Friday 21st February 2020 (updaated Saturday 22nd February)
The latest Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) scheme gets going on Monday so I thought I’d prepare travel plans and be ready to try it out.
Except it’s proving a bit trickier than I thought.
It’s in the Tees Valley Combined Authority area and comprises three separate geographic zones; one based on Redcar, Saltburn and Cleveland, another on Hartlepool and the third on Darlington and Stockton. It’s a three year ‘pilot’ funded by the Authority and will be operated by Stagecoach with nine Mercedes Benz Sprinter EVM Citylines minibuses in a blue ‘Tees flex’ livery – the brand name chosen for the scheme. I was thinking the scheme might use Ashford‘s cast offs but apparently these are brand new minibuses bespoke for this scheme.
The problem is the all important App is not available to download until Monday, the first day of operation, which doesn’t give much time to register as a user and get familiar with what’s possible. Bookings will also be possible by telephone (it’s a real retro Dial-A-Ride scheme) or on a website but there are no details of either of these available yet.
It took me a while to work out the geographic area covered by the three zones in the scheme, as the Stagecoach website explains “you can travel between any two Primary Destinations within a single zone, but not between zones”. There is a helpful list of what’s called both ‘Primary’ and ‘Secondary’ Destinations in each of the three zones listed in alphabetical order, but you need to know your Tees geography to work out what’s where and where the zone boundaries are. I then discovered, thanks to a tip off from a blog reader, that if you click on the three zonal named areas shown in a table on the Stagecoach website, it takes you through to a helpful map for each area. I’m not sure why they haven’t displayed these all important maps more prominently without the need for a click through? Here are the maps:
Primary Destinations comprise 20 small hamlets in Redcar and Cleveland, four in Hartlepool and 23 in Darlington and Stockton. And these are indeed very small communities almost all completely isolated from existing bus routes, so on that score Tees flex will open up welcome ‘connectivity’ (to use the current buzzword for transport innovations) to this difficult-to-serve rural area.
The Secondary Destinations are places like Guisborough Market Place, Redcar Station, Saltburn Station and main retail centres as well as Hartlepool town centre and key retail and transport destinations in Darlington and Stockton.
The website explains “you’re also able to travel from a Primary Destination to a Secondary Destination as long as your journey is within the same zone”. Anomalously it doesn’t actually state you can travel from a Secondary Destination back to a Primary Destination but I guess that’s taken as read otherwise people won’t be able to get home!
The website also gives details of fares which are calculated on distance with four bands ranging from £1 to £4 single and £1.50 to £6 return. It’ll be interesting to see how the App works out how to charge a return fare, as usually with these things you only book a single journey at a time, even more so if booing a ride using the telephone or on the website, so I’m not sure how they intend to keep track of return fares if potential passengers ring to only book their outward journey. Concession holders travel free and have to show passes to be scanned on boarding the bus.
The advance information states the ”target time” to get a ‘Tees flex’ minibus to you is 45 minutes from the time of booking; I guess this is deliberately cautious to reflect the rural nature of the wide catchment areas being served, but you obviously can’t be in a hurry to catch a train or getting to work when booking a ride on that basis.
Before I realised there are click through zonal maps available, I plotted most of the ‘Primary Destinations’ being served in each area on annotated map extracts – these give a good idea of the rural nature of this new service, particularly between Darlington and Stockton.
I’ve shown 12 of the 23 hamlets in the Darlington and Stockton zone lying north of the A66, there are others south of the A66 and further north.
The Hartlepool zone only has four ‘Principal Destinations’ so I’m guessing will only have one of the nine buses allocated to it.
The Redcar and Cleveland zone has larger communities and a number are almost co-located which should make for a more efficient utilisation of the minibuses.
It’s going to be an interesting trial to see if people who’ve got used to a lifestyle devoid of a bus service to their isolated community change their current travel habits and take to Tees flex, especially with a potential 45 minute wait for a ride. Those who think DRT is the solution to rural transport will be keenly watching this one. Nine peak buses is a big investment for the sparse population being served.
The Stagecoach website optimistically states “more information will be added to this page in the coming days – stay tuned!” but alas, as often with these things, despite ‘tuning in’ every day for the last fortnight nothing has been updated.
With Monday’s start date now just a weekend away and no App available to download until day 1, nor details of the phone number to call or a web booking page to land on I think I’ll give the first day of operation a miss on this occasion.
It looks like it’ll be a quiet first day for Tees flex.