By Mathew Beeche
For the last 70 years, Ryan’s Bus Service has been operating in the Coffs Harbour area of rural NSW. The business is basically a living legacy in the area, having been owned and operated by four generations of the Ryan family since it was founded by Vic Ryan in 1943.
Today the business is owned by Vic Ryan’s granddaughter, Jenny Tooth who inherited the company from her father Reg Ryan. Reg managed it with his brother Snow before passing away in 1988.
Over the decades, the company has continued to grow and change as it went from a single 21-seater bus in 1943 to a now 32-bus strong fleet that services customers from Coffs Harbour to Grafton. In 1999, the company doubled its fleet from 13 buses to 28 when it acquired Watson’s bus service; and these days the company runs both passenger and school services on a daily basis, responsible for delivering over 3,000 school children back and forth from 27 schools within the area.
The main bus depots are located in Coffs Harbour, Grafton and Woolgoolga. Nigel Tooth, son of Jenny is the manager of the Woolgoolga depot and also the brains behind one of the biggest technological advances to touch Australia’s rural bus industry with his startup, TransportMe.
The idea behind TransportMe was born from the frustration of how inefficient the backend processes were, particularly in generating reports for the NSW Government on a monthly basis. Nigel wanted to devise a system that was more up to date technologically, whilst keeping the cost reasonable for bus service operators.
Normal bus ticketing machines are large and clunky, and also cost operators between $3,000 and $5,000. Nigel thus came up with the idea of utilising an iPad and running the system via an application that could be accessed by both bus drivers and the general public. Traditional ticketing machines only really sell tickets and do a few other minor tasks; but Nigel wanted to build a truly scalable end-to-end system for operators that saved them time and money.
In order to bring the concept to life, Nigel, who had none of the programming knowledge that would be needed to bring his idea to life got in contact with development company Appster.
“I gave Appster a call and told them what I wanted to do,” he says. “They really liked the idea and the concept. Initially I sat on the idea for a few months because things got busy and then I just decided to go ahead and do it. I flew down to Melbourne and met with their team, and we began the process of drawing up the blueprint of what it would look like and how it would work”.
From there, Nigel worked back and forth, often remotely with the Appster team, refining the product until it was exactly what was needed.
“The team were great, they really listened and we broke things down into stages to make sure we got everything exactly the way we needed it to be,” he says.
Eventually, due to the increasingly-apparent mass market potential for the product, Appster put their own skin in the game and became equity partners with Nigel. Both are now the sole shareholders in TransportMe. At this moment, the entire company is self-funded and the focus is on sales and growth rather than raising capital. Nigel says he doesn’t believe the company needs it at this point.
TransportMe has been partnered, used and tested with Ryan’s Bus Service for the last six months. The patent-pending TransportMe system allows the depot to keep in constant communication with the buses and drivers, and part of the system also allows the depots to track all its vehicles by GPS, meaning that when enquiries come in from, in particular, parents wanting to know if the bus is running late, or if the bus is travelling safely in bush fire season, the team at base just need to look at a large flatscreen that shows the current location of that particular bus service in real-time. No more mobile calls to drivers, which means things get completed in seconds.
Interest is high for the TransportMe, especially in rural areas around Australia. There are currently five other bus companies trialling it at the moment, and what is really exciting drivers and company owners is the immense time savings for monthly State Government reports that need to be sent – this process used to take a good two or three days because you have to collate the information from multiple buses within a fleet. With TransportMe, all the statistics and information is constantly fed live to the server; and to collate these reports is a simple case of pressing a button and those reports are spat out within a matter of seconds.
This has lead to TransportMe recently winning an Innovation Award from the Bus Industry Confederation. As a result, this has lead to a growing number of bus companies wanting to install and trial the service, which means that Nigel has become very busy doing demos for potential customers. Right now, there are customers in places such as the Riverina, Deniliquin, Coolamon, Forbes and Parkes, to name a few. There are even enquires coming from places as far as New Zealand where bus operators are looking to solve similar administration problems, making a case for potential international expansion in the coming years.
For now though, Nigel and Appster are focused on expanding within Australia, getting the technology adopted by as many bus operations as they can. The next big feature to be released in the coming months will be a smartphone app for consumers that will allow them to log on and GPS-track their buses they need to catch in real-time, essentially doing away with ‘approximate’ timetables you see on public bus stops around Australia. This feature will be particularly handy for parents picking up their school children from buses in rural areas, as they can see exactly when the bus is coming. Growing up in the country and catching a rural bus between towns on a daily basis, I can tell you first hand the time savings this will have on parents.
“We are stoked it’s a product that can give the public and operators something that is beneficial,” Nigel said.