Thursday 13th August 2020
I had high hopes for fflecsi (it’s Welsh for flex) – the Welsh version of DRT (Demand Responsive Transport).
Transport for Wales (TfW) are replacing existing fixed-timetable small-scale bus routes with a bookable flexible bus running along the route and its environs according to demand. It’s a bit like how Go Coach Hire brought DRT to Sevenoaks.
Unlike Sittingbourne, Liverpool, Sutton, Ealing, Oxford or the latest initiative in Watford, where DRT was plonked on top of the existing bus network, fflecsi stands a fighting chance of achieving a viable passenger base thanks to a ready made market for passengers inherited from the erstwhile established routes.
TfW took advantage of Covid reduced demand to convert three routes in Newport over to fflecsi operation from 18th May.
TfW’s dedicated fflecsi website ecplains: “flecsi is an exciting new pilot service from Transport for Wales and local bus operators. We’ll be monitoring whether or not it helps people to travel and if it proves popular, some fflecsi services could continue to run alongside your normal scheduled bus services once we’re all travelling again”.
Routes 1/1B serving Rogerstone, 11A/11C serving Allt-Tr-Yn and Brynglas (shown in the map above) and 26A/26C serving St Julians and Old Barn Estate (see map below) with links to the town centre, were all withdrawn in their traditional format and replaced with a fflecsi option instead.
The software bring used is the tried and tested ViaVan set up so you download the fflecsi branded app with its maps showing the operating area, icons to plot your origin and destination and available rides offered for acceptance.
No bank cards are needed in the app as fares are paid to the driver with tickets issued in the normal way – a bit like the Stagecoach operated Tees flex arrangement.
The fflecsi website says there are no cash fares but Newport Buses (who operate fflecsi) have their traditional ‘exact fare’ cash boxes available and I saw one passenger pay with cash. I used contactless as instructed.
There’s also a phone number which passengers can ring to make a booking rather than use the app, but this is only available between 09:00 and 17:00 so if you want to make a booking outside of those times, it’s the app or nothing. The Newport ffecsi runs between 07:30 and 18:30 Mondays to Saturdays.
The fflecsi website has a comprehensive FAQ section dealing with most questions that might come up as well as detailed maps of the area served as shown above.
The app shows the area covered as one continuous patch but in practice it’s two separate areas as shown on the website: St Julians in the east and Brynglas and Rogerstone in the west. You can’t book a journey from one area to the other; only within each area. Both areas include the town centre.
I arrived in Newport at around 11.30 yesterday morning and had planned to take a fflecsi journey out west to Rogerstone – it seemed an appropriate place name for me and I quite fancied catching a train from that station on the Ebbw Vale line.
Outside Newport station I fired up the app and was disappointed to see there would be a 42 minute wait for a bus and an estimated arrival time of 12:28 in Rogerstone very inconvenient for the hourly train service departing at xx:16 past each hour for Cardiff.
I decided to abandon that plan and instead make a booking for a journey to St Julians (formerly route 26) to the east of the town centre.
That turned out to be a lucky try as a fflecsi bus could be with me in 11 minutes – I booked it and saw the bus was heading my way on a return journey from route 1 in the western part of town.
Sarah, the fflecsi driver, welcomed me on board asking if I was Roger to confirm my booking and issued a £2 single ticket for my fare paid.
She told me she was being kept busy with this new service; and I could see why when she went on to explain she was the only bus on the road spread across the whole area served by fflecsi,
We headed off towards St Julians without calling at the bus station, which slightly surprised me as I’d expected some booked passengers from there, and after five minutes or so stopped at a bus stop to wait for two booked passengers.
They didn’t turn up so after a couple of minutes we continued on only to find our missing passengers waiting at a bus stop further along the route.
We were doing so many twists and turns I lost track of where we were – not helped by windows either side of the bus being completely blocked by a ‘Thank you NHS poster’ preventing seeing out easily ….
…. but the map on the app confirmed our rather convoluted route …
…. including a delay on a section of route not previously served by the former route 26 caused by having to wait while a house-to-house recycling lorry did its collections….
I realised my chosen destination would eventually be reached after we’d picked up the group of five passengers who’d booked a pick up (shown on the map above) and thus making for a full load of eight on board – being the Covid constrained capacity of the bus.
It was a good job I alighted creating space for one further passenger heading back into town. It was by now 12:10 – slightly later than the originally predicted 12:02 ETA when I’d booked. Not helped by meeting the recycling lorry again, this time head to head, on our convoluted route.
Having bid farewell to Sarah as she headed off back to the town centre with the seven passengers on board …
… I thought I’d check out when the next bus might take me back into town so tried to book my next journey.
And that’s when my problems began. That familiar ViaVan favourite catch all excuse ‘We’re currently experiencing very high demand and all our seats are filled! Please try booking again in a few minutes’ appeared.
I decided to take a break and have a sandwich in the sun in nearby Woodland Park and then checked out whether the bus was heading over to Rogerstone. Sure enough if I could be in the town centre in 31 minutes I could book a ride heading west…
But I couldn’t get to the town centre as every time I tried to book from the rather down-at-heel, lack-of-information bus stop I’d alighted from I received the ‘We’re currently experiencing very high demand and all our seats are filled! Please try booking again in a few minutes’ unhelpful message.
I tried again after a few minutes as instructed, and again, and again, and again. No joy. I decided to walk back into town.
On my way at 13:04 I thought I’d see if Sarah was heading over to Rogerstone any time soon, so tried a another booking assuming I was in the bus station and sure enough got an offer of a ride in 6 minutes. Unfortunately I was more than six minutes away from the bus station so declined it.
On arriving in the bus station at 13:15 I found the fflecsi bus about to leave – not to Rogerstone and westwards – but heading back on the 26 route with a couple of passengers on board.
Sarah had obviously gone on a well earned lunch break as a male driver was in the cab.
I quickly tried one more time to book a journey from the bus station to St Julians but again got the ‘We’re currently experiencing very high demand and all our seats are filled! Please try booking again in a few minutes’ message yet here was the bus right in front of me with space on board.
I asked the driver if I had to book before I was allowed on board and he confirmed so, and when I explained the app wouldn’t let me book he said to “take it up with Transport for Wales” .
Of course it’s possible more passengers had booked a journey for this bus on its route after it had left the bus station, but I doubted that as the main picking up point to hed east is the bus station.
The fflecsi website encouragingly advises: “your safety is paramount, and we’ve designed fflecsi to carry passengers safely. Knowing how many passengers we’re picking up means we can send the right size vehicle to pick you up and maintain social distancing”. I didn’t see any evidence of that yesterday. It was the smallest sized single deck bus (aside from a minibus) out on the service.
The first FAQ on the fflecsi website: “When can I travel?” answers: “fflecsi works with local operators to make sure you can travel when you need to. Check your areas page to find out where you can travel”. That certainly didn’t work for me.
All in all it was a very disappointing experience. I decided not to waste any more time trying to book on the one bus travelling around Newport so wandered over to the bus station travel shop to see what was occurring.
Nothing. It was closed.
Still at least copies of the ’emergency timetables’ were on display…
Including a reinstated fixed timetable for routes 26A/26C running every two hours following the intervention of a local councillor – this has had the effect of reducing the fflecsi commitment from two buses to one, so that the other bus can run the fixed timetable. I understand ridership is approximately split 50/50 between the fixed journeys and the fflecsi ones.
Rather unhelpfully the fixed timetable is listed on a link from the Newport Buses website to emergency timetables which aren’t in route number order, so you have to know to scroll down right to the end of the list to find it.
Meanwhile a network bus map dated July 2018 is showing the routes now converted to fflecsi as they previously ran.
I’d originally intended to head on over to Cardiff and take a ride on route G1 in the Whitchurch and Tongwynlais areaa which was also converted to fflecsi on 29th June, but based on the Newport experience I decided that would probably result in the same frustrating outcome and wasn’t worth the bother.
The G1 is operated by Adventure Travel and used to run hourly during the off-peak with one bus to a fixed timetable but now also operates according to demand. I commented at the time on a blogpost there were questionable benefits to replacing a fairly infrequent timetable, albeit a regular (hourly) headway one, when everyone knows where the bus is at any given moment, to one where it’s totally pot luck whether you might be around when the bus is close by and convenient for your travel needs.
Based on my experiences travelling, and more pertinently trying to travel yesterday, it’s not a case of questionable benefits; it’s a case of no benefits.
Meanwhile Transport for Wales are conintuing to expand fflecsi with Stagecoach’s hourly route 152 between Tonypandy and Hendreforgan converting on 26th July ….
… and a town route in Denbigh operated by M&H Coaches ….
….and one in Prestatyn operated by Townlynx ….
….also recently added to the fflecsi fold. And there are plans for more ahead.
Confusingly Traveline are also promoting a fixed timetable for a few journeys on route 40 in Prestatyn, so perhaps fflecsi is on top of these.
The idea for fflecsi seems to have been conflated with the need for Covid related initiatives to provide sufficient public transport in these socially distanced times. The fflecsi website explains:
How fflecsi can help
COVID-19 has significantly impacted public transport and how we all travel with fewer people travelling. Many key workers rely on public transport to get to work, while others need to use public transport for essential shopping.
fflecsi can support these passengers in a safe and sustainable way, providing services when and where they’re needed most. Choosing when you want to travel also means key workers can get to work on time or you can make essential journeys with minimal delay.
The “essential travel only” restricyion in Wales has now been downgraded and the reality is bookings for a fflecsi cannot distinguish between “key workers”, “essential shopping” and any other passengers, and it’s plainly wrong to imply journeys can be made “with minimal delay”.
The problem with the default message ‘We’re currently experiencing very high demand and all our seats are filled! Please try booking again in a few minutes’ is it’s totally useless particularly when no indication is given of when a journey may become available to suit a potential passenger’s travel needs. The only answer seems to be to keep trying, but the reality is, as I found yesterday, you simply give up and walk instead.
Maybe that’s the objective?
Whilst I do understand that DRT and an app-booking system are the latest “good thing” to be adopted by the industry . . . . what will it take for those “bright young things” to realise that us “grumpy old souls” might actually know what we’re talking about when we predict failure of DRT, and the erosion of existing customer bases when they replace fixed-route services.
I’m not against any form of innovation, but as RF has outlined in oh so many blog posts now, DRT isn’t the overarching panacea to falling ridership. None of them seem to have any staying power (with the possible exception of Tees Connect) . . . and how much money needs to be wasted before sense prevails.
Over 30 years ago (so beyond the ken of the current bright young things), we arrested falling ridership by completely revising out-dated service networks; by in most cases massively improving service frequencies and by increasing penetration of housing areas. We did it by slashing the size of the buses used . . . . and within 10 years we had to increase the size of buses used because ridership grew so much. This was all achieved by the “bright young things” of the age; and yes, I was one of them!!
As I’ve mentioned before, the money spent on the Watford iteration of DRT could be so much better spent with a minibus network of routes, replacing the current town routes with a localised network of routes and taking on the “ends” of interurban routes as well. The local geography also demands the the neighbouring District of Three Rivers be included in any network, as Watford Borough is an artificial creation with many residential areas just outside the Borough Boundary.
London-style service frequencies, with sensible fares and a day ticket for all operators (which already exists) . . . . now THAT would be an idea worth implementing and trialling for 12 months. But for heavens sake don’t start anything in the middle of a pandemic!!! Doomed to Failure!!
I do wonder how we can get these ideas presented to those that decide . . . . DfT has enough to deal with in saving the rail network, and local Government has other problems to deal with. Maybe we need another (Sir) Brian Souter . . . . . someone who isn’t afraid to consider everything and then take the risk on.
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Northumberland Park Bus Garage
A rather strange well in my view strange trial is being carried out at Northumberland Park Bus Garage. It is being set up to allow buses to feed electricity back into the grid. It makes no sense to me when you factor in every time you convert energy from one form to another you get losses. There is also the little matter of he discharge time. The other little problem is when the buses are needed they will need to be charged up and that’s without the impact on battery life
The article suggests that electricity can be feed back into the grid when demand is high and the buses charged up when demand is lo. This seems to overlook the little problem hat when electricity demand is high bus demand is high
This is a government lead trial. To me it does not seem to be really viable and offers no real benefit in any case
I struggle to understand why TfW is expanding fflecsi when the initial trials brought up teething problems (probably a generous description),
If I pick out a quote:- “Choosing when you want to travel also means key workers can get to work on time or you can make essential journeys with minimal delay”. Presumably it is impossible for the system to pick out whether an incoming call is from a key worker trying to get to work on time or someone from across the border trialing their system, surely the idea is to over-provide until the level of demand is established. I think that is what you found when testing the Sittingbourne scheme. I mention this in particular as two hospitals are in the 1/ 11 catchment area – with that in mind it might have been helpful to link the two areas or at least extend the ’26’ area to include the Royal Gwent Hospital.
And, while there is a comprehensive FAQ section, there are points that are not over helpful. The question ‘I do not have a smartphone, can I still book?’ is answered by “The best way to book and manage your journeys is to download our app on your smartphone or tablet but you can still call to book by calling us on 0300 234 0300.” – no mention that this is only available between 09:00 and 17:00 (fortunately mentioned in the article). Any attempt by a key worker trying to book a fflecsi for the following day will be disappointed “fflecsi responds to current demand, so you can only book when you’re about to travel. There’ll be a choice of services available.” I included the last sentence in case anyone from TfW is reading this – it was hardly proved to be true in practice. I fear that A1 Cars of Newport will be doing a roaring trade. Finally, to payment “You pay on the bus using a contactless bank card or Smartcard. We’re sorry but we’re unable to accept cash payments at this time.” I don’t have a contactless card so I would need to use a Smartcard (although I have an aversion to anything that includes ‘smart’ as I too frequently find they are not) – it is free so no problem and I appear to be able to top this up at ‘most booking offices’ (I assume rail). ‘Most’ is no good to me – I need a list of those where I can top up or of those that I can’t, maybe at the bottom of the page. A quick check on the TfLrail website indicates that Smartcards are not issued at the station, nor are they validated! The Travel Shop, of course, was closed.
I just hope that the other schemes are running more smoothly for the sake of bus travel in Wales.
I also notice that for the Denbigh scheme, the link ‘For a more detailed map’ does not work (I’ve tried it) – slipshod!
A1 Cars of Newport does not exist at the current time!
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According to their own statistics, the Welsh government’s policies have managed to drive down the number of local buses in Wales from 3002 in 2008-09 to just 2449 in 2018-19.
That’s roundly a 20% reduction, exceeded only by the fall in passenger numbers, which are now 22% fewer.
Sounds like Fflecsi is determined to take it down a few percentage points further.
To digress from these flexi buses which I’ve never used but you mentioned the Ebbw Vale line.when I did it I noted an unusual form of public transport at the terminus a modern funicular railway and obviously intended as run of the mill public transport unlike the tourist ones at Aberystwyth (if the Aberystwyth one is in working order which it wasn’t when I was there but it was about 17 years ago!)and Llandudno however I never saw it move and I was hiking the other way so did have the time to inspect it.
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The Funicular has been plagued by problems: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-east-wales-43983578. (Things may have improved since this article was written, I don’t know).
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It looks like a single car funicular with a counterweight taking the place of the other carriage,many modern funiculars are of the counterweight type a and I have definitely been on two; the one by st Paul’s in London and the castle funicular in Vilnius,Lithuania.i forgot the one in the NRM in York which has been broken for a few years now.
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Should we be surprised? TfW’s understanding or interest in buses (unless they pass through Minister Ken Skates constituency) could be written on the back of a postage stamp. They have a bottomless purse when dealing with railways and indeed air travel, but I am sure would be quite happy if local bus services quietly faded away, something they are clearly helping along.
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Newport Transport used to run a number of DRT services possibly they still do., Their web site is a bit of a nightmare to navigate and lots of inconsistent information. There is no mention that I could find of these DRT services in the main site but by searching on DRT it bought up information on 3 DRT services DRT 31, DRT 62 and DRT 63. Whether they still run who knows
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