Tuesday 25th February 2020
After Friday’s Tees teaser I spotted the new ‘Tees flex’ app became available to download over the weekend so armed with that and the zonal maps which blog readers kindly pointed out were on Stagecoach’s ‘Tees flex’ webpage as click throughs from the zonal names, I was able to plan today’s try out of this latest DRT service.
I wanted to give the rural nature of the service a good try as there’s much talk among transport pontificators at the moment that DRT could be the solution to the ‘rural transport problem’. My time on Teesside today was limited so I decided to forgo both the Redcar/Saltburn zone (where many of the communities being served by ‘Tees flex’ are already served, or close to, Arriva’s bus network, as pointed out in the comments to my Friday post) and Hartlepool (where there are only four ‘Primary Destinations’ to choose from) and instead concentrate my travels in the extensive rural area lying between Darlington and Stockton with its 22 ‘Primary Destinations’ of villages and hamlets.
I decided to book my first journey starting from Darlington Station – one of the ‘Secondary Destinations’ in the far western part of the zone – and travel over to the far north east of this large area to Wolviston which lies close to Billingham to the north of Stockton-on-Tees.
Heading towards Darlington with LNER seemed an ideal time to book a journey conveniently timed for my train arrival at 10:22.
At 09:15 the app gave me an option of a ride in 3 minutes or one in 26 minutes; so I decided to wait until I was further north and be confident of actual train arrival time and try again after York with a view to getting a handy pick up time.
I also noticed there’s only an ‘on board payment’ option for the £4 fare. The system isn’t yet equipped to register credit or debit cards through the app and there’s no facility to indicate I had a concessionary pass, which the Stagecoach web page states must be done at the time of booking and before confirming a ride. It looked as though I’d have to shell out £4 – it’s been a while since I’ve had to do that on a bus!
Despite searching as best I could there also seems to be no web page on which to book a ‘Tees flex’ journey, nor a telephone number – both of which have been mentioned as options in the rather limited pre-launch information.
Indeed searching the Tees Valley Combined Authority website this morning only brings up the news release issued on 7th February heralding the upcoming ‘Tees flex’ launch and that Stagecoach webpage I described in Friday’s post that promised updates and an encouragement to keep checking back has barely been touched since last week – some of the wording still refers in the future tense about the service.
Soon after York, at 10:08, I had another go at booking my journey but this time the only option was ￼a ride in 20 minutes which I felt was a bit tight for my arrival into Darlington.
So I left it a bit longer and tried again at 10:13 with a 24 minute pick up which would be at 10:37 giving me ample time to stroll down to the main road outside the station after my train arrived at 10:22.
I confirmed my booking and back came a reminder to have cash ready as I boarded which seemed a blast from the past. Even more so as the on board ticket machines do take contactless cards, so cash isn’t needed.
The minibus arrived pretty much as predicted and I had a nice welcome from Jonathan, a well experienced bus driver with Stagecoach (23 years service) and looking forward to his new role with ‘Tees flex’.
We worked out that my concessionary pass meant I didn’t have to pay the £4 single fare and Jonathan issued me with a concession receipt and we drove off at 10:39 following the SatNav’s instructions from the smartphone alongside the ticket machine.
This took us across the extensive rural hinterland lying between the unitary authorities of Darlington and Stockton-on-Tees within the Tees Valley Combined Authority Area. It’s just the sort of area with tens of small hamlets and villages that this service has been designed for.
Even better, the SatNav took us on a tour of many of these villages on a 36 minute ride giving lots of time for a great chat with Jonathan and to see the potential and the pitfalls of this new service. If I’d paid, I reckon £4 was good value for the ride.
We arrived in Wolviston at 11:15 and I bade a fond farewell to Jonathan who drove off to wait at a strategic location ready for his next booking.
It was immediately obvious Wolviston will benefit from ‘Tees flex’. I noticed the bus stops and shelters in the middle of the village and optimistically headed over to peruse the timetable.
But the bus stop plate said it all. Maybe it would be a good idea to get some nice smart ‘Tees flex’ blue vinyl logos and cover up the ‘No public services’ banner so that the ‘connect tees valley’ and ‘Let’s journey together’ slogans become meaningful for villagers again.
It’s not too far to walk from Wolviston over to Billingham which is on the Stagecoach operated route 36 running frequently between Hartlepool, Stockton-on-Tees and Middlesbrough so I was soon on my way to Stockton on a busy bus running about ten minutes late (hence the standing passengers).
After a wander around Stockton’s regenerated High Street but sadly with evidence of struggling retailers I spotted a ‘Tees flex’ minibus lurking for passengers.
But it didn’t stay long and drove off but when I booked my second ride about ten minutes later this was the bus that came back in 7 minutes to take me to the village of Carlton at a bargain fare of just £1.
The minibus turned out to be one of the former Ashford minibuses Stagecoach had launched as ‘little & often’ when they thought the urban minibus renaissance period had arrived. It hadn’t.
Gary, the driver, with ten years service with Stagecoach reckoned there are four or even five of these in the ‘Tees flex’ fleet and he expressed a definite preference for the new ’69’ plate buses which ‘are much better to drive’.
I have to agree with Gary as a passenger too if only for the much improved seat comfort and colour scheme in the new buses – which seems to be a standard Mercedes interior across DRT whether in Liverpool, Leicester, Oxford, Sutton or Ealing!
However it did seem odd that Stagecoach have posted what looked like their standard ‘do’s and don’ts’ (mostly ‘don’ts’) behind the driver including the rather inappropriate ‘Ring the bell’ for a DRT service.
This rather detracts from the prestigiousness of the service.
Carlton is one of the villages in the ‘Tees flex’ target market. Situated only four miles to the west of Stockton but isolated enough from a traditional bus service. Not only do I (and Gary) suspect the £1 fare was an error (the web site says a 2-5 mile journey is £2) but the SatNav took us the wrong way too, adding about 4 minutes on to our 15 minute journey time. We were routed via Thorpe Thewles in the north west corner of the map.
Gary felt there were quite a few teething problems, not only with the SatNav but also the inability of concessionary passholders to book through the app as promised without attracting a fare. It does seem odd that such fundamental aspects of the service haven’t been sorted by Day 2.
I enjoyed a nice lunch break in the village of Carlton and was lucky enough to spot the three-journeys-a-day Stockton Borough Council Community Bus passing through which I hadn’t been aware existed.
This is free for users who sign up as ‘members’ and connects Carlton and neighbouring villages with Stockton-on-Tees but you have to be a resident of the villages served or have a good reason to become a ‘member’.
It’s been going since last October and the information and times are all explained on posters at bus stops.
As are notices displayed letting people know about the new ‘Tees flex’ alternative.
And at some stops there’s also a ‘connect tees valley’ notice letting you know there are no bus services.
So you can certainly take your choice in Carlton.
Noting one of the Community Bus regulars returning home from shopping I did wonder if she would ever be persuaded to book a journey on ‘Tees flex’ via the app.
Maybe she could be persuaded to use the 0330 678 1545 booking telephone number promoted on the side of the minibuses?
Mind you, she’d need a mobile phone to book her return journey from the shops as the ‘ViaVan’ software driving this system doesn’t allow forward bookings, which is a shame. Maybe that’s another ‘teething problem’.
Frankly I think she’ll stick with the fixed timetable of the Community Bus than risk the DRT booking lottery.
I decided for my third journey to give the 0330 booking number a go myself and forgo the app. Before that I took a stroll from Carlton to the next nearby village of Redmarshall and gave the number a ring.
No answer. Except for a message after about twenty rings to say ‘there is no one available to take your call, please leave a message ….etc’. I’m glad I wasn’t laden with shopping waiting to get home from Stockton.
I reverted back to the app and entered my desired journey back to Darlington Station and was impressively offered a journey in just three minutes for a £3 fare.
Or 36 minutes. This algorithm really puzzles me as the 3 minute away ride is in practice a driver and minibus just hanging around waiting for a booking up the road in the next village called Whitton. I guess the 36 minute option is another spare minibus and driver hanging around further away. So, say, my ideal is a pick up in ten minutes to allow me time to get ready, put my shoes on etc. I wouldn’t be able to book the 3 minute pick up and the 36 minute one is too late for me. The reality is it’s very likely the 3 minute away driver could pick me up in my desired 10 minutes as the chances (at this stage of ‘Tees flex’) of another booking are minimal.
So when the PR boasts of it being a flexible service; make no mistake most of the ‘flex’ is for the operator and not the passenger.
Anyway, rant over, and as luck would have it my driver was the affable and friendly Jonathan again so I finished my ‘Tees flex’ trial as I started with a lovely chat with a lovely ambassador for the service on a 23 minute ride back to Darlington, including another SatNav strange routing.
Jonathan had explained earlier he didn’t have any leaflets to hand out about the service; nor had Gary which was a shame. Apparently they’d been delivered around the villages (although I couldn’t find one in Carlton) which was good to hear as the success of this three year funded trial will very much depend on raising awareness.
I’m sure word will spread around the villages as the minibuses are seen and used. My guess is that regulars will collaborate and gravitate around fixed times to avoid the lottery of booking. I can see this applying to shoppers after 9.30am and returning home at around midday which are sure to be popular times and even though there are nine minibuses they can’t all be in every village at the same time.
Who knows this could even lead to a fixed timetable!
I understand three of the nine minibuses are allocated to each of the three zones, but my guess, as I mentioned on Friday is that Hartlepool will need less and Darlington/Stockton more. Time will tell.
The same grouping together to book concept will apply for young people otherwise marooned in these cut off villages, except ‘Tees flex’ has an approximate 07:00 to 19:30 operating day so not much good for going out clubbing in Darlington or Stockton. It’s also a Monday to Saturday only operation which, if you’re trying to wean people off car dependency is very short sighted. It would have been better to run a 30 month trial instead of 36 months with a seven day a week operation if funding is restricting the days of the week.
Nevertheless it’s good to see an extensive trial across a largely rural area and it will be fascinating to see how it works out. It’s positive that the constituent authorities that make up Tees Valley Combined Authority are funding this scheme – a decision taken before the recent bonanza of bus funding announcements from Government – and also kindly funding my travel too, and I suspect many of the passengers who’ll be attracted to give it a try. It’s all about the funding.
One things for sure, if success is measured by the drivers’ commitment such as Jonathan exuded, it’s already a winner.
Getting villagers to change their lifestyle travel patterns to fit the rather inflexible ‘Tees flex’ operating and business model may not be quite so easy.