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map above) and 26A/26C serving St Julians and Old Barn Estate (see map below) with links to the town centre, were all withdrawn in their traditional format and replaced with a fflecsi option instead.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?