Wednesday 28th August 2019
I was puzzled by a recent news item that Merseytravel are withdrawing a local bus route they fund in the Speke area of south east Liverpool from this weekend to be replaced on Monday by Arriva Click: ‘the new Arriva Click Speke Zone service will operate between the same hours as the current 211 service: 8.05am to 5.15pm Monday to Friday and 8.45am to 5.15pm on Saturdays’ – the News Release reassured.
This sounded as though Arriva were introducing a new tailor made Click on-demand service in a new zone to replace a fixed route traditional timetabled bus service. An intriguing development, but I thought Arriva’s Click venture in Liverpool already included Speke within its operating area, so not so much ‘new’ more like changing a loss making tendered bus route into a loss making Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) operation. I headed up to Liverpool today to find out what was going on.
Bus route 211 provides a local circular ‘sideways figure of eight’ type service linking tight knit residential areas both to the west and east of Speke’s small centrally located community hub in South Parade and the nearby Morrisons supermarket and associated retail sheds just to the north.
Buses run at a rather inconvenient 40 minute frequency with the Monday to Friday service contracted to small independent Huyton Travel and the Saturday service to municipally owned Halton Transport (goodness knows why the tender was split by day of the week, but that’s local authorities for you).
It has all the hallmarks of an ailing tendered suburban service which doesn’t really go anywhere, other than providing local journeys around Speke. The Merseytravel timetable leaflet ‘valid from 29 April 2019’ states ‘What’s changed? Service frequency has reduced with a bus now every 40 minutes’. That service reduction obviously hasn’t worked as just four months later the service is being withdrawn ‘replaced by Arriva Click as part of an initial 12 month trial’ (note the word ‘initial’).
The thing about a fixed timetable is, even though a forty minute frequency is difficult to memorise, at least you know for sure a bus is due at a given time. I arrived in Speke’s South Parade at 12:30pm this lunchtime and set about catching the next 211 which I knew was due to leave at 12:45pm on the western circuit.
Out of interest I checked the Arriva Click app to see when an ‘on-demand’ minibus would arrive to take me to Dymchurch Road – the furthest western bus stop on the 211 circuit.
I was offered a pick up in 5 minutes and a fare of £2.35. That was impressive especially as the 211 bus arrived in South Parade at 12:35 and parked up (on the pavement) for its scheduled ten minute layover.
It already had about four on board who’d almost certainly got on at Morrisons and now had a ten minute wait on their journey home as the driver popped over to the shops. I was beginning to warm to the idea of Click already; I could have been on my way.
I spotted two high-viz wearing Arriva managers also on board the stationary bus giving out information about the new arrangements as well as a packet of sweets and some kind of fridge magnet – well, you have to do these things.
After a bit of a delay after the driver reappeared and some dialogue with one of the high-viz managers ensued ….…. before the bus finally pulled up at the nearby stop and we were off on the circuit a few minutes late.
The driver told me the comparable fare to Dymchurch Road on the 211 is £2.10 and interestingly I checked the Arriva app again and a bus was still available to take me there in just five minutes for £2.35 if I needed it.
I had a very interesting and informative chat with Arriva’s Liverpool Click manager on board who explained there would indeed be a dedicated Arriva Click minibus allocated to the newly defined ‘Speke zone’ from Monday which will effectively replace the 211 and its awkward 40 minute frequency.
Although my fare to Dymchurch Road might increase by 25p, it was pointed out if I only travel a very short distance my fare might come down, with Arriva Click offering a minimum of £1.
Another upside of the new arrangements is Click’s acceptance of concessionary passes for free travel, but only within the ‘Speke zone’ – hence the necessity for a geographic definition from Monday.
Loadings on the 211 looked to be about half a dozen passengers per journey per half circuit at most and that was from observations at a busy lunchtime. The service is dominated by concessionary pass holding passengers – remember the qualifying age is still 60 in Merseyside, so it’s obviously essential to continue the free travel on Click and part of this deal is Merseytravel reimbursing Arriva for passholders. But this will only apply on journeys within the zone so if a passenger wants to take Click further afield, rather than use it as a shuttle to change on to buses at South Parade or Morrisons as many do now, they’ll have to pay the standard Arriva Click rate which is about £1 per mile for onward travel beyond the zone. I expect Arriva are hoping it may encourage reluctant passholders to give Click a go for longer rides and pay up.
From my observations today, the other complication with morphing the 211 into DRT is the average passenger is probably not a smartphone owner or adept at using such technology. To get round this, as with GoSutton in London, passengers can ring up Merseytravel who’ll book the journey for them and provide the algorithm’s pick up details while they’re on the phone.
This does introduce ‘noise’ into the system – will the communications always work and messages be accurately understood? – but the allocation of regular drivers to the dedicated ‘Speke zone’ Click vehicle and managers impressing on them the need to be flexible, especially in the first few weeks, is in hand.
For Merseytravel and Arriva Click this new deal makes sound financial sense. It’s a win win. Merseytravel get shot of an awkward tendered bus route and instead pay the money that went to Huyton and Halton to Arriva who benefit from some welcome guaranteed income towards Click’s challenging bottom line.
Although Arriva are allocating a dedicated minibus to Speke, from my albeit brief observations today this could easily be achieved within existing resources – both times I passed through Liverpool South Parkway I saw three Click minibuses laying over or on standby and I was told three minibuses were on standby duties at the nearby John Lennon Airport. That’s a lot of spare resource.
As well as the two times I tried a booking while in Speke and got a 5 minute response time (indicating a vehicle was available nearby), when I actually booked one to take me back to Liverpool South Parkway I was given a pick up within seven minutes; and it was just me travelling. So the evidence is it’s still a struggle to get that all important shared ridership as the pathway to DRT commercial success.
But the new look ‘DRT 211’ trial should certainly achieve shared riding for Arriva and that guaranteed income. It’s a very smart move.
However I’m not so sure it’s a smart move for passengers. It was obvious today the bus is used by regulars who know the times, albeit awkward times, to get them to Morrisons and back home again. In the new scenario, assuming no smartphone, they have to make a phone call from home to book a journey (reading out their ten digit concessionary pass ID) initially not knowing what time the pick up might be. It could be in five minutes, or it could be up to half an hour away if the minibus is on the other side of Speke. (30 minutes is the guaranteed maximum).
My guess is initially passengers will gravitate around the existing 211 times – we’re all creatures of habit – and this will be an algorithm’s dream outcome, but once passengers break ranks and opt for different times then the bus will become more unpredictable in its location and timings. This brings uncertainty into the journey, not least when it comes to returning home from Morrisons with the shopping. Apparently there are plans to put a phone into the foyer of Morrisons but in the meantime a phone-less passenger is stuck, unable to summon up a bus to get home.
And that could be a stumbling block not only for the passenger but for the trial. As a solution it might make sense to get Arriva to run the bespoke ‘Speke zone’ minibus on a fixed route to fixed times; and give it a route number … like 211 perhaps. It could be the ultimate in efficient shared riding!
Just a thought.
It’ll be interesting to see what passengers make of it next week.
PS I requested my journey to Liverpool South Parkway from outside Morrisons but as well as the app telling me it was seven minutes away, it also gave me a pick up right on the far side of the supermarket/retail sheds car park – almost a five minute walk. If I’d had bags of shopping to carry I’d have been rightly miffed. I hope that’s sorted for Monday.
What’s more although I was set down by the Station entrance and Dan, my friendly driver, even told me which platform I needed and how to get there, I understand Merseytravel won’t let Click pick up from the bus station right by the station and you have to walk outside to the road network.
This also happened to me on my last visit – not being picked up in Liverpool One bus station. Come on Merseytravel – if you’re now collaborating with Arriva it makes sense to sort these anomalies out.
PPS Liverpool South Parkway is an impressive airy bus station to wait in with lots of facilities but I was a bit surprised the man in the Travel Centre didn’t know Arriva’s Airport route 500 went to Speke when I enquired.
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.