Monday 10th August 2020
When First West of England managing director James Freeman announced a few weeks ago he was going to trial the idea of allowing passengers to pre-book a seat on the network of frequent city bus routes in Bath and Bristol I thought he was joking. Then I heard West of England Combined Authority had put some money into making the idea work and a website had been launched where you could indeed book a ride on an ordinary bus route in these Covid capacity constraining times.
I couldn’t resist giving it a go.
The trial was duly launched on the First Bus operated Park and Ride service between Brislington and Bristol city centre on Monday 27th July, with Bath cross-city route 3A (Batheaston to Weston) added to the trial last Monday 3rd August and finally Bristol route T1 (Thornbury to Bristol) launched with bookings possible from today. Bookable journeys on these two latter routes have been renumbered 3b and T1b with the ‘b’ denoting the new bookable arrangements.
The scheme was promoted with the usual over-sized ticket amid much media coverage at the Park and Ride site on a rather wet day including James himself and WECA Mayor Tim Bowles.
The website bookmybusride.com is run by First Bus and is based on the Group’s booking software for Aircoach (in Dublin) so to that extent some of the work was already done.
The website has an extensive FAQ section which covers every conceivable query you might have and there’s also a dedicated email address to ask any further questions.
The website explains “Book my bus ride is an innovation from First for when you absolutely, definitely have to get on that bus.” Just under half of the available seats can be booked.
Bookings can be made on any journey throughout the day on routes 3b and the Brislington Park and Ride but only peak hour journeys on the T1b which are the busiest times.
The webpage has drop down menus for passengers to be able to book their weekday journey (bookings aren’t available at weekends) up to a week in advance.
Clicking on the Route drop down box brings up the three routes involved in the trial.
Once you’ve clicked on the one you want, you then move to the ‘Origin’ and ‘Destination’ drop down boxes which are populated by the stops on the route for you to click on the one appropriate for your journey. Only three stop options appear in one drop down sized mini-screen so it’s a bit clunky having to scroll right down if there’s a long list. You also need to know your stop names including whether you’re NE-bound or NW-bound at some stops for example.
Once that’s been done you click on the ‘passengers’ box which defaults to one adult paying passenger but a drop down menu appears enabling you, if appropriate, to reduce that to zero and increase the number of concessions from zero to 1, if you’re fortunate enough to have such a pass. Existing ticket holders are also catered for.
Next up is to specify whether you want a single or return ticket – or ‘journey’ in the case of existing ticket holders or concessionary pass holders.
Then comes the date box – as mentioned earlier you can book up to seven days in advance of travel on the drop down calendar.
And finally you need to specify the journey on which you want to ‘book a ride’ which is the last drop down box. If you clicked on a single journey then a rather straight forward listing appears showing all the journeys from your origin to your destination in time order.
In the example above on the 3b, it is showing “48 available tickets sorted by outbound departure time” and you scroll down to the journey you want and click ‘Book now’.
The complication and clunkiness comes if you’re making a return journey, as the default software has been designed to show every conceiveable combination of return journey alongside each outbound journey in time order of the outbound journey. This makes for a very tiresome arrangement. In the example below, on route 3b there are “820 available tickets” you have to wade through., showing first of all, the full return journey options for the 07:15 outbound journey …..
…. and then the same again for the next outbound journey at 07:30….
… quite a formidable task to find the combination you want and imagine doing that for each of five days commuting in a week.
Or, imagine doing it on the Brislington Park and Ride which runs more frequently and offers a mind boggling 2,579 outbound and return options to scroll through to find the one you want. Starting with the first journey at 06:20 with return journeys listed from 07:04 and every 10 minutes until 19:33 and then the 06:30 journey and every ten minutes etc etc. Talk about clunky.
I decided it would be simpler to book two single journeys, particularly as I wasn’t worried about getting a cheaper return priced ticket, being a concessionary pass holder. So I sorted out the times I wanted and hit ‘Book now’.
Up pops a sign-in page or the option of checking out as a guest. I decided to sign up as I was intending to make a few bookings, and once that process was complete, I was sent back to specify my journey all over again.
Once I’d done that the confirmation screen for the booking then has a tab marked ‘Personal Details’…
… and clicking on this brings up a few T&Cs type paragraphs as well as my registered phone number and email address (which I’ve deleted from the screen shots below)…
Once you’ve ticked the various boxes and click on ‘Book Tickets’ you might be hoping the process is over, but oh no, the marketing people want to get you, as up comes some more boxes needing attention….
… and only when these boxes are checked or unchecked and you hit ‘Book Tickets’ do you receive final confirmation that ‘Booking Complete’.
While into your email inbox comes not one, but two emails confirming the booking with a ticket and the second separate email being a receipt, even if you haven’t paid anything.
Phew. Now to book my next journey and go through the whole process again – including those marketing check box options, which appear every time you book.
My next journey booked it was then on to a third one and by then I was well into the system and have to admit, once you find your way around the various boxes and drop down menus and boxes to decline marketing information, it doesn’t take too long to complete.
The booking facility is not available on the First Bus app as that “would take time to develop” and not be worth it until it’s established whether the trial is working. For those who don’t want to book online a booking can be requested by phone (07866 977586) but First “recommend booking by phone 7 days in advance as we will need to send you your booking confirmation by post (postage charges will apply and will be confirmed when making your booking)”. That’s a handy option for people who may not like using the Internet, but it’s not very practical to give seven days notice of a bus journey and wait for a confirmation to be sent by post!
At the moment it’s not possible to book for multiple days in one transaction which makes it very cumbersome for regular travellers booking all their weekday journeys if they travel every day.
There’s also no facility, currently, to book the wheelchair space.
It is possible to book on a smartphone and leave it to book until up to 15 minutes before a journey departs, so I thought I’d give that a go ‘on the move’. So with my three journeys booked on route 3b yesterday, and the email confirmations on my phone ready to show the drivers I headed off to Bath this morning to give it a go.
As Twitter followers will know I had a very quiet journey from home to Bath with just seven passengers per coach on the peak hour 12-coach Southern train arriving Victoria at 08:28; a quiet journey on the Underground across to Paddington and an empty coach on the GWR train as far as Chippenham when a few passengers joined.
My first booked journey was on the 3b to Weston at 11:21 from Dorchester Street alongside Bath bus station. I arrived in good time to see the previous journey depart at 11:06 (it’s a 15 minute frequency) with a handful of passengers boarding followed a few minutes later by a bus on route 4 similarly lightly loaded.
The 3A (now 3b) and 4 (also every 15 minutes) provide a frequent service to Weston via the large Royal United Hospitals site in Bath and I can see the logic of giving ‘key workers’ based there as well as outpatients and visitors some reassurance they can be guaranteed a seat on the journey they want.
However with double deckers on many journeys on these routes, off-peak loadings are currently well within the reduced 39 capacity. Indeed when my booked bus arrived at 11:21 just two of us boarded the empty bus.
The friendly driver was very excited to meet the ‘one booked passenger’ his ticket machine had told him to expect and looked at my email confirmation with great interest as I was a first time booking for him. He even offered me an energy drink from his bag as a prize.
As the terminal arrangements at Weston were suspended today due to roadworks we had time for a chat before he headed off back to the city centre as a 4 (the routes interwork).
He wasn’t sure exactly how the new arrangements would work if he was close to capacity and had to sort out at a bus stop which passengers had booked a ride and which hadn’t. He envisaged some problems ahead with that.
I left him as he drove off and dropped back on to the next 3b on which I’d booked a ride to take me cross city to the 3b’s eastern terminus at Elmhurst.
This soon arrived at the temporary terminal point with Stephen, a very smartly turned out driver, who again showed much interest in the fact I’d booked and was very patient while we had to wait for my phone to find a signal so I could show him the email on screen. (I should have taken a screenshot for that eventuality I suppose.)
Stephen was very positive about the scheme showing me my booking entry on his ticket machine …
….and explaining his single decker only had a Covid capacity of 16 which could soon be reached on a busy journey serving the hospital.
Indeed we reached nine people on board as we left the hospital towards the city centre but didn’t pick anyone else up and dropped everyone, except one, in the centre of Bath and picked up three more passengers heading east to Elmhurst.
By now it was about 12:15 and I took the opportunity to book my next ride on the Brislington Park and Ride in Bristol for 13:50 from Temple Meads stop T3.
It was a very easy process to make the booking on my smartphone as I’d become very proficient with all the drop down menus following yesterday’s experience.
I noticed the smartphone version gives you the opportunity to filter and sort the presentation of all those return journeys too, so that’s a good thing.
As Bath’s traffic was building up to its notorious summer reputation for gridlock I decided to cut short my eastbound journey and forgo my next booked ride back into the city with Stephen and crossed the road to catch a Faresaver bus back to the station.
This bus didn’t have any seat restrictive markings but I made use of the hand sanitiser attached to the door.
First West of England upgraded the branding for route X39 between Bath and Bristol just as lockdown began.
It’s a very attractive Best Impressions designed branding called aquae.
Despite desire created, on this occasion I hopped back on the train as I already had a ticket and it is much quicker and realised I’d be in Bristol by 13:10 so rebooked my journey on the Brislington Park and Ride for 13:30. I tried to see if I could cancel the 13:50 booking but there didn’t seem to be an option to do that.
Good job I wasn’t paying.
The Highway Authority in Bristol have made major changes to the road layout near Temple Meads including moving key bus stops to new positions.
I found bus stop T3 with its extensive seating – ideal for social distancing – and lots of posters on display.
Sadly there were no lists of departure times nor actual timetables to consult and the real time display stated you were at bus stop T2. It wasn’t very reassuring.
The first of my two booked buses arrived on time at 13:30.
Four passengers were already on board upstairs, so my booking was again not needed.
It’s a quick ride out to the Park and Ride site thanks to some extensive bus lanes. It takes just 12 minutes and as we arrived the bus in front was leaving.
There’s extensive publicity for the ‘book my bus ride’ scheme at the Park and Ride site with posters and banners all over the place as well as on the dedicated branded buses for the route.
My driver had just returned from holiday so hadn’t experienced ‘book my bus ride’ yet. But he seemed very positive about it.
I returned to the city centre on my first unbooked journey of the day. The bus was empty,
The thinking behind this trial is with double deck capacities restricted to 39 socially distanced passengers (and just 16 on single decks), as peak hour loadings pick up, especially once the schools return in September, routes like the Brislington Park and Ride and the popular T1 to Thornbury, will leave passengers behind at busy times.
Many regular passengers use these routes so it’s commendable James Freeman and the First West of England team are at least trying something innovative and seeing if they can make it work.
So far it hasn’t generated much interest but as journeys get busier this may change.
Based on my experiences today (and making the bookings yesterday) I’d say if I was a commuter committed to a regular journey with a ticket already purchased, I’d definitely book my rides to ensure there was no risk of being left behind.
The booking process is fairly slick once you get the hang of it and, if some of those boxes needing ticking each time could be eliminated, it would be even better.
But there’s no need for so many quieter off peak journeys to be included in the scheme, based on my travels today.
It will also be interesting to see how drivers manage the issues over boarding at capacity critical times as they pull up to a bus stop with passengers waiting to board not knowing who has or hasn’t booked a ride.
It’s certainly a very unusual trial; but we are living in very unusual times.
One to watch.