.  “Then we heard that a new system was being developed specifically for SEN and that was QRoutes. Although it was still in development it was clear that the solution had tremendous potential and since working with them, the developers have been very receptive to developing the software to meet our needs.”

Sheffield trialled QRoutes during 2017 and started configuring the system to their requirements. The software is now being used and from June 2018 will be the department’s main routing system, planning and continually fine tuning approximately 145 routes.  Its use is also being considered for areas such as social care and elections planning.

“The fact that it is web-based is a big benefit. Not only does it mean that we can access the system anywhere and anytime online, but it is very affordable and requires minimal IT support,” says Mike Keen.  “The functionality is very good and the multi-layered mapping allows us to view as many routes as we want. It’s also very easy to use.”

“We can easily set different parameters such as maximum rides times at 40 and 50 minutes for a particular school.  Revised plans can then be produced in seconds and we can switch and change parameters as much as we like to fine tune each plan.  It takes about 30 seconds to run a plan and the system will give us an array of around 10 different solutions to consider – that would have taken days to do in the past” explains Keen.

“Delivering SEN services is not easy as there are so many conflicting interests at play and every day we are dealing with many different personal requirements. In the end QRoutes is a tool that saves us a lot of time simulating different potential options and that frees us up to deal with all those pressing service issues” adds Keen.