Flashback Friday: Greyhound enters tech age
Gordon Lowe reflects back 27 years to a time when Russell Penfold’s Greyhound coach business entered the modern computer age
It’s hard to imagine a world without computers. It’s also hard to imagine a modern day bus company without a computer in the office.
But it was not all that long ago when computers were only a figment of the imagination. In the early ‘80s the very best in home technology was represented by the Commodore 64, its computing power was virtually zero by today’s standards, but nevertheless was the forerunner for what was to come.
I remember when I first became involved with Deluxe Coachlines in 1983. Passenger manifests were sent out to the various terminals by facsimile machine.
Over lunch one day with Deluxe Queenslan Manager, Keith Weinert, we discussed this in detail. It was a system that worked rather well. Deluxe was still fi nding its feet in the industry and at that time had not caught up with the computer age.
But its biggest competitor, Greyhound, joined the ranks of the computer age in May 1981. Its new system was capable of making bookings and reservations and overnight made the Greyhound organisation vastly more effi cient. Suddenly, reservation clerks all over the country were feeding details into their computer screens, which in turn transferred the information to the master computer centre in Brisbane.
I recall being shown the finer points of the new computer system by Mel Tipper, Greyhound’s company accountant.
Adaptiing to change
As always Tipper was ahead of the times. He had the ability to adapt to change and to embrace new ideas (some years later he was appointed Greyhound CEO). I will always hold him in the highest regard and in the utmost of respect.
In 1990, our paths crossed once more, when I was invited to work for the company once again. Tipper came up with the name "Greytell" in May 1981, which sounded appropriate. He was very proud indeed with the new technology.
It was his personal baby. Now, the system’s installation in 1981 would have been a far cry from today’s high technology and was probably quite basic by today’s standards, nevertheless it worked really well. Danielle Donaldson was in charge of the company’s national reservations in 1981.
Donaldson had already spent seven years with Greyhound reservations in Brisbane. She was indeed extremely competent and took to the new technology like a duck towater. The new system meant Greyhound could take reservations as quickly as possible and could actually observe how soon the coaches were fi lling up.
This allowed Donaldson and her team to decide whether Greyhound needed to put more coaches on the road – to meet with demand as required.
The company put computer terminals and VDUs (visual display unit as they were called in those days) in all of the major cities. In 1981 there were nine staff working in the Brisbane reservations centre.
It operated seven days a week from 7am in the morning until 8pm at night. Donaldson and her team spent most of their time talking over the telephone, taking bookings from the public and travel agents. But she also had a dual role in putting together holiday packages. Donaldson was talented and could master any task that was put before her.
The reservations department was efficient and apart from taking bookings, all staff were trained to handle general enquiries such as ‘telling people what to expect at a particular destination’.
The 1981 reservations team also prided themselves on advising people in the same way as any travel agent.
If Greyhound didn’t go to any particular place, they would advise the customer of an alternate coach company that did. Donaldson was quoted as saying: "There are many reasons why people choose to travel by coach. One is cost, because coach travel is very economical over long distances. Other people won’t travel by plane and there are many towns around the country that aren’t serviced by an airline."
That was a pretty good argument over 20 years ago, but of course the airlines are catching up with smaller aircraft designed to service regional centres. Furthermore, fares are very similar these days. Frankly, to everyone in the industry right now: be vigilant and alert to airline strategies. Let’s fast forward 10 years to 1991.
At that time, Max Winkless’s Bus Australia had not yet joined the fold. Both Greyhound and Pioneer were being operated as two separate companies under the Australian Coachlines umbrella.
By this time, too, the company was developing a very sophisticated computer system via its wholly-owned subsidiary, Transport Technology. Transport Technology’s theme was ‘Tomorrow’s Technology Today’.
Indeed it was. Now at the outset I really knew nothing about Transport Technology’s operations.It really was the ‘magic tricks department’.
Enter the whiz kid
The whiz-kid at Transport Technology was a gentleman by the name of Bert Post.
I have known Bert Post for many years. This is not a free advertisement for him – but today Post would have to be one of Australia’sleading software developers and installers for the bus industry.
Post was basically in charge of Transport Technology. All of the computers and systems were housed in an air-conditioned building and to this day I am not sure how it worked or what went on there – but it was obviously (in 1991) ahead of its time.
Transport Technology was fully responsible for all the accounting operations of the group. This included the handling of all agency sales, returns and auditing of all company accountable documents.
Transport Technology had another important function: it handled (and incidentally developed) the world’s fi rst online computer booking system. In its heyday, the system hosted 800 computer terminals throughout Australia.
Transport Technology’s computer system was the largest NCRi series computer in the world. There were no desktop systems here. Some of the ‘computer boxes’ stood at least five-feet high.
The NCRi series computer was named Krypto by the staff and had the capacity to handle over one million Australian and overseas travel bookings. In 1991, Greyhound was making 600,000 (unbelievable, but true) coach journeys.
These were coordinated, costed and tracked throughout the network via the big NCR system. Krypto could also record up to 20 separate items of information in relation to a booking – much more than is required for a normal airline booking.
In addition, the system was also responsible for recording and ticketing all holiday reservations and the production of individualised passenger itineraries. Tipper was extremely proud of Transport Technology as was Post. Post was often quoted as saying that Tipper was his mentor and indeed that was true.
It was certainly the magic tricks department. For someone (like myself) who had no knowledge of computers in those days, I couldn’t think of it in any other way, other than the fact that those who worked in Transport Technology must have been ‘Einsteins’ in a previous life. Now, back to Bert Post.
Post was largely responsible for designing a new system which Greyhound called Buslink. Buslink was designed to provide direct access to the Pioneer and Greyhound reservations system, through an IBM-compatible computer system.
Travel agents embraced the concept in an enthusiastic way. Buslink was the forerunner to today’s internet-based systems used by the longdistance operators, including Greyhound and Premier Motor Service.
Buslink was inexpensive, intrinsically simple and easy to operate.Under the system, via a PC and a dial-up modem, the operator was able to access Krypto direct at Transport Technology’s offi ces. This was done via the PC and modem.
The software included a booking module which guided the user step by step through the reservations process. The unbiased service availability module gave an immediate status on both Greyhound and Pioneer services.
When the operator wished to make a booking such as a parcel or a sector fare, the booking number was recorded as a PNR. After thebooking was made it could be retrieved byentering the passenger name, PNR or ticket number.
Buslink also had an added feature whereby throughout the booking procedure, timetables and service schedules could be accessed using pop-up windows. Buslink also provided the agent with a customer database that could be used to create agency sales and outstanding confirmations.
It is extraordinary, but I can still remember, all those years ago when Bert Post and one of his assistants arrived at my offi ce and installed Buslink computer software – hey presto! – we were connected to Krypto and could process our own bus tickets. I knew then if I could work the system anyone could.
When Max Winkless merged his backpacker bus line, Bus Australia, with Australian Coachlines In late 1992, they were also quickly integrated into the system. Krypto was also responsible for all accounting functions, vehicle operationsprograms, fleet maintenance, store systems and for the accounting, manifesting and tracking of all freight carried by the company.
It’s hard to believe that 17 years ago technology had advanced to that level. In 2008, technology has of course advanced even further with the power of the internet. Most certainly, the bus industry owes a vote of thanks to Mel Tipper and his Transport Technology vision and Bert Post for his abilities to carry out that vision. Transport Technology was their legacy.