Wednesday 2nd December 2020
Arriva Click began a new DRT (Demand Responsive Transport) venture on Monday thanks to funding provided by house builders Redrow and Henley Camsland who, along with others, are slowly transforming Ebbsfleet’s former massive chalk quarries into what is now the fledgling Ebbsfleet Garden City.
Ebbsfleet Garden City lies immediately north of the A2 with Darent Valley Hospital and Bluewater shopping centre to its west, Greenhithe and Swanscombe to the north and Ebbsfleet International Station (opened in 2007) on HS1 and Northfleet to the east.
Ultimately the plan is for a sizeable population of up to 40,000 living in 15,000 homes and 30,000 jobs with “the beating heart of the Garden City being a vibrant new commercial centre built around Ebbsfleet International Station” and a new city park alongside. ‘Ebbsfleet Central’ “will be a new commercial and residential centre within the Garden City providing jobs, homes, community and cultural facilities”.
For now it’s still pretty desolate around the International Station site and 2,193 homes with 5,263 residents occupy the Whitecliffe development in the far Eastern Quarry as well as other pockets of development including Regent Village and Springhead Park as well as Ebbsfleet Valley.
The development at Springhead Park has recently benefitted from an 87 metre long bridge spanning the River Ebbsfleet linking it to Ebbsfleet International Station by what’s described in the pormotional literature as a seven minute walk. The Springhead Bridge opened in July, funded by Ebbsfleet Development Corporation at a cost of £60 million.
Until Monday the residential development in Ebbsfleet Valley had been served by daytime route 484 operated by Arriva between Bluewater, Greenhithe and Ebbsfleet on a rather unmemorable 65 minute frequency during the day with morning peak and evening journeys as route 485/A on a circular route around the residential estate (clockwise and anti-clockwise) to Ebbsfleet and Swanscombe stations on a 17 and 28 minute frequency – yes, I know, hopeless.
But from Monday the 484/485/485A and their inconvenient frequencies were swept aside in favour of the infamous ‘on-demand’ Click service. Against that background and the ready funding available from house developers, it probably makes a lot of sense to introduce a DRT service for once. Especially as it’s just a temporary arrangement to last for around 15 months.
That’s because in April 2022 the Whitecliffe development should be linked directly into Kent’s Fastrack bus network currently running between Dartford and Bluewater as well as Northfleet and Gravesend. An ambitious plan for an 80 metre tunnel linking Bluewater directly with Ebbsfleet Garden City costing £12 million and backed by the Development Corporation has been approved by Kent County Council’s planning committee and will eliminate the circuitous routing previously used by route 484 and now by Click minibuses.
The exciting plan is for electric buses on two new Fastrack routes C and D to run every five minutes with traffic lights giving priority to buses as well as shared cycle and pedestrian pathways in addition to the tunnel. It all sounds very impressive. The quarries already have a network of tunnels used for transport when the chalk pits were active which have been dormant for more than two decades. You can spot them when visiting the shopping centre if you know where to look. Now they’ll be back in use for Fastrack buses.
Ultimately the vision is “for 90% of Garden City residents to live within five minutes of a Fastrack bus stop” which sounds good.
With Lockdown 2.0 over, I popped over to Ebbsfleet this morning to take a look at this latest DRT introduction to see how it was doing. The minibuses are ‘cast offs’ from the failed Liverpool trial and are based at Arriva’s Northfleet bus garage. The interiors are still plush looking and I’m sure Ebbsfleet residents won’t realise they’re not brand new.
The area served by this latest Click includes Darent Valley Hospital and Bluewater in the west, stations at Greenhithe, Swanscombe, Ebbsfleet and Northfleet along the north and eastern boundary and the whole Ebbsfleet Garden City development area.
Eight drivers have been recruited to the new Click operation and I understand up to four minibuses are involved. Apparently there were three on the road this morning, and as always in the early days of these ventures, with few passengers travelling, it didn’t take long for a minibus to come and pick me up once I’d booked a journey on the App.
Indeed my first journey from outside Ebbsfleet International Station was fulfilled with just a ten minute wait with the minibus stationed at Greenhithe Station waiting for custom.
I booked a ride into the heart of the new development in Whitecliffe at a cost of just £2 which I thought was good value and much cheaper than the taxis waiting on the rank outside the station.
My driver, Ben, soon arrived and what a friendly and pleasant man he is. We had a good chat during the journey and as usually happens on these occasions I get the overwhelming sense how pleased the driver is to actually have a passenger use the service!
We soon arrived in the new development with its traffic calmed roads …
…and the much welcome ‘garden city’ ambiance that’s been created.
The minibuses are ideally placed to serve residential areas like this which surprisingly had very little on-street parking.
After bidding my farewells to Ben I had a good wander around the new development and it really was noticeable how pleasant it was with cars successfully hidden away down the sides or round the backs of houses …
….coupled with draconian parking restrictions.
I can feel an example of best practice for new town development coming on.
I then walked over to the Springhead Park development in the furthest south eastern corner of the whole site, located the other side of the River Ebbsfleet to take a look at the new bridge that opened in July making for a convenient link to the station for residents and from where I booked my second ride from to Bluewater Shopping Centre with a £4 fare.
This minibus was lurking at Ebbsfleet International Station and set off immediately to pick me up offering just a convenient five minute wait. I was a bit surprised to see it was taking the previously required circuitous route to where I was waiting rather than use the new bridge, thinking maybe the software hadn’t been updated, especially as it didn’t show up on the map (it’s located underneath the words “Pickup in 5 min” shown below)
But once Charlotte, my driver, arrived we set off towards Bluewater using the bridge, so I’m guessing it probably was to eliminate the need for the bus to have to turn round.
Charlotte was another of Click’s star employees; remarkably friendly and a great ambassador for Arriva and bus travel. She’d previously been based at Dartford bus garage driving TfL route 229 and was enjoying the change to Click. I’d been the fourth passenger travelling with her this morning, so that’s quite encouraging for the third day of operation.
We sped off to Bluewater via the A2 but there was a problem in that the software wanted Charlotte to drop me off on the edge of one of the massive car parks surrounding the Shopping Centre rather than at the bus station. Thankfully Charlotte ignored the SatNav and took me on to the bus station and she made a note to report that glitch back to Arriva Click control which is apparently still based in Liverpool.
It seems there have also been SatNav issues with some of the new roads under construction in the development, either not knowing they’re open or thinking they’re open when they’re not. Charlotte had had to do a three point turn in the dark on one narrow section of road.
As always with my early rides on Click, this morning’s experiences reflected the lack of passengers and the welcome positivity of the drivers. With longer term plans to run Fastrack buses it will be interesting to see how passenger get used to the door to door service Click offers particularly at the home end of the ride, which will not be possible with larger sized buses. I see a road in Castle Hill has already been named Fastrack Castle Hill on maps dotted around the area.
I also took a ride back from Bluewater to Ebbsfleet International Station on Fastrack route B which already serves a similar residential area near Greenhithe and very impressive it is too – with well placed bus stops and priority roads for buses.
Not quite so impressive was that route information for the now withdrawn routes 484/485/485A was still being displayed at bus stops all over the area, although at least there was a panel advertising the new Click service and hopefully (he writes in an optimistic frame of mind) there might have been some publicity pushed through letterboxes?
Shame about the blank bus stop flags, and I also then spotted, too late, that concessionary passholders can obtain a 30% discount on Click fares if the pass is registered in advance with five days notice required. Something for next time I visit.
Sadly there wasn’t any mention of the new service on this rather nice notice board I came across on my wander.
But hopefully word will spread and it’ll become more popular, until that tunnel is ready for Fastrack to take over.