Bus nerve centre aims to resolve any issue in 10 minutes

VIDEO: LIM AI LEEN

It almost seems ludicrous that when CentreComm, Transport for London's (TfL) emergency and command centre for buses, opened in May 1979, it comprised two people with pen and paper, recording bus movements as they were radioed in by their drivers.

Today, a roomful of controllers with headsets sit in Southwark, south London, fielding up to 1,200 calls a day while navigating six monitors each. A handful of officers from the Metropolitan Police sit at a discreet distance, observing the operations and a wall of live CCTV footage.

At the heart of CentreComm is iBus, the GPS and radio system used to track and communicate with every bus in London. CentreComm uses iBus to respond to any incident that has an impact on the bus network, set up road diversions and coordinate an emergency response if required. And, like that famous hack scene in the movie The Italian Job, it can influence traffic light timings.

"Sometimes we get complaints from bus drivers that they've been held unusually long at a traffic light," says CentreComm manager Andrew Highfield. Most of the calls are non-critical "code blue" calls, like inquiries about unusually heavy traffic. About 300 calls a day, however, are "code red" - for example, when there is violence on the bus or a passenger is behaving suspiciously.

"We have a direct line to the police and emergency services," explains Mr Highfield.

While we are there, a call comes through about a woman who has been injured while on the bus. The call is logged on one screen, and the controller homes in on a map showing the bus' location on another screen and taps into one of the 3,000 CCTV cameras across the capital to display a visual of the area. She advises that the passenger be taken to a hospital nearby as the ambulance will take too long to get there. "We aim to resolve each call within 10 minutes," says Mr Highfield.

CentreComm prides itself on its knowledge base - standard diversion routes and operating procedures - that has been built up over 30 years of planning the bus network response to major events such as the first London Marathon in 1981, the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997 and hundreds of protest marches.

But what really tests its mettle, and adds to its skill set, is handling unexpected critical incidents like the suicide bombings on July 7, 2005 that blew up three Underground trains and one double-decker bus and killed 52 people. Buses were used to help get the 700 injured to hospital.

This and other emergencies require TfL to work closely with the bus companies, be it to get 250 extra buses on the road during yet another Tube strike, or to disseminate information on London's incessant roadworks and planned disruptions. One of those six screens is reserved for that purpose: to speed-dial the 90 bus garages scattered across the city.

Lim Ai Leen

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 20, 2015, with the headline 'Bus nerve centre aims to resolve any issue in 10 minutes'. Print Edition | Subscribe