DUBAI // Glancing at four computer screens constantly blinking with updated data, Zulfiqar Hussain basks in the daily challenge of keeping Dubai's buses running on time.
"I like solving problems of drivers," he said. "I love this job because I can talk and help people."
Mr Hussain is one of 10 traffic controllers together working night and day in the Roads and Transit Authority's Operation Command Centre in a darkened room in Muhaisnah near the Sharjah border.
A low buzz of phones and computers sets the tone around the centre as controllers monitor the 86 routes.
By guiding 1,500 buses past tailbacks and accidents, the command centre has raised on-time performance to 70 per cent from 20 per cent since it opened last year, said Essa Abdul al Dosari, who heads the RTA public transport agency.
"Before the automated system we sometimes lost the driver until he returned to the depot," Mr al Dosari said. "It was not easy to control buses, but now we know if the bus is ahead by one minute or late by three minutes. We see everything."
Dwarfed by a 6-metre by 3-metre screen that plots bus movement via GPS, controllers proffer advice in measured tones to drivers negotiating Dubai's often frantic traffic. "Where are you, my friend?", "Can you adjust your time better?" and "Go past the courts to catch up" are a sampling of the chatter in Arabic, Hindi and English around the room.
A green on-screen indicator signals that a bus is on time, while blue shows it is a tad behind and red warns it is ahead of schedule. The central computer is linked to global positioning system units in each bus, which help track minute-to-minute progress. The centre is also a vital link in cases of accidents or breakdown.
"Earlier the bus driver called his depot if there was a breakdown," Mr al Dosari said. "Maybe calls were not answered immediately. Now it's live. Passengers don't have to wait for hours for another bus."
Controllers at the centre can ring any of five RTA depots for a replacement bus if there is a breakdown or call civil defence officials in case of an accident. They can send text messages that pop up on a screen in front of the driver.
The state-of-the-art equipment also aids drivers, ensuring they can open a direct line of communication with the centre. They can press a concealed button that kick-starts cameras inside the bus and activates a voice link so images and audio are beamed into the centre in the event of an emergency.
RTA officials said manual operations in use two years ago meant bus locations and passenger numbers were not clear until after a bus clocked into a depot, a potential time lag of several hours. Complaints from riders - the buses carry 300,000 commuters a day -led to the installation of automated systems which also help track ridership.
Every time a commuter swipes their Nol fare card on entry, information about the number of passengers on board filters through to the centre. The system also aids in planning new routes and merging or eliminating those that prove unprofitable.
"We know when a bus is full and when it's empty," said Mohammed Khadim bu Amin, the command centre's manager. "It helps with financials to know that this route did well, but that route did poorly and didn't cover costs."
The RTA also plans to install cameras in bus depots so controllers have access to live visuals of congestion there, said Mr bu Amin. The move is meant to ensure that critical access points receive proper service.
"What does every customer need? To reach their destination on time. Only if this happens will more people want to use the buses."