Planning bus, train and tram journeys online

If like myself you live in an urban part of the United Kingdom, you may be semi-familiar with the public transport network. Today, with internet access more commonplace, there is little or no excuse to consider making part of, or the whole of your journey on public transport. In some cases, you can plan the next leg of your journey using your bus or train’s on-board WiFi connection.

Besides being able to use the internet for booking rail tickets or planning journeys at home, smartphone technology enables travellers to plan alternative routes on the hoof. Even more so if traffic or cancellations could ruin your journey.

It is hard to imagine how pleased we were when we started using the internet for our journeys in the late 1990s. In spite of its shortcomings, we embraced, though still turned to paper timetables. Today, no self-respecting bus operator – along with our railway franchises, the Metrolink and Transport for London, should be without a website of some description. This also includes independent operators as well as the likes of FirstGroup, Stagecoach and Arriva.

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Operators’ Websites

In more analogue eras, the bus station or bus depot’s information office would be the sole source of timetable information. Though you can still find dead tree versions of your operator’s maps or timetables, the operator’s website has become an equally dependable source. Some progressive operators have websites which suit mobile devices as well as computers. Such sites are built using a technique known as ‘Responsive Web Design’.

Most websites have real time information detailing service disruptions. It is also possible to download timetables.

Integrated Transport Authorities’ and Local Authority Websites

Though the operators’ websites detail their routes, they are less likely to detail other operators’ routes. Particularly so if one company shares a service with another one, sometimes two or more, depending on times or level of competition. This is where the Integrated Transport Authority or Local Authority transport department’s website comes in.

Besides featuring every bus route within its immediate area, such sites would include rail and tram times as well as buses.

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Recommended Smartphone Applications

National Rail Journey Planner: far and away, my most indispensable transport app. This includes, as well as timetable information, details of rail fares and real time information of UK rail services. I have used this app often enough for the real time information element, especially where services are delayed.

The National Rail Journey Planner app supports iPhone, Android and Blackberry devices. An ad-free version is available for a modest fee.

FirstGroup mobile app: if you’re using the free WiFi on the 81 from Derker to Manchester, FirstGroup’s mobile app may be a useful addition to your smartphone or digital tablet. This has details of all FirstGroup services from Glasgow to Penzance, route maps, and service updates.

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Journey Planning on the Hoof

I recommend doing the following tips if your mobile phone company offers a generous data package. If you’re able to use public WiFi, either on board or in a coffee shop for example, better still. The pre-bus coffee or pint could be used to plan your next stage.

  1. Make the best use of connection times: long connection times between modes could be long enough to warrant a pint or coffee. Where coffee shops or public houses have free WiFi, make use of that to save on your mobile data allowance.
  2. Plan your next stage en route: not only in public houses and coffee shops, but also on buses and trains with WiFi access. As well as planning your journey, you could also report any problems en route, such as delays via the operator’s Twitter feed.
  3. Follow your operator’s Twitter feeds: if you have a Twitter app on your mobile device, the Twitter feed of your local bus company or National Rail is well worth following for traffic updates.
  4. Download National Rail’s Journey Planner: an absolute must, especially if your rail journey begins at an unstaffed railway station devoid of real time information. Use it for checking service disruptions.
  5. Add to your device bus, train and tram timetables of your most regular service(s): on most websites, you can download timetables (often in Adobe PDF format) for printing off or saving for future perusal. Make sure your tablet or smartphone has sufficient memory capacity, so a beefy memory card would also suffice. Most obviously, remember to update them after each timetable changes.
  6. On your smartphone, add a selection of taxi numbers: always useful if your bus, train or tram is missing. If your example you’re about 5 miles away, consider catching an alternative bus, train or tram to another place a mile away from home. Then ring for a taxi when you’re about 5 – 10 minutes away from your desired stop. Or, you could continue your last mile journey on public transport or from a black cab at a nearby taxi rank.
  7. If you are checking your smartphone, be mindful of the fact muggers may covet your device: refrain from checking your smartphone in dark places, purchase a suitable case and place it in your front pocket – or better still, an inside pocket.

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Any More Ideas

As always, add to the list or comment on the suggestions. If you’re another public transport geek with a smartphone or any other digital device, feel free to recommend further apps as well as tips for journey planning on the move.

Happy travelling!

S.V., 13 October 2013.

7 thoughts on “Have Smartphone, Will Travel: 21st Century Journey Planning

  1. Ive deleted the National Rail Enquires Pp instead, use the far better, and more reliable with info


  2. Hi Stuart, one error… The First bus app features all operators’ services as it is linked to the Traveline database. Pretty nifty really!


    1. Hi Nicholas,

      Thanks for the correction. That makes the app even more attractive, enough for me to consider downloading it onto my phone. Especially if you use the 343 which has another two operators in the daytime [Stotts and JPT Travel].

      Bye for now,



  3. No good for Manchester yet but If in London (or New York)I can highly recommend Citymapper app. You just simply drag the map to the road you want to start from where a static arrow highlights the road. You do the same for the end point.
    The app then gives you a list of different options (time, cost etc) and indicates real time issues such a line closure etc.
    Best if all it’s free.


    1. Hi Rick,

      It seems like (though limited at this moment) a very good app, and one which may be more useful when Manchester, Paris, Melbourne and the like are added to the list. Needless to say, I would probably download it, so long as Android covers more cities.

      Bye for now,



  4. I absolutely love the CityMapper app when I’m in London (Pretty frequent these days with all the cheap train deals!) – I hope they extend it to manchester soon. It even tells you how long the journey will take to walk/cycle + how many calories you’ll burn! It’s very user friendly + clear! I shall try the First app, really wish there was an app/site as good+simple to use for buses as there is for trains!


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