Thursday 4th June 2020
I reported back on 3 April Sevenoaks based Go-Coach Hire were replacing from Easter all its fixed timetable local town routes as well as rural routes in the surrounding area, including Hildenborough, Edenbridge and nearby villages, with a demand responsive bus service branded as go2.
Knowing my fascination with DRT schemes, the company’s amiable proprietor Austin Blackburn has kindly been updating me about how the operation has been bedding in during the last couple of months of strange lockdown arrangements.
At his invitation I took a drive over to Sevenoaks this morning to see the set up in the town’s bus station where the information office has been given a complete makeover and now acts as a booking point and waiting room for passengers.
As I’ve previously reported, Austin is a great ambassador for the small independent owned bus company sector of the industry. Passionate and deeply committed, his engineering background comes in very handy to keep the company’s fleet in tip-top condition, but Austin also exudes an impressive entrepreneurial approach to ensure his business keeps innovating to provide the best possible service for everyone living in this part of Kent.
The go2 set up is currently operating with six to seven vehicles comprising both Optare Solos and Mercedes Sprinters with socially distanced capacities of 10 and 5 respectively although in current lockdown times passenger numbers are very low and restricted capacity isn’t a problem.
Bookings are made by passengers either making a telephone call to the enthusiastic Robert who sits in the bus station’s information office and who then makes the booking into the ‘ViaVan’ software and let’s the passenger know when the bus will be arriving and where to wait, or passengers can use the App (from the tech company ‘ViaVan’) on their smartphone to make the booking direct.
Reflecting the demographics of passengers using the service at the moment, 60% are making telephone bookings with 40% using the App. Passengers making return journeys to go back home can either ask staff in the town’s two major supermarkets (Tesco and Sainsbury’s) to telephone a booking through to Robert for them, or if they’re in the town centre, call into the information office personally where Robert does the necessary while they wait. During my visit this morning, Janet who is in the senior age range, came in and asked for a bus to be booked for her and was impressed when advised one would be ready for her in four minutes. Which it was; arriving with another passenger already on board.
After leaving the bus station and taking Janet and the other passenger home, I noticed the bus continued on to pick up its next passenger to bring them into the town centre.
I really like the large visual display installed on the wall of the information office, so passengers can see where all the buses are, how many (and where) passengers are waiting, how many are on board and where they will be dropped off. A fascinating screen to watch.
The software can also show a myriad of other displays even including my attempts to book a journey on the App and test out the waiting times before cancelling the trip, as can be seen below.
Austin is a master of all the statistical charts the software produces and admits it can be addictive, although he restricts himself to looking first thing in the morning at how the previous day worked out. He admits it’s now great to know the names and travel patterns of all his customers and there are plans to send them messages when changes are made to the operation.
Sevenoaks town centre was very quiet this morning with its non essential shops all closed and the towns two main supermarkets being located a little to the north of the centre. Unsurprisingly numbers travelling on the go2 network are few in number but this gives an ideal opportunity to test out this new system and identify its weaknesses and strengths.
Austin admits hardly enough passenger revenue is being taken to pay even one driver’s wages for the day, let along all the other costs. He’s in no doubt an operation of this kind can never be a commercial proposition “anyone thinking otherwise is just kidding themselves”. Go2 is being financially supported by Kent County Council; the previous fixed timetable routes in the Sevenoaks area were all funded tendered operations with many concessionary passholders, and that tender and reimbursement revenue has continued at previous levels, so the financial position is very stable for the company.
Average pick up time for passengers using go2 is currently 12 minutes with a spike of 17 minutes around midday but Austin and Rob are adjusting drivers’ meal breaks to even that peak out. It’s encouraging to see ridership is gradually growing, with new users every day, and repeat travellers too. In the last three weeks, 326 new accounts have been created with 79% making at least one request, 46% making at least two bookings and 29% completing at least 6 bookings.
Austin is planning to enhance service levels as passenger demand increases with town centre activity increasing in the coming weeks. However he plans to do this by restoring fixed timetables firstly on the town’s circular route 8, and then routes 1 and 6 but ViaVan will incorporate the timetables into their App so it appears integrated.
His original plan for go2 was for it to cover a fairly tight area around the town, and his instincts were right as that’s where most passengers are booking and travelling (see above); but following discussions with the Council the operating area was extended to include pretty much the whole of Sevenoaks District Council’s area including Westerham (the pink blob to the left in the map above) and Edenbridge (where very few passengers have travelled). The operation is now being extended to ‘fill in’ the rural area between Edenbridge and Hildenborough.
There’s still the facility to book a journey to hospitals in Bromley, Sidcup and Tunbridge Wells outside the operating area, but in practice only one passenger has taken advantage of this.
Austin’s original idea when he was thinking of a DRT scheme last year was to use seven seater taxis using a Private Hire licence and this is still the plan, for what he calls ‘phase 3’ which is now pencilled in for this autumn at the earliest.
I came away once again very impressed with how Austin and his team are trying out new ways of providing bus services during these very different times, as well as having plenty of ideas for the challenges lying ahead.
If scenic Sevenoaks is a convenient drive and your eyesight’s up for it (or even if not), I’d recommend a trip there to see Robert at work in the information office. You’ll be made very welcome and gain a fascinating insight into demand responsive transport.