Friday 15th November 2019
It’s all change in the world of Bus Demand Responsive Transport (DRT). This week sees the final foray for Arriva Click’s pioneering ‘pilot’ in Sittingbourne and Zeelo’s scheme for pilots (and others) living in Crawley and working at Gatwick Airport. The former ends tomorrow having been launched with much fanfare back in March 2017 (quite a long ‘pilot’ then) and the latter packed up today after just three months operation.
No-one with any grasp of the economics of public transport (or new fancy terms such as ‘integrated mobility solutions’) will be surprised these initiatives have failed. It really was obvious from the start the DRT business model simply doesn’t stack up; as I’ve written and explained a number of times in these blogs and in my quarterly Inside Track column in Buses magazine.
But lessons are seldom learned and as Sittingbourne bites the dust Arriva are already announcing they’ll be announcing another DRT scheme some place else very soon – update: just heard this will be in Watford. More fool them; unless they’ve convinced another Local Authority and Developer (as in Leicester) to hand over Section 106 money to financially prop up the operation for a couple of years.
TfL are also intent on splashing the cash (they haven’t got) on loss making DRT trials. And not only on one heavy loss making DRT venture in Sutton launched in May, but from this Wednesday starting the promised second year long trial based in Ealing.
This one is supported by Slide – the company behind the financially disastrous ridesharing DRT/taxi venture in Bristol that was withdrawn a year ago – being run by RATP Dev as a ‘pilot project’ for just over two years from July 2016. I’d only just got round to deleting that Slide app from my smartphone so had to download this latest ‘SlideEaling’ version as I headed over to Ealing this morning to give it a try as I spotted a news release from TfL on Wednesday announcing the new service began that very day – not exactly giving much forewarning!
Whenever I travel on these new DRT ventures I get mixed feelings hearing the optimism of the drivers. Today was no exception with Will, Ovi and Pat, on the three journeys I made, all amazingly positive about their career change and the future success of the venture which on the one hand is great to hear, but I fear their naivety will lead to disappointment in a few months time.
I don’t like to pop their positive bubble and I hope behind the scenes senior managers at RATP Dev owned London Sovereign, who are running this operation for TfL, are not giving them false hope.
There’s no way this operation is ever going to succeed; it’s only hope is for some equalities or diversity issue to come up which could justify TfL spending vast sums on keeping the service going after its twelve month trial.
The software for this scheme is provided by MOIA rather than Viavan as used in Sutton (as well as used by Oxford’s Pick-Me-Up and Arriva Click). It has a few detailed differences; for example there are no texts to say your vehicle is shortly arriving nor afterwards asking for feedback. MOIA prefer to use their app to show the vehicle approaching the pick up point by way of an icon on a map with a timed countdown alongside. That’s snazzy but it does mean you need to keep looking at your phone screen if you want an update, rather than wait for the text as per the Viavan system. I read that MOIA is “the flagship mobility services subsidiary of the VW Group”.
SlideEaling are also using MAN minibuses rather than the more common Mercedes favoured elsewhere. They’re Euro VI so are Ultra Low Emission Zone compliant. They have just ten seats (which will be ample) and a rear tail lift for wheelchair access which will slow things down compared to boarding through the side door.
Seats are comfortable with moquette rather than leather and laid out 2+1. There’s a wide entrance by the door but it does involve a step up. Not so easy for the less agile. Quite extraordinary not to be running low floor accessible minibuses.
Inevitably there’s usb but I didn’t find Wi-Fi but these days I prefer the former and am not bothered about the latter, especially on short journeys when it’s too much faff to log in.
London Sovereign have ten of these minibuses for the service (with legal lettering for London United) housed at RATP’s engineering base in Twickenham. Five vehicles are used during the day with the spare five vehicles entering service with late turn drivers as the five early turn drivers take their buses back to base, so a bit inefficient on the capital employed front.
The operating day is an extensive 06:00 to 01:00, seven days a week. Yes, really. TfL certainly know how to splash the cash when it comes to DRT trials. The five vehicles will be covering a large part of the London Borough of Ealing from Southall in the west to the North Circular in the east and from the A40 down to Boston Manor on the southern Borough boundary.
Everything else is pretty much the same as in Sutton with rides costing £3.50 a go with a daily cap of £10.50, a weekly £35 cap and a monthly top whack of £105. Additional passengers booked at the same time pay £2 a ride. The system doesn’t accept Oyster or contactless and although journeys are encouraged to be booked and paid for through the app, there is a phone number given for people without smartphones and an operator will book the journey for you and let you know pick up location and estimated time, but after that you’re on your own, with no further updates.
Children under 13 are not carried unless with an adult and those aged 13 to 16 need parental or guardian consent to register with the service.
Freedom Passes and English National Concessionary Travel Scheme Passes need to be pre-registered by email when a six digit coupon number will be provided within 24 hours which can be entered into the app to provide a full offset to the cost of each journey giving a ‘nil balance’. I applied yesterday and received a reply within three hours. The coupon lasts for 180 days (it also refers to 1,000 journeys, but I won’t be travelling that often) so I assume I need to apply for a new coupon number halfway through the twelve month trial if I want to continue enjoying a free personal taxi service across Ealing.
My first journey this morning was from Ealing Broadway to Boston Manor. I booked it at 10.35 with an expected arrival within 8 minutes at a pick up point at Bus Stop D on Haven Green just a stone’s throw from the station exit.
One annoying thing about the booking software is despite putting the “destination” icon in the exact place I want to go, it comes back with “16 Cawdor Crescent” rather than something a bit more user-friendly like Boston Manor. I appreciate this is because the minibus won’t be actually taking me to the front door of the station at Boston Manor which is tantalizing just over the scheme boundary, but it assumes I know where Cawdor Crescent is, which I don’t.
The app also gives an estimated range for the journey time, in this case of between 11 and 21 minutes, which seemed a bit vague. Anyway Will duly drove up within the expected waiting time, and I was well impressed to hear I was his second passenger of the day. So a busy day for him!
There’s a fleet number in the top nearside corner of the front so you can be sure you’re boarding the correct vehicle. Whereas Viavan lets you know the driver’s name, MOIA doesn’t, so that’s a helpful feature.
His dashboard mounted tablet with its zoom in map showing directions took us along some very narrow residential streets for the Boston Manor bound journey. The software seemed to be doing everything possible to take us on a route that avoided any main road.
We duly arrived in Cawdor Crescent after a 12 minute ride and I bid farewell to Will who’d been driving big buses on and off for a number of years with Metroline as his last employer, so he had high hopes for this new venture.
I wandered around to Boston Manor station and caught a Piccadilly Line train the two stops to South Ealing to reposition myself for my next journey to Greenford Broadway which I ordered at 11:12am.
Again, despite landing the “To” icon exactly in the middle of the crossroads of Greenford Broadway, the software wanted to take me to Clifton Road, which I was also told was a 1 minute walk from 424 Greenford Road. Sounded good, so I booked it and was told my “Slide arrives in 12 min”.
I was impressed that the route to be taken by the incoming vehicle to pick me up took account of the roadworks right outside South Ealing station and that Dorset Road, a 2 minute walk from where I was at “82A S Ealing Road” aka South Ealing station was closed as part of the works.
Ovi arrived ten minutes later and we set off with an expected journey time range between “17-29 min ride”. Interestingly that worse case 29 minute scenario was almost as long as the TfL Journey Planner recommendation of catching a 65 to Ealing Broadway and changing to an E10. Suffice to say the Journey Planner didn’t know about Slide.
I was chatting to Ovi and found I was his first passenger of the day. He’d also been a big bus driver, but for him, with London Sovereign itself so no employer change had been needed. I then noticed a screen immediately behind the driver which showed my initials alongside the drop off destination and the estimated time.
I guess this might be useful if there’s more passengers on board (some hope!) as you can see the order of when you’ll expect to reach your destination. As Andrew Garnett pointed out on Twitter it’s a shame the manufacturer’s sticker hadn’t been removed!
As you approach the drop off, the screen changes to add a reminder “don’t forget your personal belongings”.
Another repositioning via TfL big bus route 92 down to Ealing Hospital where at 12:06 I ordered my third and final ride of the day to take me right up into the north east corner of the Borough, just a stones throw from Hanger Lane gyratory and Underground station.
I was wondering whether the pick up point at Ealing Hospital would be by the bus stops for routes 92, 282 and 483 within the hospital grounds and sure enough it came through as at “TfL Bus Stop – Ealing Hospital” but prior to that confirmation it was insisting I was trying to book “from Denman Avenue” which must be an internal hospital road as the icon was definitely in the hospital grounds.
Even more bizarre the destination drop off was shown as “Hail & Ride Section” which was a “O min walk” from “112 Garrick Cl’. I just wanted Hanger Lane!
It would be another “23-37 min ride” and “Slide arrives in 7 min”. Which it did.
And surprisingly was a blue liveried minibus, but otherwise the same as the previous two internally.
Pat, my driver, explained five of the minibuses are coloured blue and five white as a base colour. He wasn’t sure why; he was just pleased to see me, as he’d been on an early shift and I was his very first customer at 12:15.
Like Will and Ovi, Pat had had big bus driving experience during his career and had been attracted to the innovative nature of this service which he had great hopes would be a success although he admitted he was getting worried about not having had any customers all morning until I came along.
There was a bit of a gremlin in the ‘drop off’ screen behind the driver seemingly on the wrong display ratio.
Pat also had some confusion as we rounded the Hanger Lane gyratory when he thought his tablet was showing to head south down the North Circular instead of back round on to the westbound A40, so just to be sure he went round the gyratory a second time and it became obvious the directional arrow in the top left hand corner was indicating an instruction in the distance shown, rather than immediate.
Confusion sorted and I duly arrived at my destination of “Hail & Ride Sec…” after a 25 minute ride just over the optimistic range of the predicted “23-37 min ride”.
Pat explained that he’d been waiting at his chosen spot all morning for a customer and it only then dawned on me that whereas Viavan’s software designates a spot where it’s optimal for drivers to wait, the MOIA software allows drivers to wait anywhere of their choosing. This seems an odd way of working as Pat admitted, first thing in the morning the drivers could all end up waiting close by each other in one corner of the Borough. He explained a controller can see where they all are and can ask them to move, but that’s hardly an efficient and cost effective way of working. I thought the software was supposed to remove the requirement for a costly controller; albeit someone also needs to be available to book phone requests from non smartphone owning passengers too.
So, another DRT launch, another handful of solo journeys in my (now, free to use) personal taxi, and no doubt more hyped up trade press coverage to come. I see the Confederation of Passenger Transport and the Campaign for Better Transport were busy sending out missives to politicians and the trade press this week calling for innovative DRT type schemes to be funded and supported as the salvation of rural transport. I wish they’d get out of their offices and see DRT in action, lest we have more wasted funding prior to more DRT ‘pilots’ being terminated as hopeless causes.
I used to run a bus company but in retirement am a full time passenger travelling all over Britain enjoying its splendid scenic delights by bus and train. Currently social distancing at home.