The British/Australian term "dead running" means "running out of service, unavailable for passengers." I like the term because it could be the title of a zombie movie. I look forward to seeing if it attracts hits.
The North American term is "deadheading," which may remind you of rock fans of a certain era. In both cases, the word "dead" is apt. It's a waste, a loss. It's unavoidable up to the point, but transit agencies are always trying to turn dead time into live, useful time.
The Brisbane Times has a piece by Marissa Calligeros announcing that '28 per cent of bus services are "dead running", where passengers are unable to board.' That's a confusing way of putting it. The reporter must mean that Brisbane buses are dead running 28% of the time.
That sounds like a lot, but "dead running" is the result of two different issues that need to be kept separate.
- All transit vehicles must travel between their operating bases, where they are stored and maintained, and the beginning and endpoints of service. Rail services usually have bases directly on the rail line, but may still have to dead-run through the rail system to reach their trip's starting point. Bus bases can be anywhere. The location of bases (called depots in Britain/Australia, often divisions in the US) is a major issue. It's often worth spending capital money to save operating money, and careful investments in bases, reducing dead running, can do that.
- Transit agencies that run extensive one-way express incur massive amounts of dead running. Brisbane, for example, is a very, very centralized city, with a downtown far out of scale to anything else. That means a huge demand for one-way trips into downtown in the morning and out in the evening. All those services that are needed in only one direction usually have to get back in the other direction so that the driver's shift can end where it began. (The other alternative is to pay the driver to hang around downtown all day, which is even more expensive.)
There's no way to understand Brisbane's "dead running" issue, or that of any other city, without separating these two causes. The Brisbane Times article talks only about the first, but the Brisbane bus system has a massive one-way peak due to its single dominant downtown and relatively lack of direct rail paths for much of the city. Can dead running be better addressed by a rigorous review of whether these one-way peak services can be combined, replaced by links to rail, or otherwise made more efficient? GIven the higher cost of dead running for one-way peaked service, could some of it be converted into two-way, all-day service at less expense than it would first appear?
That's an important question for any city. Details of driver costs vary, but in general, dead running is one of the main reasons that one-way express service (bus or rail) can be more expensive than it looks.