France, Australia in global public transport research alliance

UNSW and French researchers will work with transport operators to optimise new ‘on-demand’ solutions to improve public transport congestion, economy and safety.


Left to right: Sandrine Gaubert (Keolis Downer), David Rey (UNSW), Jean-Luc Ygnace (IFSTTAR), S. Travis Waller (UNSW) and Leila Frances (Keolis Downer).

A research alliance to develop new ‘on-demand’ public transport solutions in Newcastle, using computer modelling and gamification approaches, will eventually see the four parties – UNSW, public transport giant Keolis, Keolis Downer and France’s transport research institute IFSTTAR – expand applications internationally.

“This is the first time an operator and researchers have got together to optimise the design of a public transport service,” said Ms Leila Frances, Chairman of Keolis Downer, a 51/49 joint venture between Australia’s Downer and French-based global public transport operator Keolis.

In December, Keolis Downer won a $450 million, ten-year contract to operate Newcastle’s buses, ferries and interchanges, including a new light rail service.

The research partnership will initially use computer modelling developed at UNSW’s Research Centre for Integrated Transport Innovation (rCITI) and gamification approaches pioneered at IFSTTAR, the French Institute of Science and Technology of Transport, Development and Networks.

On-demand transport is an advanced, user-centred form of public transport with flexible routeing and scheduling of small to medium-sized vehicles operating in a shared-ride mode between pick-up and drop-off locations according to a passenger’s needs. A relatively new concept, it is gaining ground in Australia, especially as a way to service low-density areas.

Rapidly changing transport infrastructure technology and datasets are changing the way we plan and manage transport networks.

“It’s a new paradigm,” said Professor S. Travis Waller, director of rCITI. “Rapidly changing transport infrastructure technology and the availability of large datasets on passenger movements are changing the way we plan and manage transport networks. And the technology is changing the landscape much quicker than anyone expected.”

Dr David Rey, a lecturer in UNSW’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, will lead the first project: creating algorithms, based on patronage and travel data to model bus routes in lower-patronage areas to improve response times and patronage.

“Routeing, with fixed schedules, is well researched, but buses don’t know exactly how many people are waiting at a stop, or where will passengers disembark,” he said. “We’d like to explore schedules with more dynamic demand options, by first modelling the uptake of various combinations of bus trajectories, and see if introducing or skipping stops at particular times might boost patronage and create a better service where and when it’s needed most.”

Ms Frances said Keolis Downer aims to make public transport more accessible, and this type of research could help refine public transport services offered in order to better meet the needs of local communities.

The Newcastle data will give researchers a theoretical model of an efficient ‘on demand’ transport service that can then be considered in areas that have similar characteristics, in order to better integrate passenger needs into a multimodal network.

Contributing to the research will be Jean-Luc Ygnace, a senior research engineer at IFSTTAR’s Transport Engineering Laboratory in France, who has led studies of new technologies in transportation and how these can help encourage public transport patronage and improve congestion, economy and safety.

What is learned from these and future studies to be undertaken by the alliance will eventually pay dividends not only across Keolis Downer’s extensive operations in Australia but potentially across the international network run by Keolis, the French-based global public transport giant.

“This is the kind of collaboration between engineering researchers and Industry that brings tangible benefits to society – and it’s the kind of real-world research we like to do, and at which we excel,” said Professor Mark Hoffman, Dean of Engineering at UNSW. “It’s also marvellous to see research done here, through this alliance, will serve not just to passengers in Australia, but also people around the world.”

Images are available of the research alliance members

About UNSW Engineering: UNSW’s Faculty of Engineering is the powerhouse of engineering research in Australia, comprising nine schools, 21 research centres and participating in or leading 10 Cooperative Research Centres. It is ranked in the world’s top 50 engineering faculties, and home to Australia’s largest cohort of engineering undergraduate, postgraduate, domestic and international students. UNSW itself has 52,000 students from 120 nations, and is ranked #1 in Australia for producing millionaire graduates (#33 globally), and ranked #1 in Australia for graduates who create technology start-ups.

About Keolis-Downer: Keolis Downer is Australia’s largest private provider of multi-modal public transport. It is the largest light rail operator and one of the nation’s biggest bus operators, providing transport to more than 250 million people a year. Its operations combine the international expertise of Keolis, a leading provider of mobility solutions, and the deep local knowledge of one of Australia and New Zealand’s leading engineering and infrastructure management firms, Downer. Created in 2009, Keolis Downer runs the Yarra Trams franchise in Victoria, the world’s largest light rail network, and was a key member of the successful consortium to deliver the Gold Coast Light Rail public-private partnership, G:link.

Keolis is a leading public transport operator, established in 16 countries on four continents, with more than 100 years’ experience providing mobility solutions for governments; while Downer has over 150 years of experience working in transportation, mining, energy and industrial engineering, utilities, communications and facilities, with operations in Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, South America and Southern Africa.

About IFSTTAR-LICIT: The LICIT (Traffic Engineering Laboratory) is a joint research unit of the French Institute of Science and Technology of Transport, Development and Networks (IFSTTAR) and France’s École Nationale les Travaux State Public, or ENTPE (National Public Works State School). The LICIT has 270 staff, including 80 PhD students, spread over five sites, and brings together 11 labs offering a wide range of scientific disciplines: modelling, software engineering, automation, imaging, perception, information processing, electronics, experimental sciences and engineering as well as traffic , travel demand and socio-economic impacts of transport.