Friday 12th April 2019
Wiltshire’s Wigglybus was introduced way back in 1999. At one time it was considered so cutting edge as a project to solve the rural transport challenge it attracted £1million in Government funding for expansion. Rebranded, along with other shared taxi type services across Wiltshire, to the less colloquial ‘Connect2Wiltshire’ umbrella brand in 2007 the original routes in the Vale of Pewsey area are now operated by Go South Coast subsidiary Tourist Coaches, masquerading as sister company Salisbury Reds out on the road.
That’s the brand names dealt with. Now what exactly is it?
Basically it’s like one of the new fangled app based ‘Demand Responsive Transport’ (DRT) services operating to a flexible route as demanded by passenger bookings up to two hours before departure (think Arriva Click and Oxford Pick Me Up) ….. but without the app. Instead it’s got the wonderful John based in ‘Tourist Coaches Control’ answering the telephone when you ring to book your journey from one of the many small hamlets located across the delightfully scenic Vale of Pewsey between Pewsey and Devizes in southern Wiltshire.
This is no ‘innovative bus operation’ in a large conurbation; this is a sensible and practical way for Wiltshire County Council to maintain a semblance of public transport in a deep rural area. Furthermore it’s based around a fixed bus route with advertised times from the route’s origin and final destination and at popular stops across the area but allowing flexibility to dive off down country lanes as needed to serve micro hamlets which would otherwise be isolated.Having experienced lonely solo rides and disappointingly long waits for app based DRT services (“no buses are currently available – please try later”) and frustratingly no means to contact a human being to ask how long the wait might be, I was intrigued to see how a hybrid scheme mixing fixed timetabled times and flexible routings with a human being in control rather than an AI driven algorithm worked in practice. So I wandered over to Pewsey yesterday to take a ride on the ‘Connect2Wiltshire’ routes 101 and 102 between Pewsey, Devizes and surrounding hamlets.
It was a delight to meet up with Tourist Coaches driver Andy again. He’d taken me from Newbury to Marlborough on the Friday only route X20 back in January. Andy’s memory is much better than mine as he could instantly recall where we’d meet before, I just remember him being a star driver on some previous jaunt around Wiltshire.
Andy pulled up outside Pewsey’s Co-op spot on time for the 1200 departure on route 102 which heads south to Upavon. This route is also covered by Salisbury Reds hourly X5 between Swindon and Salisbury which gets ten minutes for the direct journey. The flexible 102 can travel via Pewsey’s Broadfields Estate (we did; and took one returning shopper to her house there) as well as the hamlets of Manningford Bruce, North Newnton and Rushall which we had no-one on board for so let them be.
In fact we had no-one else on board for anywhere, so made it to Upavon in good time and continued beyond the village centre, and off the X5 route, to a small residential area called Avon Square on the A342 where our scheduled return time was 1218.
Time for a short photographic stop before returning direct to Pewsey and with no pick ups booked we arrived at 1230, six minutes ahead of schedule ready for the 1240 departure on route 101 across to Devizes.
On arrival Andy pulled up in the corner of the Co-op car park to give John a call and hear details of the booked pick-ups for the next trip. It turned out just one passenger had booked us from a stop on the outskirts of a hamlet with the wonderful name of Honeystreet.
Andy kindly invited me to join the call and I had a great chat with John who I’d trust a million times more than any so called ‘Artificial Intelligence’ derived algorithm to schedule a bus departure for my needs. Previously, Wigglybus bookings were handled by a remote costly call centre in Exeter but as part of the new contract arrangements with Tourist Coaches/Salisbury Reds, control was localised in October 2017 and six-day a week working John is obviously a very cost effective way of managing the pick ups.
Techy people are still catered for through an online booking form on the website although more notice is required.
Five passengers were waiting for us as we pulled round to the bus stop right outside the front door of the Co-op for the 1240 departure. Three travelled all the way through to Devizes, one got off within a few stops as we left Pewsey and the fifth, a teenage girl, was travelling to Stanton St Bernard meaning we’d be wiggling off the standard route to drop her off.
Fifty-five minutes running time is allocated for this 101 journey to Devizes and the next fixed timing point after Pewsey is a third of the way at 1258 in Woodborough. When Wigglybus first started in 1999 the timetable allowed 40 minutes to complete the core route with an extra 20 minutes added to allow for wiggles.
Twenty years later Andy reckoned an end-to-end 55 minute schedule doesn’t allow much time for many wiggles. He proved right as our diversion to Stanton St Bernard cost us five minutes and we arrived to pick up our pre-booked passenger at Honeystreet a few minutes behind the expected time, only to find she wasn’t waiting.
Andy took this potential hiccup in his stride; parked up, stepped out of the bus to give John a ring and update him. “They often get picked up by someone they know passing by in a car” Andy explained. I asked if she would have let John know she no longer needed us, but apparently that rarely happens, but at least John is on hand for updates, something an app can’t help with.
We headed onwards on our westbound route having been travelling south for a while, so we now headed back north through Chilton and Patney (where we picked up a passenger at a scheduled timing point who was travelling to Devizes). Andy explained the very narrow country road we were travelling along has only recently been added to the route, buses previously wiggled another way, but we soon came to the largest hamlet, almost a village, on the route, All Cannings which is another fixed timing point and where we picked up two more passengers heading for Devizes.
Suffice to say Andy knew these (as well as the other passengers on board) and was presented with a gift from one who’d just returned from holiday and where it turns out the weather had been very nice and she’d had a great time. She was now off to work; her grandson was doing well and all was good.
As the second passenger boarded he pointed out our further progress through All Cannings was blocked by a window cleaning van parked directly opposite a car so there was nothing for it but for me to get into ‘reversing supervision mode’ again and see Andy safely back into a driveway from where he skilfully did a shunt or two to turn around and wiggle back the way we’d come into the village and get back on route via another way.
Andy was not only an expert driver with a great friendly personality but was also a mine of information about the area we were passing through, providing a superb commentary not only for me but everyone on board as we wiggled around the Wiltshire countryside.
We’d passed over the Kennet & Avon Canal five times during the journey and the main railway line to Devon and Cornwall three times and for a short stretch after Woodborough drove parallel to it with Andy pointing out it’s a great location where steam enthusiasts came to catch a view when heritage trains speed by, just on queue as an ‘almost heritage’ GWR HST sped along towards Paddington.
Crossing the line at Woodbrough, Andy pointed out the extensive sidings still in situ which at one time would carry train loads of daffodils grown extensively in the area for sale in Covent Garden.
At another railway crossing just beyond Patney, Andy pointed out the site of the now long closed station with only a brick water tower now to be seen as a clue to what was once there. Soldiers would alight here and be taken to the nearby Salisbury Plain. When the station first opened in 1900 it was called Patney Bridge but soon changed to plain Patney to avoid confusion with Putney Bridge in London. I also spotted a footbridge over the railway which didn’t seem to be doing much – I reckon it needs shifting to Pilning who are crying out for a footbridge at their station.
Another interesting insight was a long abandoned and grassed over war time runway alongside the road between Alton Barnes and Staton St Bernard which had been protected by dug out mound type shelters camouflaged with grass around a small entrance and which can still be clearly seen as you drive by today.
Alton Barnes has a church (Saint Mary the Virgin) which is partly Saxon being built in the 10th and 11th century. Indeed this journey took me back to my wander around Suffolk last month passing all these hamlets with just a handful of dwellings and their magnificent churches.
Other wonderful sights on the journey included so many thatched roofs, I lost count; including a rebuilt one which Andy explained followed a devastating fire (six fire engines attended); the farm where a thrashing machine was in full flow making the raw material ready for the thatchers; the famous Pewsey White Horse which can be seen from all over the area; and just mile upon mile of delightful scenery and splendid Wiltshire views.
I was also impressed by the obvious availability of roadside information about Connect2Wiltshire; not only in Pewsey and Devizes but all along the route. Timetables were also available to pick up on the bus (as seen in the reflection of the dashboard below)!
You couldn’t fail to miss the bus stop plate and information at Pewsey’s Co-op.
Devizes also sported a handy map at the main Market Square bus stops which is also available online.
With all the excitement of the journey, we arrived in Devizes just over five minutes late and Andy welcomed the nine passengers boarding for the return journey to Pewsey and see how much wiggle room there’d be heading back to Pewsey.
It had been a brilliant couple of journeys; made all the more enjoyable by Andy’s superb driving and fasincating commentary.
Loadings may have been on the low side; with eight/nine on the journey to/from Devizes; but that’s still eight/nine more than I’ve encountered on my app based rides in much larger towns, cities and conurabtions! Furthermore the bus stop information was commendably simple and easy to understand; much more so than fiddling around with apps.
Secretary of State Chris Grayling was drooling at the idea in his speech to CPT”s Annual Dinner in January that app based DRT minibuses are the future of transport and will even solve the rural transport problem. I disagree. Who needs apps when you’ve got John in Control?
Wiltshire is wiggling and it seems to be working. Just as well, as there’s no chance of another £1million coming Wiltshire’s way!
Local HIC (Human in Control) is far better than AI in almost every real-time resource management application, with the caveat that management must provide the resources and empowerment to make the immediate decisions required, and stand by the front line staff when they make the occasional mistake – after all the best way to learn is to know what things look like when they’re going ‘supine’. I recall Melvyn Hopwood of Trent Barton making the point, that the driver is often the best placed person to make the decisions, and noticing how ‘controlling’ management so often breeds the jobsworth culture from front-line staff.
I do note however that the bus has a Ticketer machine, with its large display screen. I saw this a couple of years ago and immediately saw the potential, with modern systems, to provide a manifest for each approaching stop, eliminating the need to keep phoning or texting the driver (and the protocols required to comply the Conduct Regulations – and Traffic Law on mobile device use). A driver would have an immediate check to ensure the intending passengers were all there, and have alerts for passengers who might need specific assistance (eg a blind user who would not need to wave their cane at random when they hear a ‘bus’ approaching, knowing instead that the message is on screen).
The other Wigglybus ‘rule’ was that picking up would not always be right at your door, but at ‘sensible’ virtual bus stops. Its not clear whether this is still as strictly required, but it was noticed that for many community bus services, there was a habit of sitting in the house until the bus pulled up outside and then putting on the coat and picking up the bag to go out the front door causing havoc with the dwell time allowances.
I recall the original Wigglybus launch, and the bike racks, which staggeringly the vehicle builders expected to bolt directly on to the bodywork, with no bracing to transfer the loads to the chassis. We sorted that out.. fortunately, as the rear (and front) mounted racks have a secondary use, when a driver (often weighing in at 100Kg vice 2 15Kg bikes) stands on the rack to clean the windscreens. With a 40-60 second dwell time penalty plus the load-securing liability for the driver, my preference has moved to the delivery of cycle carriage inside the bus, given that by 2020 we should have a near 100% bus parc of roll-on low floor buses, and with the booking facility noted above, the service can bring in additional passengers, who don’t need the bus to wiggle so widely that all the reserves of running time are used up.
For many the facility to get their bike on a rural bus service avoids the less pleasant stretches of busy roads, and at night, riding on unlit and remote country lanes. I recall one trip riding from Thame to Henley, with an annoying slow puncture, and hopping on to the local bus (which also made the climbing of the Chiltern escarpment much easier) where I increased the passenger count from 2 to 3. A big untapped market, especially when you can see established bike on ‘bus’ in some places, where up to 10 kids with bikes use the coach-operated Stagecoach services to travel independently to reach forest bike trails.
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It was good to read an upbeat description of a rural bus service. Sadly this service could potentially have been a lot better. In 2014 Wiltshire Council proposed considerable changes to the service to save money. They carried out a perfunctory consultation with Parish Councillors, many of whom were not aware that the service existed. Devizes Passengers, a community action group (who incidentally designed and produced the map you show in your blog) insisted that there should be a public meeting in the Pewsey Vale. This proved to be a stormy event, with the council left in no doubt that they needed to think again. Devizes Passengers persuaded the council to employ a professional transport planner, who devised a timetable which made efficient use of the buses, provided the services which people had asked for, and added the bonus of direct buses from Devizes to Pewsey station to connect with trains to and from London. We explored with Great Western Railway the option of selling through tickets, but this did not materialise. However, the fare on the connecting buses was only £1, which should have been an inducement to use them. DP and the local Community Area Partnerships urged the Council to give the new service as much publicity as possible, and formed a group of volunteers to carry out marketing activities.
Unfortunately the Council had given the contract to the lowest bidder, APL Travel, whose buses were clapped out and unreliable, The company went into liquidation, and Tourist Coaches, and subsequently Salisbury Reds, took over, providing a much better quality of service. But the vehicles originally provided by Tourist Coaches were not fitted with fareboxes, so for three months everyone got to travel for free. .In 2017, after less than 2 years of operation and no promotion, the Council decided to change the timetable again, losing a lot of the benefits that had been built in. Incidentally, the excursion by the “direct” Pewsey – Devizes bus to Upavon was put in from the start by the Council, who said there was a need, even though there is an hourly bus from Pewsey to Upavon, continuing to Salisbury. The connecting buses for the trains were discontinued, with one new service missing a train connection by a few minutes. Even when the connections were provided, the bus was not always reliable, and on the return leg if the train was late the bus would not wait. No alternative provision (a taxi on standby, for example), was made, which was another disinducement to use the service. So I am not surprised that Roger encountered lightly loaded buses.
The concept makes a lot of sense, and finally making the call centre local has been a great improvement. But there are many people in rural areas who need public transport, and if their needs are not met their lives become more difficult. Our market towns are choked with traffic, and persuading people to leave their cars at home and use the bus would bring environmental benefits. But the local authority shows a lack of enthusiasm for promoting and improving the services it rather reluctantly provides. The Cabinet Member for public transport is fond of boasting that there have been fewer cuts in Wiltshire than in other areas, but he shows no interest in addressing the many commitments in policy documents to meeting transport needs.
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Many thanks indeed for that fascinating background and all the extra information. Very interesting to read all that.
It reminds me of the Dial-a-Ride services in Hampstead Garden City and Harlow in the1970’s, using Ford Transits. These relied on telephone calls to a controller, rather than an app (obviously!).
When the service first started, the call centre was based in the Ambulance service. I can’t remember why now. The service has been subject to a lot of fiddling and meddling by Wiltshire Council and its predecessor, Wiltshire County Council. I worked for the District Council at the time of the launch and the County Council were always an unwilling partner. In a current document, the Council lead on Transport describes the service as ‘experimental’!