Wednesday 21st August 2019
I sampled zeelo’s new commuter coach service between Newport and Bristol back in the Spring and wrote about the company and my travel experience on 24th May. Now the enterprising entrepreneurs based at zeelo’s London Shoreditch HQ have started another new venture, also aimed at commuters, this time connecting part of Crawley with Gatwick Airport.
You might be thinking “isn’t Crawley already well linked to Gatwick Airport by the award winning Metrobus company, part of the Go-Ahead Group” and you’d be bang on the runway with that thought. Frequent buses operating round the clock on a comprehensive network of routes aided by smart bus priority measures including Fastway branded segregated guided bus lanes whizzing buses straight across roundabouts and gliding passed traffic queues. It’s impressive.
Aspiring bus companies have given the Crawley bus market a competitive try over the years, but none have survived; the well regarded Metrobus has proved unassailable against all upstart new entrants.
So it was a bit of a surprise to read zeelo fancied their chances in this already well served market. I’m guessing they reckon they’ll win over bus wary employees at Gatwick Airport by offering their unique “personalised bus service” business model necessitating pre-booking using smart technology on a less frequent but targetted service with cheaper fares.
According to the news release heralding this initiative, zeelo reckon their “new shared bus service targets areas where Gatwick Airport employees are currently poorly served by public transport”. Indeed, they’ve been canny in finding four bus stops (from which Metrobus don’t run a direct bus to Gatwick Airport) along a route on the Horsham Road originating at Breezehurst Roundabout between the well served Bewbush and Broadfield residential areas continuing via Southgate towards Crawley town centre (but avoiding stopping there) and instead taking in three more bus stops in London Road from where the bus runs non-stop to Gatwick’s South and North Terminal buildings.
End to end journey time is scheduled for 27 minutes which compares to Metrobus route 10 taking 29 minutes for early morning journeys from Broadfield Barton to Gatwick’s North Terminal, as well as serving Crawley bus station, for the town centre, along the way.
It’s also noteworthy that Metrobus route 10 runs 24/7 (half hourly between midnight and 03:30) increasing to an impressive every 6-7 minutes between around 06:30 and 18:30. The new zeelo commuter service offers just eight journeys running half hourly between 05:10 and 08:40 with a similar service pattern in the afternoon between 15:10 and 18:40 only on Mondays to Fridays. Interestingly buses run in service “against the commuter flow” in both the morning and evening peaks, presumably because of shift workers, making for quite a tight schedule with three minutes stand time at the end of each journey for the two buses needed to run the service.
Whereas on Metrobus you just turn up and board their frequent service at any bus stop, zeelo’s “personalised service” means you pre-book your journey either online or via their App and be committed to that particular departure time.
Zeelo offer various bulk buying options for this new service as they do with Newport/Bristol and their other bespoke commuter services for specific employers around the country (eg Jaguar Land Rover and Aston Martin in Warwickshire and Ocado in Hertfordshire ). For the Crawley to Gatwick market their best offer is 100 rides for £87.99 through deals covering 50, 30 and 10 rides down to a return ticket for £3.50 and a single trip for £2.50.
Metrobus also charge £2.50 for a single Bewbush/Broadfield to Gatwick ride reduced to £2.40 if bought on their App. A week’s travel is £19.20 on the Metrobus App which for a five-day-ten-journeys-a-week commuter works out at £1.92 per journey compared to zeelo’s £1.39 for the ten ride package; but you have “weekend” travel on Metrobus free as a bonus when not commuting. Zeelo’s 50 ride package at £52.99 is the same price as the Metrobus 25 journey package on their smartcard (£53) therefore offering a fifty per cent discount.
Zeelo are offering free travel for the first two weeks of operation (normal prices begin next Tuesday) so I downloaded my bundle of twenty free trips and headed to Crawley this afternoon to road test this latest market entrant to the world of ‘smarter travel’.
I decided to book myself on the first journey of the afternoon, at 15:10 from the first stop on the Gatwick bound route at the roundabout near Bewbush/Broadfield. I tried logging on to zeelo’s website last night to get this all sorted but for some odd reason my email address had got corrupted by one letter in the zeelo database and it couldn’t log me in nor send me a ‘forgotten your password’ link. I tried re-registering with a different email address but got stumped by having to add my mobile number which it understandably told me had “already been registered with another account”. So I was stuck; locked out.
I sent an email through to the “contact us” helpline explaining my dilemma, and within a couple of minutes, if that, Simon replied and he soon resolved the problem by correcting the corrupted email address and we were back in business. Highly impressive to have access to personal service sorting out a techy problem at about 20:30 in the evening, so full marks to the zeelo team and Simon in particular for that great service.
Another issue was finding the Gatwick service on the zeelo website. It doesn’t appear on the home page of their zeelo.co site nor through any links I could find; instead you need to visit the alternative travel.zeelo.co website which has news releases about the company, and from where you can click on news of the Gatwick service launch and land at the booking page.
When you book your journey on line, if it’s a return journey you’re after, for each journey inbound to Gatwick, an option is listed of a return on each of the individual journeys back from the Airport on that day, including the very next departure, three minutes after you’ve arrived. This seems a bit unnecessary and it might be better to just list all the journeys once with passengers ticking the journey on which they wish to travel.
I decided to return back from Gatwick Airport’s North Terminal at 16:10 which would be the second departure after my 15:37 arrival.
The vehicles and drivers are provided by Ashford (Middlesex) based Passenger Plus+. The two mini-coaches used are based closer to Gatwick Airport though, at Pfizer’s UK headquarters in Tadworth – I’m guessing Passenger Plus+ do some contract work for Pfizer, so have a parking facility there.
The two vehicles branded for zeelo are a ’16’ plate Mercedes 19 seater and a brand new very smart ’19’ plate Indcar (a Spanish manufacturer) 29 seater. Neither mini-coaches are accessible for wheelchairs and I noticed there’s not much room for luggage – the wheelie type compact suitcases beloved of flight crews. Not a problem in the early stages of the operation when passenger loadings are likely to be small, but it could be an issue if the buses get busy, especially the 19 seater.
I arrived at the Breezehurst Roundabout bus stop on the Horsham Road in good time for my 15:10 departure this afternoon and was pleasantly surprised to be joined soon after by another passenger. She was a student working as an intern at Gatwick Airport for a month and had seen the minibuses on the road over the last few days so booked herself a journey to work “especially as it’s free at the moment”.
This bit of Horsham Road is unserved by Metrobus and the bus stop pole is flag-less but specific stop information available in the zeelo App as well as online reassures that this is exactly the correct place to be waiting, and sure enough, on the dot of 15:10, Peter arrives to pick us up.
There’s no need to show him an electronic copy of the ticket as Peter simply checks our names which he is aware of and we set off. I’d been sceptical about whether we’d pick anyone else up at this time of the day, but sure enough as the journey continued we picked up two more passengers – both easyJet cabin crew going to work for a late shift – one at the Orchard Street stop in Peglar Way (near the town centre) and another on London Road.
The Mercedes mini-coach has a ‘luxurious’ feel to it with comfortable seats, wi-fi and usb sockets. Peter gave us a smooth ride to the Airport. No-one on board alighted at Atlantic House at the South Terminal and we all continued to the bus stop by Jubilee House at the North Terminal – just two to three minutes walk from the Terminal building itself – where we arrived at 15:30. An impressive twenty minute ride. At this time of the day, Metrobus’s route 10 would have taken around thirty minutes travelling through Broadfield and the town centre as well as Manor Royal.
My fellow ‘intern’ passenger told me she was impressed with the quickness of the journey compared to route 10 which she had been using.
Peter didn’t wait until the next departure time of 15:40 back to Crawley but drove off after just a few minutes, presumably because no-one had booked for a ride so there was no need to wait.
My return journey was the next departure at 16:10 and my driver Tembi again arrived on the dot of that time – it turned out no-one had booked on the incoming journey so he’d started this part of his shift from the North Terminal.
This was the very impressive brand new Indcar 29 seater. Again, nice comfortable seats and a smooth ride; and this time it was just me travelling.
We had a bit of a delay leaving the North Terminal being stuck behind a trio of National Express coaches loading up and there was a hold up by the level crossing in Horsham Road where a badly parked taxi led to alternate working.
Despite this we arrived back at the Breezehurst Roundabout (this time marked with a flag for only the first journey on route 24!) at 16:34 taking just 24 minutes.
It made me wonder though, whether the 27 minute journey time over the next couple of hours of Crawley’s heavy peak hour late afternoon traffic might be a bit tight, especially as the mini-coaches don’t use Crawley’s bus lanes.
Tembi was very friendly and was naturally hoping this new zeelo venture would be a success. He’s been with Passenger Plus+ for some time, having previously worked with Metrobus, and explained that his duty involved working on other contract work Passenger Plus+ have in their portfolio in the Crawley area in the morning switching to the zeelo work in the afternoon. It looks as though zeelo is a perfect fit for Passenger Plus+ and being a quality operator, they’re a perfect fit for zeelo.
Whether this new venture is a success will simply come down to if zeelo have found a big enough market served by the seven bus stops in Horsham Road and London Road to sustain eight journeys morning and afternoon to and from Gatwick Airport. I have my doubts, but I was very impressed that three passengers travelled on my outward journey after just a few days operation.
Travelling with zeelo offers a great customer experience and full marks for that, although in addition to the website confusion mentioned earlier, there were one or two other teething problems with the technology, for example not being able to track where the driver was (even though a link was provided by text to my phone) and pick up locations being duplicated rather than showing the drop off location.
Metrobus also has a well deserved excellent reputation for offering a great customer experience too; their Crawley garage has topped the UK Bus Awards Garage of the Year on a number of occasions and the company as a whole is a regular in the finalists’ short list. You might conclude that if there was a profitable market from those seven bus stops, then Metrobus would already be there.
Zeelo’s prices are excellent value, but it might need a build up in confidence among passengers before they’re prepared to outlay £88 for that bargain 88p a ride within the 100 ride package.
Metrobus have the benefit of serving a much wider area including penertrating residential areas and serving the town centre and Manor Royal. Those markets are unavilable on the zeelo service.
Comparing posters advertising departures at the North Terminal highlights the different options now on offer for Airport employees living on the edge of Bewbush and Broadfield. Frequency versus fast and cheap.
It’s certainly an interesting development in the expanding Gatwick and Crawley transport market and certainly one to watch in the coming months.