Friday 17th July 2020
It hasn’t worked in Bristol, Sittingbourne, Sutton, Ealing or Oxford. And it’s on pause in Liverpool. But these failures haven’t dented Watford Borough Council’s enthusiasm for joining the craze of flirting with Demand Responsive Transport (DRT). The latest scheme got underway in the Hertfordshire town a couple of weeks ago on 1st July; three months later than planned due to Covid-19.
Arriva won the contract and are using its ‘Click’ brand for the four year agreement worth £2.6 million with an option to extend for an additional two years. That works out at just under £100,000 per bus per year. Arriva committed to supply seven buses from start up, but bearing in mind the fall out from the last three months, just three are operating in the scheme’s initial weeks.
The geographic area covered includes everywhere within the Borough of Watford plus just over the border Warner Bros studios in Leavesden in the north west, and Tolpits Lane and Croxley Park in the south.
Watford Borough Council’s Cabinet were advised back in September 2019 that the deal with Arriva sees the company providing a booking facility on line on the internet and on the telephone as well as through an app, but I couldn’t find any reference to this on the Arriva Click webpage, nor a phone number which could be used. However, once I’d download the App it did contain a phone number as a ‘Support Hotline’, which was just as well as I found I needed help as soon as I started travelling. But more on that anon.
It’s also a little confusing for potential passengers in that there are now two Arriva Click apps to choose from in the App Stores. One for the ViaVan software Arriva Click uses in Leicester and Speke (Liverpool) and the other for the ioki software used in Watford.
The web page on a computer screen (as above) shows the two options side by side so it’s fairly clear which to select, but in effect that’s irrelevant, as you can’t download the app to a computer, only a smartphone – and on the screen layout on a smartphone (as below), it’s less obvious which icon you need to click (it’s the bottom one). You might just think there’s a repeat icon
Hopefully a lot of people will work out how to download the app, as there are some quite optimistic expectations for how many passengers will travel – which of course were all pre-Covid and the forthcoming severe economic recession. In their successful tender Arriva estimated they’d carry 130,614 total rides in year 1 (2020/21) doubling to 269,347 in year 4 (2023/24). If these figures are achieved, a revenue share mechanism kicks in, but I doubt this will ever happen.
Based on a seven day operation the projection works out at 358 passenger journeys per day in year 1 rising to 739 journeys per day in year 4. Across a sixteen hour operating day that’s 22 (rising to 46) passengers per hour each and every hour. Assuming an average of six of the seven buses active for the sixteen hour days that’s 2.6 passenger per hour per bus rising to 7.6 by year 4. Not only is that really a very ambitious target for year 4, it’s an optimistic assumption for the kick off. Especially starting now, with travel demand having fallen off a cliff.
There are high hopes house building in Watford will lead to growth in public transport use across the Borough. The Elected Mayor’s commitments embedded into the Council’s Corporate plan include the delivery of around 800 new dwellings per year, and commendably provision of sustainable transport is seen as a key part of this plan.
The Mayor has high hopes for a ‘travel Watford’ App which has recently been launched and supposedly offers all sorts of options to choose from including Arriva Click as well as a cycle hire scheme. But it’s DRT which seems to be the favoured way to boost public transport use in the Borough.
The obvious question is: why will adding up to seven minibuses cruising around the Borough be the solution to this potential increase in demand? Surely the new residents in those 3,200 new dwellings over the next four years need to be encouraged to use the existing bus routes which criss-cross the Borough. It seems to me there’s a risk the new DRT set up could undermine the financial performance of the existing bus network as well as never break even itself.
Although, perhaps partly to mitigate against that, fares on Click are fairly pricey. They’ve been pitched between existing bus and taxi fares. Unlike in other places, concessionary passes aren’t available.
Watford Borough Council’s Cabinet agreed the DRT scheme could be financed from Community Infrastructure Levy receipts that had preciously been committed towards funding the Metropolitan Line extension (from Croxley over to Watford Junction partly using disused rail tracks) which was abandoned when the Mayor of London pulled the plug on TfL providing ever rising funding requirements for the project. Subsequently funding for Click was also secured during the growth bid process in January 2019.
That’s the background and with the service now in its third week and assuming the infuriating but inevitable initial teething problems would be out of the way, I headed over to Watford today to give Click a try out by taking a couple of random journeys.
I thought I’d try a ride from the most southerly point of the area served in Oxhey across to the most northerly point in Leavesden.
I made my way from Bushey Station through the rather well heeled area south of the station where some of this year’s 800 new dwellings were being occupied for the first time.
Horsehaven Mews (off the eastern end of Sherwoods Road) looked just the kind of catchment area a higher priced, leathered seated, wifi, usb and air conditioned equipped, app summoned DRT bus offering flexible rides might appeal. Assuming the residents know about it.
Having reached the small bottom protrusion in the south east corner of Click’s operating area map at the junction of two no-through roads (Elm Avenue and Lowson Grove) at 11:09 I clicked on the Click App and booked a minibus to take me over to Leavesden.
It was looking good, a minibus would be with me within six minutes at 11:15 with an estimated journey time of between 20 and 32 minutes – just as well I wasn’t aiming to catch a train!
I clicked immediately on the ‘Book now’ icon to pay with ‘Apple Pay’ on my phone for added convenience and sure enough the purchase went straight through as confirmed on my phone, but rather worryingly the next screen that popped up at 11:10 ….
… indicated I’d expired the time allowed – yet I’d acted within a matter of a couple of seconds.
Undeterred at 11:21 I tried again, booking a minibus, hitting the ‘Book now” icon, paying with Apple Pay, receiving confirmation another £6.50 had been paid, only to receive the same message again.
Having stumped up £13 and got nowhere I was reluctant to have another go, so sent a Tweet explaining my predicament.
While waiting to see if that would elicit a response, I explored the App and found a ‘Support Hotline’ (0345 501 0000 – in case any other readers need it) so gave it a ring. The helpful person answering could see I’d tried to book the journey but wasn’t sure why there had been a problem but she kindly booked the journey for me and reassured me it would shortly appear on my app.
She also reassured me the £13 wouldn’t have been deducted from my credit card through Apple Pay, although I wasn’t convinced of that as I’d received confirmation on my phone.
I also took the opportunity of raising a query about the availability of concessionary passes as a couple of weeks ago while preparing for my rides I had downloaded the App and wrongly thought concessionary passes were accepted on Click but couldn’t see any way of registering them. So I’d fired off an email to Arriva Click’s ‘ask@‘ address querying this, and received a prompt reply from Elaine explaining I need to select the ‘blue badge’ on the App. Trouble was I couldn’t find a ‘blue badge’ on the App.
The lady I spoke to on the phone this morning asked me if I had a blue badge and I explained it was an ENCTS pass, but she wasn’t sure about its validity – of course, I’ve subsequently realised concessionary passes aren’t valid. I suspect there may be some confusion if those with a disabled pass are given free travel, but this isn’t stated anywhere.
It concerned me after a few more minutes that no record of my booking had appeared on my App, so I was unaware if a minibus was on its way. I rang the ‘Support Hotline’ back but found myself in a queue of one, so decided to conserve battery power and ring back after a few more minutes only to find I was now in a queue of two. This wasn’t going very well. I could feel residents of Elm Avenue eyeing me up suspiciously hanging around on the corner of Lowson Grove, so decided to try ringing again, as this at least made it look as though I was doing something more than just loitering.
I got through and the helpful lady explained she’d added some ride credits to my account and that was why it wouldn’t complete my booking as I had no credit. But I explained I had opted to pay with Apple Pay – and the information also says you can pay by debit or credit card – and surely you don’t have to pay for a credit bundle in advance of travel – that’s hardly encouraging travel. I concluded teething problems were still in place.
Luckily by 11:32 my App began to show a minibus was on its way and would be with me within 6 minutes at 11:38 offering a journey time of anywhere between 15 minutes and 26 minutes.
And, sure enough at 11:39. exactly thirty minutes after I’d arrived at Elm Avenue, the minibus arrived.
As I boarded the driver asked me to show him my booking code on the App. This was a new one on me. The ViaVan software sends you a text when the minibus is about to arrive, not with ioki. So I wasn’t sure what he meant. It turned out the icon which had counted down the time before the minibus arrived (6 mins) in the screen shot above, had turned into a four lettered code to show the driver which he then enters into a tablet on his dashboard.
I asked him what would happen if I didn’t have the App, and he said you have to have the App to travel. I said I thought you could book a journey by phone or online, but he said no, it’s only through the App – not quite the specification Watford Borough Council proclaim.
We headed off to Leavesden and the handy thing about Watford is its proximity to the M1, so before I knew it, our route took in a ride up the northbound carriageway to the Bricket Wood turnoff with the A41 and thereby neatly avoiding the town centre.
It’s the first time I’ve taken a DRT minibus on a motorway and seemed quite exciting. Of course, no chance of any other pick ups along the way on that part of the journey!
It also gave me time to have a look around the interior of the minibus. It’s one of the vehicles which had been used on the Liverpool scheme before that got curtailed in March.
What was noticeable was the plethora of notices.
I tried really hard to read the COBID-19 notice, but the print was so small it was just impossible. I’d have much preferred to see out of the window. The red and white hazard tape putting the tip-up seats out of use was also rather crude.
Still at least there’s a nice welcome sign.
We arrived in Leavesden at precisely 12:00 which was twenty minutes after setting off, so exactly midway between the two time estimates for journey time the App had given. I bid my farewells to the driver who’d seemed pleased to see me, and indeed I was his second passenger of the day – so relatively busy!
An Arriva Sapphire branded 320 was due and soon arrived so I headed back down to the south west corner of Watford to reposition myself for a second journey on Click to take me back to Watford Junction station.
There were lots of notices to read as I boarded, and I managed to spot that the number 35 seemed important. But by then I was heading upstairs wondering what they were all telling me.
I took the 320 to close to a rather large Morrisons quite near to another major new housing development poignantly adjacent to the old railway line and just where the old Watford West station existed and where the hoped for newly named Cassiobridge station would have served that Metropolitan Line extension.
There’s a nice pick up point right alongside Morrisons by the supermarket entrance, but alas, ioki’s algorithm doesn’t allow Click minibuses to pick up there – that would be far too convenient…
…so instead the App told me to walk to the nearest bus stop, admittedly not too far away, but much further than if I’d parked a car in the supermarket car park.
Still at least it wasn’t long to wait – only 7 minutes and one of the other three minibuses out today would be with me.
I’d actually seen two of the three out today lurking around the town centre as we passed through on the 320. One was in the bus station outside Watford Junction and the other nearby in a lay-by on one of Watford’s busy roads through the town centre.
The driver asked me to show him my code, and this time I knew what he was talking about, and even took a screen shot of it for posterity.
The journey time was assessed as between 7 minutes and 17 minutes – quite a range for a Friday lunch time. I wondered if I’d catch my train at 13:31. Good job I was relaxed whether I would or not.
We set off towards the station.
This minibus was also adorned with interior notices and the red and white tape prohibiting the tip up seats being used needed some TLC ….
… and it’s a small thing, but why go to the trouble of specifying a digital clock if no-one can be bothered to set it to the correct time? It was displaying 04:06 as I boarded.
And I know I’m being picky, but the sellotaped notice specifying a capacity of 4 looked tatty and not in keeping with the quality operation Click is supposed to portray. No ‘come on in’ welcome on this bus.
In the event, the journey to the station only took eight minutes and I was soon aboard a rather smart newish Class 710 train to head back south.
It will be interesting to see if in four years time, and after Watford Borough Council has paid Arriva the contracted £2.6 million, whether that two year extension is awarded. More to the point whether there’s a break clause halfway through so this inevitably loss making venture can be culled after just two years …. just as has happened in Sittingbourne, Ealing, Sutton, Liverpool and Oxford and save some of that money. This really is a complete waste of valuable public funds and will only prove yet again that DRT is not appropriate in a town like Watford.
As I jumped off the minibus at Watford Junction I asked the driver if he enjoyed his new work on Arriva Click. He explained he loved it as he was normally a big bus driver and was just helping out for a few days “as they’re short of drivers on this” (which seemed odd, with only three minibuses out in service and only the third week after a three month postponement) before adding the killer fact: “you’re only my second passenger in the last three days”.