Reporter 428, 30 November 1998


Resolution adopted by the Senate (21 October 1998) on the retirement of

Professor Tony Wren

Although many of us will have had the great pleasure of knowing Tony personally, few of us may realise the extent to which he has affected our everyday lives. Since producing the world’s first computer-generated train schedule for British Rail in 1963, our trains and buses have increasingly been scheduled by one of the computer programs from Tony and his team. A hallmark of Tony’s career has been the application of theoretical ideas in practice.

Born in Aberdeen in 1936, Tony Wren has himself been on the move in a southerly direction ever since. After attending the Rudolf Steiner School in Edinburgh, he went to the University of Edinburgh where he graduated with an MA in mathematics and natural philosophy. Tony then moved to the University of Leeds in 1959 to become assistant librarian in the Brotherton Library and shortly afterwards computer assistant in the Electronic Computing Laboratory. He was made a lecturer in 1962 and senior lecturer in 1972 within the newly formed Department of Computational Science, later to become the School of Computer Studies. Tony was awarded a readership in 1989 and appointed to a developmental Chair in Scheduling and Constraint Management in 1994. He was awarded a DSc from the University of Edinburgh in 1996.

Tony Wren’s work falls into the subject discipline of operational research, where he has made many important contributions in the area of public transport scheduling. Scheduling problems have a justifiable reputation for being very hard to solve. As a person who has always been keen to tackle difficult problems in a practical way, Tony was not to be defeated when he came up against the limitations of computer technology to deliver answers quickly. Had computers in the 1960s been as powerful as those of today, Tony may never have felt the need to introduce ‘trial and error’ into the highly mathematical analysis of optimisation problems as a method in its own right. Although this approach does not guarantee an optimal solution, and was at the time therefore regarded as unconventional, it has today moved into the mainstream as the study of heuristics.

The original BR train scheduler became the springboard for the TRAVELLER system (1975) which succeeded both in increasing the frequency of deliveries to Marks and Spencer whilst reducing the number of trucks required. The VAMPIRES system (1975) followed to address Greater Manchester Transport’s multi-depot bus sheduling problems. Following the success of VAMPIRES Tony and his group developed a commercial system called BUSMAN which was sold to about forty transport companies all over the world. In 1985 the BUSMAN suite was joined by IMPACS, a program to automatically schedule drivers. The rescheduling of drivers for London Transport was completed by IMPACS in a fraction of the time it would have taken to do manually. The increasing sophistication of the scheduling algorithms is today evident with the TRACS II system which explores the impact of different working scenarios through a combination of artificial intelligence and operational research approaches.

Tony’s success in working with industry is in part due to his rare ability to inspire a desire in others to embrace information technology. The series of annual workshops he ran for the bus industry between 1969 and 1988 undoubtedly made a major contribution to switching this industry on to the potential benefits of computers.

Throughout his time at Leeds, Tony has worked closely with a dedicated team. Privatisation of rail and bus companies in the UK has meant that this activity shows no sign of abating. Despite retiring, Tony will be continuing his involvement in a strong team which deservedly has a very promising future.

We wish Tony and his wife Felicity every happiness for the future.

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