Wednesday 31st March 2021
It’s all change for Milton Keynes Council’s funded bus routes tomorrow as the local authority sweeps away the low frequency services which compliment Arriva’s cross town commercial network replacing them with Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) commissioned from the tech company Via.
Councillor Lauren Townsend, Cabinet member for Community Safety, hailed the move “a very very exciting development” back in September 2020 when the Council decided it could no longer afford the bill for traditionally operated tendered bus routes. “Exciting” isn’t the word that came immediately to my mind when I heard about it, but following a visit to MK yesterday to take a look on the ground, I’m certainly “intrigued” at the potential impact of this new venture, not least on the existing taxi and private hire companies in the town as well as the commercial bus network. Because, make no mistake, this isn’t what we’ve come to know as a ‘DRT type bus service’ using luxury appointed minibuses. “MK Connect” (the brand name Via are using for the service in the Council’s corporate colour scheme) is very much a Council subsidised taxi type service using 7-seaters available to residents and visitors travelling right across the town, including being free to use for concessionary bus passholders issued by Milton Keynes Council. Once word spreads, I can see a lot of switching from taxi to MK Connect.
Milton Keynes Council had been looking at introducing DRT for some time but coronavirus brought things to a head. Covid has decimated the Council’s parking income magic money tree which had been used to fund tendered bus services resulting in a £3 million budget shortfall even after partial income relief from the Government.
Passenger journeys taken on subsidised routes also dropped from 2,000 a month to “as few as 600 bus users travelling regularly” during last year’s first lockdown according to the last September’s report to Cabinet.
Credibly for a town built with the motor car in mind around 85% of the Milton Keynes bus network is commercially provided, so it’s only about 15% which will see fixed timetables swept away and replaced by what councillors and officers believe will be a better “more bespoke and a lot more flexible service”.
Contracts for tendered bus routes were due to expire in October 2020 but as part of the decision to switch over to DRT the Council extended existing contracts with bus companies so they continued until today giving time to get a DRT operation up and running.
However, one route, the 28 serving Emerson Valley, ended in October as operator Vale Travel weren’t interested in extending the contract so an ’emergency’ fledgling MK Connect replaced it and has acted as a ‘pilot’ over the last six months ready for tomorrow’s launch. It also meant yesterday I was able to take a few rides on both the traditional tendered bus routes and the all-new MK Connect replacement.
There are six significant tendered routes swept away in tomorrow’s change-over as well as some other peak time only or shopping special routes. Five of these are operated by Aylesbury based Z&S Transport and one, route 9 with just three off peak journeys has been in Arriva’s hands.
I took a ride on parts of routes 18 and 24 operated by Z&S Transport yesterday. Both routes take in fringe areas of Milton Keynes characterised by low density high value residential property, and in the former case, areas one could almost classify as rural, while the latter takes narrow and twisty ‘estate’ roads offering the joys of what seems like continuous ‘traffic calming’ measures making for a very uncomfortable ride.
Z&S Transport’s bus fleet is not exactly in the prime of its youth, which doesn’t give an ambiance of anything remotely approaching a quality service. Routes 24 (and 25) provide a both ways circular route around the back estates of the town as well as serving the shopping centre, station and Bletchley.
It runs to an hourly frequency with a round trip taking just under two hours. It would have been tortuous to have done the whole route, so I opted for the section in the south west quadrant from the Westcroft District Centre and through Tattenhoe, a very pleasant part of the town, to Emerson Valley.
You don’t have to be on the bus for long before realising why this four-bus route must cost a fortune to fund, which TfL’s wouldn’t blink an eye at, but for MK Council it must be very draining, for so few passengers. No other passengers joined me on the journey I made.
And it was unfortunate one journey I’d hoped to catch, and for which another passenger was waiting with me at the station, never turned up. On the up side I did easily find a telephone number for Z&S Transport and spoke to a helpful lady who confirmed the bus had broken down. Obviously the stop’s so called ‘real time’ information was misleading, displaying only timetabled time, so couldn’t be relied upon – all the more so when I came to catch the next bus further around the circuit – having used MK Connect in the meantime – only to find that bus running ten minutes late – and of course it had disappeared from the real time sign at the scheduled arrival. A call to my helpful lady friend at Z&S Control to enquire again and she soon rang me back to confirm it was on its way, and it duly appeared.
Of course, as an English National Concessionary passholder my journeys wandering around Milton Keynes on the buses were free. Sadly that wasn’t the case for my trips using MK Connect yesterday. There’s some confusion over whether the Council have excluded their new DRT services from the the national scheme, restricting availability to holders of passes issued by Milton Keynes Council. I was told this by Adele Wearing, the Council officer overseeing the project, in an email replying to my enquiry as to why I couldn’t register my pass number on the app. However, when I rang the ‘call centre’ number given as an alternative way of booking a ride instead of using the app, I was told by the person on the other end of the phone I just needed to give my concessionary pass number when making a booking on the phone, and when I specifically queried whether this included a pass from outside Milton Keynes, he wasn’t aware of any restriction. So, I’ll have to give that method a go.
Except the number given isn’t a dedicated phone number for Via, it’s actually the main Milton Keynes Council’s contact number for a whole host of enquiries. Indeed telephoning at lunch time today, there’s a 90 second commentary about data protection policies and a whole host of other rubbish before you’re given the “we’re experiencing a high call volume” mantra, but I hung on, and got answered after six minutes. It was just as well I wasn’t trying to book a ride home from Morrisons with all my frozen shopping thawing out. Not a very seamless experience and I’m till confused on concession availability.
If it is restricted, which I’m pretty sure it is, this is a serious diminution of passholders’ travel concessions and something I hope Bus Users UK will take up with the DfT as it creates a dangerous precedent as more DRT schemes come on board. It’s also somewhat disingenuous of the Council to promote concessionary passholders travelling free on MK Connect without qualifying it as being only local residents who qualify. I think the Advertising Standards Authority might have something to say about it.
In the absence of a concession yesterday I paid the flat fare of £2.50 per ride (which increases to £3.50 for two-hour morning and afternoon peak periods). £2.50 is quite a bargain compared to traditional taxi and private hire fares, especially if travelling alone and particularly from tomorrow when the MK Connect area expands to include the entire Borough from Bletchley to Newport Pagnell. Once travellers catch on, I can’t see any reason why you’d use a taxi or private hire car again. Quicker journey times may also entice some passengers away from Arriva’s commercial network, especially those making just an out and back off peak journey which compares well with Arriva’s £4.80 day ticket price.
However, regular commuters might baulk at paying £7 a day if travelling in both peaks, which adds up to a hefty weekly amount, as there are no weekly caps on MK Connect. Arriva’s weekly ticket is just £18 and a four weekly is priced at £57.
However, youngsters up and including age 18 (with an ‘All in 1 MK Card’) can travel for just a £1, which I reckon will encourage a lot of teenagers to use the service rather than a bus. As soon as the vehicle I’d made a journey in arrived at Bletchley bus station yesterday afternoon, the driver was off on another trip picking up a young passenger waiting for our arrival.
Plans are in hand to expand the options to book a ride to include the ticket machines dotted around the town in strategic locations. This will need careful thought, as street based technology is notorious for being unreliable and they’re also useless in sunny conditions. How many totem poles with computer screens have been left abandoned by local authorities all over the country, unable to keep up with maintaining them? Answer: lots.
Good luck with that plan, but perhaps it would make sense to get existing static displays showing up to date information and a professional and enticing image as a priority first.
MK Connect have been using electric powered Vauxhaul e-Vivaro seven-seaters during the pilot phase, but these aren’t wheelchair accessible, so from tomorrow the expanded fleet will include a batch of Renault Traffic WAV vehicles which have been converted with a rear loading facility for wheelchair users “by UK’s leading provider”.
Now, I reckon this is going to prove a controversial arrangement, and I wasn’t convinced by the reassuring noises representatives from Via gave groups representing those with accessibility needs in a recent online ‘zoom’ type presentation which is available for viewing on YouTube if you’re particularly interested. It featured the aforementioned Adele as well as a lovely guy called Ernie who wasn’t standing for any of Via’s corporate nonsense trotted out including this gem “microtransit service will yield high utilisation and decrease overall operational costs compared to the existing network of fixed routes”.
Wheelchair users as well as those with other accessibility needs are asked to register on the app so a wheelchair equipped vehicle can be dispatched and i noted during the presentation Via staff opined that they thought wheelchair users would very much welcome being included with other passengers but, hang on, they are on buses too, and as Ernie rightly pointed out, every bus is wheelchair accessible, and frankly the interior layout of the Renault looks somewhat uncomfortably cramped to me and not attractive for either able boded or wheelchair using passengers.
I’m not a fan of passenger opening doors and having boarded, always find it hard to close those sliding door affairs as happened to me yesterday. They’re not that easy to manhandle and I can imagine some people will be very unsure about this.
For a brand new vehicle the seating inside the Vauxhaul is nothing compared to what you now get on a modern bus and I certainly wouldn’t like to be on one with a full compliment of seven passengers which will be very awkward to load and unload. There’s currently a Covid limit of three passengers – although the drivers told me they’re not doing any ride sharing at the moment at all, so it really is a taxi type service.
My rides turned up within about five minutes of booking yesterday and I got the impression the system wasn’t overly busy. But this could all change tiomorrow when the current restricted area expands to cover the whole Borough. My drivers yesterday told me there’s a significant expansion in the number of vehicles – one mentioned up to 30, another up to 50. The Via representatives during the presentation said the expansion would be flexible depending on demand. I’ve no doubt in the early days Via will throw resources at this project but I also suspect in the longer term as cost pressure bite, and the funding comes under strain, comprises may be made. No details were given of how many vehicles in the fleet will be wheelchair accessible.
It’s also noteworthy the vehicles are being operated under taxi licensing conditions so drivers won’t be restricted by ‘drivers’ hours’ regulations, nor will higher PCV type servicing and testing costs for the vehicles be incurred.
I spotted this interesting quote on the presentation slides on the YouTube session while they suffered from a technical glitch during the filming which I doubt was meant to be shown (referring to another service operated by Via): “given users of this service will be a lot of corporate employees, engineers, we recognise there will be very high quality of service expectations. So for that reason in scoping the service we’ve targeted pick up time within +/- as well as minimal detours for other pick ups” which smacks of a bit of a two class set up to me.
Ernie made the sensible suggestion Via should include a “running number” such as Via 1, Via 2, etc displayed boldly in the front of each vehicle to help identification rather than just the registration number given on the app when booking.
If the service truly is going to be integrated with the commercial network as espoused in the presentation by Via and the Council, then why not let the vehicles pick up from a designated stand in the town’s various bus stations, not least outside Milton Keynes Station as the tendered bus routes have done?
Instead you have to work out from the app where to walk to and wait some distance away from the station entrance and other bus departures. Hardly integrated.
Before concluding I must give a shout out to Imran and Hassan who I travelled with yesterday. I was so intent on taking photographs I left my cap in Imran’s vehicle (see earlier photo) but when I travelled with Hussan later and told him, explaining I wan’t in any hurry, instead of taking me directly to Bletchley bus station, he phoned Imran and tracked down where he was and we went to make a rendezvous to retrieve my cap. Many thanks to them both – what great service that was – and all within my £2.50 fare!
On a slightly negative note I did send both an email and text through to Via asking whether they could retrieve it for me, but despite the corporate line being “we welcome all feedback and act upon it” I’ve yet to even receive an acknowledgement.
Arriva are taking the opportunity to tidy up their network from this Easter weekend with some sensible changes providing both a strong north/south spine (routes 5/6) and an east/west equivalent (routes 3/8) to build frequency around, as well as they’re other key cross town routes continuing with some tweaks. It should make for an improved network.
They’ve also picked up the tender for routes 33/33A to Northampton which I’m sure is welcomed by the locally based Arriva MK team.
Meanwhile the Council have to try and provide a cost effective complimentary network to parts of the town and along roads which were simply never designed with buses in mind. I don’t envy their task and have some sympathy with the logic of trying to start all over again with a new style service. But, for all the reasons I’ve covered ad nauseam in previous blogs, DRT is not the all singing all dancing set up its proponents expound. Having had a ride around yesterday I still maintain that view, and in this case, I’d be very worried if I was the owner of a Milton Keynes based taxi company.
I’m certainly “intrigued” to see how this latest DRT venture pans out.