Tuesday 13th August 2019
TfL’s first foray into the new fangled world of App based Dial-A-Ride (aka Demand Responsive Transport) in Sutton is now in its twelfth week and yesterday a rather impersonal email popped into my inbox announcing an exciting extension of the area served by the swish exec style wishy-washy liveried Mercedes Sprinter minibuses.
GoSutton hit the streets for the first time at the end of May when I sampled a few rides and wrote about it here. From yesterday, the operating area centred on Sutton now extends eastwards beyond Hackbridge and Wallington to include the Beddington Lane area of retail sheds, light industry and the residential areas of Beddington and Roundshaw and in the west includes more residential roads in Cheam, with the A24 Epsom Road, GoSutton’s new western boundary. The area served now stretches from the A24 across to the A23.
TfL flagged up the idea of a possible eastern extension in its original consultation in March but the area now included is slightly larger than in that proposal while the extra roads out west weren’t originally flagged up but TfL admitted feedback from the consultation saw requests for more of Cheam to be included, so now they’ve delivered on that.
Another exciting change announced yesterday was a temporary reduction in the single journey fare from the usual pricey (by TfL bus fare standards) £3.50 to a more tempting £2. This applies for the rest of August and is clearly designed to stimulate interest and attract newbie travellers who are otherwise put off by the significant price differential to taking a conventional bus for just £1.50 (including hopper options).
You’d think therefore there would be lots of promotional activity surrounding these new developments, especially that 43% price reduction, yet I had a look at the bespoke GoSutton website last night and while it included the updated map with eastern and western extensions, there was no mention of the new reduced fare, still quoting £3.50 a ride (point 3 above).
I always find it ironic that for a service that’s supposed to be all about using technology the operators are so tardy at using it themselves to convey updated timely information. I’m pleased to report the website was updated today and now refers to the £2 a ride offer (see above, spot the difference); although the TfL official website still fails to mention it.
And the 44 page (!!) “easy read” manual explaining how to use GoSutton still quotes £3.50, including showing cash on page 22 … except you can’t pay using cash.
Quite how TfL expect potential passengers to find out about this fare offer is beyond me; it’s no good just sending an email to existing customers; there needs to be extensive promotion among non users.
Intrigued by yesterday’s email I decided to give GoSutton another try out today to see how loadings are doing in the newly extended area and take advantage of the August holiday bargain basement £2 fare.
I began my adventure at the Ampere Way tram stop in the new north eastern top corner of the extended area and ordered a journey down into the far south western corner of the new western extension in Cheam, because I’m like that as a customer.
A minibus was close by at IKEA dropping a passenger off so I was given a convenient pick up time just five minutes away and the little map showed me where driver Shane would be coming from after that drop off.
The thing was though the little minibus icon didn’t move for about five minutes. ViaVan’s software algorithm picked up something was wrong and sent me an auto-text advising of an (indeterminate) delay.
In the interests of research I stuck with it and sure enough Shane began to move and arrived with me at 10:25 rather than the promised 10:16. A total wait from ordering at 10:11 of 14 minutes, just 4 minutes outside TfL’s target of ten minutes.
I was a bit surprised Shane didn’t mention anything about the delay as I boarded so I broached the subject asking if he’d been held up – it turned out the passenger being dropped off was unsure where she’d be picked up and needed reassurance.
We took a straight forward route through Carshalton and Sutton over to Cheam with an ETA showing of 10:51 as we set off.
It’s still an odd feeling to be on a bus in London driving past passengers waiting at bus stops, providing a slightly superior feeling of being in a special mode of transport that’s got no time for stopping hither and thither for conventional bus using folk.
During the journey the SatNav gives explicit directions even where the route has the right of way at junctions; eg turn left… on a bend to the left in the main road, if there’s another road off to the right. And every instruction is given twice; once with a precise assessment in feet of how far ahead the manoeuvre is and then at the actual location. It can all get a bit annoying background noise when sitting in the front seats.
Interestingly at one point Shane chose to ignore the SatNav’s advice of where to turn right and continued to the next junction. He wasn’t told to do a “U-turn” though!
We arrived in North Cheam after a twenty-seven minute journey at 10:52, just two minutes later than the originally predicted arrival of 10:50 as we set off from Ampere Way.
I took a bus on route 93 up the A24 Epsom Road to the junction with Sutton Common Road which is in the extreme north west corner of the expanded operating area and called up my second ride at 11:11
I thought I’d head over to the newly extended southeastern corner just off the Purley Way, not far north of Purley itself. This was becoming Extreme DRT Bus Riding; I was beginning to feel like a Guerilla DRT Tester.
I was given two options of a minibus in either 9 or 20 minutes, but in the time it took to think about that (and take a screenshot) a message came back the options are no longer available – you have up to 30 seconds to decide; so I tried again and got the same options but with a more convenient pick up point exactly where I was rather than having to cross the junction.
The minibus would be with me in six minutes. In the event it was 11:21, after ten minutes when Ivan appeared.
We set off on a diagonal route right across the area, avoiding the centre of Sutton and using a number of residential roads not used by standard bus routes.
We got to the edge of the area in a rather well-to-do leafy part of Purley arriving after just 22 minutes travelling at 11:43.
Although the newly extended eastern boundary frustratingly doesn’t reach the A23 Purley Way I noticed there’s a small blip on the map to include the large Costco outlet by the former Croydon Airport and opposite the Colonnades retail park on the east side of Purley Way. I thought that would make for a good starting point for my next journey.
I took a 289 the short ride north to this location and at 12:40 ordered my third GoSutton ride to take me north to the Beddington Lane tram stop – both my origin and destination being within the extended eastern area.
It’s odd that you can only summon a minibus to appear on the far western side of Costco (at the bottom of the Google aerial shot below) rather than by the more logical and busy Colonnades on the eastern side of the A23 …….
…… as it has to use Purley Way to get to Costco so could easily pick up at the Colonnades too.
The App gave me a pick up time of twenty minutes – the longest wait yet and double the TfL target. Alexandru was the driver of the nearest free minibus right over in Sutton.
He arrived as expected at 13:00 and once we’d established how to turn round (using Costco’s car park was the best option) ….
…..we headed north taking just fourteen minutes instead of the predicted sixteen and I was dropped off at the official TfL bus stop used by route 463 south of Beddington Lane tram stop – I’ve noticed the algorithm likes dropping you off at official bus stops.
Alexandru then headed off to await his next passenger.
And I wandered up to the tram stop and headed back to East Croydon and home.
It had been an interesting three hours. Three journeys. Three different minibuses. Three pleasant drivers. Three smooth journeys. Just me riding solo on each journey. Total wait time 44 minutes. Total ride time 63 minutes. Total minibus time devoted exclusively to me 1 hour, 47 minutes. At £2 a journey; TfL took £6 in revenue from me.
After almost three months which is a quarter of the way through the twelve month trial, it’s not looking very financially sustainable to me.
BUT before I close …… and just to show ride sharing can work I need to also report on a quite astonishing experience I had just a couple of weeks ago when I passed through the area and gave GoSutton a go.
It was a gorgeous hot sunny Monday afternoon at the end of last month as I got off the train at Carshalton station and fired up the GoSutton App to order a minibus to take me over to the Royal Marsden Hospital in the south-western corner of the original operating area.
I was well impressed to receive a reply reporting a minibus would pick me up within three minutes and sure enough it duly arrived pretty much three minutes later and not only that but another passenger was already on board.
Not only that but I became intrigued as the journey continued that we weren’t deviating from the expected route to the Royal Marsden to drop her off somewhere. It turned out my fellow passenger was also travelling to the Hospital, where she works, and had boarded just a couple of minutes before me up the road in Carshalton.
It was the first time she’d used GoSutton and was understandably impressed with the convenience of only a short wait and then a ten minute direct journey; and what’s more she couldn’t believe as a Freedom Pass holder it had been a completely free ride for her.
Now how about that? What are the chances of my random arrival at Carshalton station at 13.30 on a Monday afternoon and choosing a destination to travel to completely at random which coincided with another person making pretty much exactly the same journey at the same time. The algorithm must have been in software heaven, not believing its luck. This is what the ViaVan techy geeks had been dreaming would happen during years of ride sharing software formulation. And on the afternoon of Monday 29th July, it finally delivered.
But the thing is, impressive though that was, and I’m still blown away at the coincidence of it all, my £3.50 fare together with the reimbursement contribution from the London Boroughs for my fellow passenger’s free ride (if there is indeed such reimbursement for the GoSutton trial) will not have gone anywhere near to covering the operating cost of providing that journey, let alone the set up development costs of the algorithm itself!
Two people riding around on a conventionally operated bus would mean instant withdrawal as it being hopelessly uneconomic; let alone one passenger paying £6 for over an hour and forty-seven minutes travels as I did today.
Meanwhile the Ealing trial begins shortly.
I used to run a bus company but in retirement enjoy Britain’s splendid scenic delights travelling by bus and train, and commenting along the way.