Monday 7th September 2020
North Lincolnshire Council became the latest local authority to jump on the app based Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) bus bandwagon today as it launched its new JustGo branded operation.
Except this scheme serving a largely rural area has one key positive differential from the other failed DRT schemes; it’s built on a telephone and online based DRT operation which has been running for a number of years both in North Lincolnshire and in neighbouring Lincolnshire called CallConnect.
It’s an evolution of an existing tried and tested set up rather than introducing a completely new bus network where no proven demand previously existed.
More of a morph from CallConnect to JustGo but now adding an option of app booking (replacing the online arrangement) it maintains the previous telephone booking facility and offers the ability to book a journey at a time and date up to 28 days ahead. And it means a (hopefully, non mutant) algorithm takes over the job of maximising ride efficiency.
Whereas previously Call Connect operated in four defined areas outside of the urban area of Scunthorpe (uncoloured segment with the dense red lines on the map above) with reportedly one minibus allocated to each area, JustGo has more flexibility across the whole area albeit, like CallConect, journeys can’t both start and finish within Scunthorpe.
Leader of North Lincolnshire Council, Councillor Rob Waltham, is already a JustGo fan even before a wheel has turned reckoning it “will revolutionise rural bus services. We’re investing £9 million across three years to keep people connected across North Lincolnshire.”
Councillor Julie Reed who is the cabinet member for connectivity (!) worried not everyone will know how to use the new app explaining “we will be running a series of workshops and drop in sessions to help people use the new system”.
The JustGo operation is in the capable hands of Go-Ahead owned East Yorkshire using minibuses shed from the failed GoSutton DRT scheme funded by TfL which was knocked on the head at the start of lockdown in March.
The previously off-white painted minibuses have been given a repaint into a smart new blue JustGo livery with scenic launch photos promoting the new service online last week ….
….. as well as East Yorkshire’s social media highlighting the training being given to the eleven drivers employed on the venture.
App software and algorithm comes from Liftango: “we guide global organisations on how to plan, launch and scale their shared mobility programs” (sic). Their website is a positive pot pourri of buzzwords: one page just says “Shared. Connected. Sustainable. A unified platform to optimise transport systems.” I’m glad I wasn’t in the brain storming meeting that settled on the wording for that page. Liftango also point out by “improving access with on-demand transport technology, organisations and cities gain a sustainable pathway to climate-positive growth”.
With so much positivity backing up JustGo I couldn’t resist a trip up to Scunthorpe this morning for a few first-day rides and try it out.
But before that as there’s a facility to book your ride up to 28 days in advance, I thought I’d sort out the first ride well in advance to avoid disappointment, so last Friday afternoon I managed to persuade the app I didn’t want to book a journey ‘out of the area served’ commencing in Hassocks, West Sussex (I’d allowed the app to know my location) and manoeuvred the origin and destination pointers on the extremely hard to see map to commence my journey at Scunthorpe Station and take me the seven miles or so westwards to Brigg. I thought an 11:15 departure would be handy for my train arrival at 11:03 and save the uncertainty of not knowing if a JustGo minibus was around when I arrived.
No problem with that, a nice clear summary of my booking appeared – note the estimated charge is £0.00 as I’d already registered my concessionary bus pass by uploading a photograph of it following a chat with the helpful helpline lady about what to do. To book my journey for today, I clicked ‘SUBMIT BOOKING REQUEST’.
The app shows a little whirly gig across the screen while it thinks about it, and quite soon after that came back the rather disconcerting message: ‘Error: timeout of 10000ms exceeded’ (which presumably means it took longer than 10 seconds).
I tried again, and this time was successful. But rather worryingly the ride offer came back with a message “This booking could see you leave 30 minutes earlier than you have requested to leave at”.
Which isn’t particularly ‘shared, connected and sustainable’ for my journey needs, with a train arrival at 11:03. Liftango you’ve not got off to an impressive start with me. Undeterred I clicked ‘PROCEED WITH BOOKING’ and two rides for the same journey appeared.
I decided to leave it but when I returned to the App, they’d both disappeared.
I tried again, and this time realised I could manually type in the origin and destination rather than manipulate the pointers on the map, and this time received the following message…
… which is the bane of a DRT users life. I clicked on ‘LEAVE PENDING’ and the details once again appeared.
Perhaps I needed one of Councillor Reed’s workshops in how to use the App, as this wasn’t proving very reassuring. But this should have forewarned me that unlike those other DRTs, this one already had an established base and buses were likely to be busier than I’d previously experienced.
That ride was still ‘Requested’ as I arrived at Kings Cross for the 08:33 to Doncaster this morning. Unfortunately the weekend’s full station closure to enable major works to lay sparkly new ballast and track – social media was full of photos showing the impressive work taking place in real time over the weekend – meant someone unplugged the signal cable from the mains and forgot to put it back in again leading to major disruption on the East Coast Main Line this morning with no signals.
The upshot being I arrived in Doncaster an hour later than planned and despite RDG patting itself on the back for running 90% of train journeys from today, both TransPennine Express and Northern are each still running only a two-hourly service between Doncaster and Scunthorpe during the day – and rather unhelpfully both journeys are timetabled to depart within five minutes of each other followed by a 1 hour and 55 minute gap! Thanks a lot.
So arriving in Scunthorpe at 13:03 instead of 11:03 I realised my original plans for JustGo needed curtailing and it would be more a quick-fire ride experience.
As I boarded the TPE train at Doncaster soon after 12:30 I decided to book a new journey from Scunthorpe at 13:10 to head over to Barnetby (I didn’t want to risk getting stranded in Brigg with no onward conveniently timed trains).
Back came the warning again that the journey could see me leave 30 minutes earlier than specified, but I decided to plough on and book, but then the only way I could book the journey was by entering my credit card details, even though the concessionary cost was £0.00.
With the clock counting down before my booking expired (see above) I gave the JustGo helpline a call and spoke to a very pleasant lady explaining I’d registered my concessionary pass – she asked my name and confirmed it had been registered for free travel – so went away to enquire what I needed to do. She came back with the advice I do indeed have to enter my card details even though there’s no payment!
Have you ever come across anything so silly? My helpline friend told me she thought this was something that would be modified in the future. By then my booking had timed out so I had to go through the process again.
Having now got my booking confirmed and Bus F detailed the next problem was within a couple of minutes receiving advice the bus was on its way for 12:40. The only trouble was I was just leaving Doncaster and it was 12:37.
I rang my helpline lady friend back as I couldn’t see a way to cancel my journey request and she asked me if I could be there for 12:40. I explained I was on a train leaving Doncaster so no, I couldn’t be there, and I’d requested a pick up for 13:10 deliberately for my train arrival.
Next thing was a text received and the app confirming I’d missed my pick up. Well I knew that. But interestingly it told me I’d booked it for 13:02 whereas the time was now 12:40 and I’d aimed to book for 13:10.
As I neared Scunthorpe I tried again to request a pick up for various times after 13:10 but now it told me ‘No Vehicle Available’ ….
….. so decided to give up and on arrival make my way over to the bus station – about a ten minute walk from the station.
There was a JustGo minibus tantalisingly on a stand with three passengers onboard but presumably going in a different direction to Barentby out east, as my booking attempts were still drawing a blank. I’ve subsequently been told by Ben Gilligan the top man and all round good guy at East Yorkshire that bus was indeed on its way westwards to Epworth with four other minibuses at that time all deployed in Brigg, Barton, Immingham and Kirton – giving a good idea of the scale of the operation and why my ride requests in Scunthorpe were going unheeded.
By now I had two pending journey requests but no indication when they’d be fulfilled. I’d no idea whether I’d be waiting another ten minutes or all afternoon. Such is the inconvenience of app based DRT schemes which is never explained in the positive PR hype.
A small point about trying to book journeys on the app is when entering Scunthorpe …. the bus station doesn’t come up as one of the immediate options if you type Scunthorpe …. but when typed in full is recognised, but in the confirmation of a ride request is called ‘Driver Break Location’ which is somewhat operational and not very passenger oriented.
I decided to give my friendly helpline lady a call and ask (a) how I would know if one of my ride requests was being fulfilled and (b) see if she could book me a ride before the deadline for my train home arrived.
She took my details and after a while came back with news that (a) I should have received an email about the ride requests – I hadn’t – and (b) the next bus wouldn’t be available for my journey request to Barnetby until between 14:30 and 14:40.
Sadly that was too late for my travel needs. It’s just as well it wasn’t important for me to get to a particular destination for a particular time as JustGo was simply unable to provide that. I don’t know how successful CallConnect was at fulfilling journey requests but this didn’t seem to me to be a very good start for JustGo.
I explained to my helpline best friend that I’d have to decline the ride offer, although this didn’t stop it being added to my missed and requested history on the app!
I was told there were “five or six buses out today” and that”they’re quite busy as there were a lot of bookings last week” and “it is the first week”.
Once again with DRT, the promotional hype that ‘your ride around North Lincolnshire is just a tap away’ is far removed from reality. It’s a tap away if you’ve dropped lucky and a bus happens to be available.
Left to me I’d schedule the five minibuses on a hub and spoke network out of Scunthorpe to the surrounding villages on a two-hourly frequency so everyone knows the times and throw in some minor on-demand route variations as CallConnect does in Lincolnshire and as happens on the former ‘Wiltshire Wigglybus’ between Devizes and Pewsey.
On a traditional fixed timetable bus route passengers are reassured by knowing where and when the bus will arrive and depart, with DRT the vehicles are anywhere. Passengers have no idea where the buses are, nor from my experience today, when they might be available no matter how much tapping away is done. How can that possibly be a better service for the passenger?
Once again DRT proves it’s uselessness. “No climate-positive growth” for me today.
But despite a disappointing day I can’t conclude without reiterating as said earlier, JustGo is ‘in the capable hands of East Yorkshire’ and I have every confidence the highly regarded management skills of Ben Gilligan who leads the company along with overall top boss at GoNorthEast, the hugely capable, professional and customer centric Martijn Gilbert, will do their very best to make the best of JustGo. They both kindly picked up on my feedback on social media today confirming expressing regrets for my experiences and reassuring they’re monitoring and tweaking as necessary and I know that will be the case. JustGo is certainly in capable hands; I’m just left thinking rural DRT of this genre is just(not a)go(er).