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.
Interesting that quite a few of the places listed as primary destinations in Redcar & Cleveland already have good bus services
– the X3 runs every half-hour between Lingdale (1/hr), Boosbeck (1/hr), North Skelton (1/hr), New Skelton (1/hr) and Skelton then on to Saltburn, Redcar and Middlesbrough
– the X4 runs every half-hour between Easington, Loftus, Carlin How and Brotton, then on to Saltburn, Redcar and Middlesbrough
– the 5 runs every hour between Easington, Loftus, Liverton Mines (1/hr), Skinningrove (1/hr), Carlin How, Brotton, North Skelton, New Skelton and Skelton, then on to Guisborough and Middlesbrough.
Will Tees Flex allow people to make journeys that they could easily have made on Arriva’s existing conventional services, and potentially undermine them?
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You have to feel sorry for the residents of Carlton and Stillington. Until 2019, they had an hourly regular bus service, the X8, which ran to Stockton, Teesside Park, and Middlesbrough. The area had a combined population of near enough 2,000, and quite low car ownership in Stillington (compared to most rural villages), and in fact the X8 was run commercially for quite some time, but Stagecarriage went out of business. East Cleveland also has similar pockets of rural deprivation, but most of the villages out there already have a bus service, as has been pointed out.
I used to quite like DRT services, but it’s becoming clear they’re commercially unviable and an inferior substitute for actual bus services. I think this trial will just vindicate that, though the one positive about this is the fares, which might just be low enough for short journeys to attract a decent level of custom.
What happened to the tees metro which was going to cost 70 million which was shelved because of the financial crisis. Meanwhile Westminster sanction cross rail and HS2 together costing 250 billion. Trains running through teesside are useless there are no stations or platforms so they are mainly empty. Transport in teesside is non existent. Try getting to Teesside Park without a car
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I managed to download the app on Saturday evening and, from what I can get it to do before the service has actually started, it seems quite clumsy to use and gives the impression that you can only use it to summon a bus straight away and not say that you would like to be picked up at 8am tomorrow or whatever. It also seems only to offer on-bus payment at the moment too, though perhaps that will change in the coming days. When I am next back on my native Teesside I will give it a try.
It is a legitimate concern that in the East Cleveland zone at least, it could undercut/undermime Arriva’s commercial services as Stevie D rightly points out. I was surprised it didn’t extend to local journeys in Guisborough, though, as it would potentially enable the council to replace their in-house operated town services.
Responding to Alan’s points, I think he needs to catch a train and see just how un-empty they are. The Tees Valley Metro idea has been around in several guises for decades and is (and will probably remain) an ill-thought through pipe dream. For Teesside Park, try Arriva’s extremely useful half hourly X12 service.
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