Milton Keynes tries Connecting

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.

Spot the cap.

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.

It’s not immediately obvious from the front this is a Via MK Connect vehicle.

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.

Roger French

13 thoughts on “Milton Keynes tries Connecting

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  1. Introducing tiny mini buses where people will be in close proximity in the aftermath of the second wave of coronavirus doesn’t seem the most logical move!councils will say that they have no money but there’s always money for new parkway stations and park and ride seems to me that they have a strange view of the meaning of public transport whereby in their eyes it’s the extension of a car journey and not something in itself.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The Arriva network is also being withdrawn from many housing areas, so one assumes these vans will have to deal with the passengers from these areas too.


  3. There was a feature on BBC Look East this evening. They interviewed a couple of old ladies waiting for one of the subsidised bus routes that finished today. I noticed they both had those shopper trolley type things. How are they going to get those trolleys into these vans and for that matter get themselves in? The type of vehicle is going back 30 years.

    And don’t get me started on the lack of regular user tickets. Yes £2.50 per journey is ok, but when it’s £3.50 and you are doing it 5 days a week that soon adds up.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Good report and analysis Roger, as usual.

    By chance, I toddled up to MK yesterday for a look-see. I’ve been a semi-regular visitor mainly for work over many years and was interested in the latest developments. A town/city designed around the car has proved a challenge to successive bus operators and the council. Among others, I travelled on Vale’s route to Caldecotte and the paucity of passengers was notable, as was the byzantine wandering through the Kent Hill housing area (section now abandoned to MK Connect), and the coaches serving distant office parks.

    To amplify, the street kiosks are terminals for the MK Move smartcard (which is run as an offshoot of the much larger Centro (West Midlands) Swift system). You can buy and reload a card at the big units; reload an online-bought ticket at the small ones. Passes a re 1 day (£5.20), 1 week (£20.00), 4 week (£63.00), or you can load a Pay-As-Yo-Go sum. MK Move is usable on Arriva, Redline, Red Rose, Z&S, Vale, Uno and Stagecoach (the latter, PAYG only). MK Move can be used on MK Connect but only in PAYG mode (£3.50/£2.50 per trip).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The vehicles look far too small and unsuitable. I think the elderly who may be the main users of these services will struggle to get in and out. The main use as well will probably be for shopping trips sand there is no room at all for shopping and what about buggies where will they go ?

    This sounds like a typical council brainstorming scheme. The idea has just not been thought though at all and I suspect is doomed to failure. . This scheme is more likely to drive passengers away rather than attract them.. I guess a few will use them as an alternative to a taxi but even there if their are two people a taxi will be more convenient and more comfortable and just as cheap

    They need to use proper buses probably a large mini/Small midi size buse. They will have space for buggies and a wheelchair and have space for shopping

    One solution but the government seems set against that would be to allow community not for profit service to charge a small fare for concessionary passes say 20% of the adult fare

    Liked by 2 people

  6. The Milton Keynes Council website states on its MK Connect page: “Concessionary passes under the ENCTS scheme will still be valid for free travel after 9:30 am on weekdays and all day at weekends.”


  7. Excellent analysis as usual Roger.
    Your point about abstraction from normal taxis/minicabs had not occurred to me – if widely known about the queue of taxis outside the railway station could be replaced by DRT vehicles! Will the council pay to meet whatever demand there may be or will they end up limiting the number of DRT vehicles possibly leading to extended waiting times and dissatisfied customers?.
    It will be interesting to see how the cost works out compared to the previous contract prices, and how it affects Arriva’s commercial network.
    Not sure how good the publicity has been – the two ladies on Look East seemed completely unaware of the DRT
    replacement and the interviewer appeared not to enlighten them either!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Roger, back in 2019 when I last visited, the loadings on these routes were not at all bad for tendered services. However covid will have severely dampened demand from the mainly elderly cliantel, and no doubt many passengers got fed up with the unreliability. Sadly the quality of service even back in 2019 was never the best, with regular breakdowns according to other passengers (or as I discovered, made up breakdowns to get out of having to do the journey) causing large gaps. Guess the routes being so far from the operating base of Aylesbury (must be about 20 buses running dead from Aylesbury to MK and back every day), the drivers thought they could get away with anything. Bothering to follow the correct route seemed to be an optional technicality, and I was even on some journeys that never even bothered to serve the railway station. I recall my trip on factory route 31 which served only about half of the correct route between Newport Pagnell and Bletchley, with the driver saying no one ever uses it – well they won’t if it does not turn up where they are waiting. Then he left on the only return journey from Bletchley over 5 mins early and never even bothered pulling into the bay to pick up. My worse occurrence was on the 18 where the driver had operated the very pleasant Bletchley to Milton Keynes section perfectly correctly (with passengers for all the villages he had little choice) but then got annoyed with me for wanting to go to the northern terminus at Oakridge Park, so having set down the remaining other passengers at Bradwell Common, he then missed out the rest of the proper route to run direct to Oakridge Park (which is a circular operation without any scheduled layover) where he insisted I had to get off the bus as he had his break, and was not going back to Milton Keynes (was the last scheduled bus of the day). Despite arguing, I was forced off the bus, and then he got his prayer mat out and spent 20 mins praying before storming off empty. Did complain to Z&S and MK council transport department, but as expected got no reply from either. Not saying all their drivers were bad, the regular lady on the glorious 37 route seemed their local hero, and knew all the passenger by name. Just one other point, the Arriva 9 was not just a 4 journey off peak service, and was in fact rather busy – you may have been thinking of Z&S 17.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Sadly those low standard are all to common in the bus industry. There are a few exceptions but not many. You get the same problems with the so called real time bus systems and apps that rarely work properly

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The sort of shenanigans described by bigbri107 are most often heard of in Traffic Commissioner cases as evidence of unsuitability of the operator – but mostly in support of evidence of financial mismanagement and mostly in Scotland (and often resulting in the operator going out of business). Is there no public supervisory responsibility in places like Milton Keynes?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Van Hool launches new UK Operation

    Van Hool the Belgium coach manufacturer have opened up a UK operation following the demise of Arriva Bus and Coach which were the sole UK dealers for Van Hool

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Bridge Strikes

    The number of bridge strikes is alarming, and occur despite clear height warning signs. Buses are proportionately more involved in bridge strikes than trucks, and it’s time to do more to prevent them, says Senior Traffic Commissioner, Kevin Rooney.
    “We don’t know why the proportion of buses involved in bridge strikes is so high,” said Kevin Rooney.

    The issue has been raised within bus groups but, nonetheless, there are still an average one bridge strike a week involving a bus.

    The TC, Kevin Rooney, warned that operators will be held accountable if they cannot demonstrate that they have performed risk assessments and engaged with drivers: “One operator who came before me had sent his drivers a Powerpoint presentation. Sending out guidance is pretty useless, no matter how good it is. I’ve even seen written instructions handed to drivers who don’t speak English.”

    Liked by 1 person

  13. The MK Bus replacement is not fit for the older
    People or mums with prams
    Some OAPs don’t use mobile phones or even own one
    It took me 23 minutes to get through on the phone even more expensive with the cost of the call
    It’s expensive for the working population
    I have paid my council tax every month
    And expect a bus service that I can use
    Even if it’s just 1 every hour on the Quiet routes
    At least I can get to a bus stop and get a bus just
    By following a bus timetable

    Liked by 1 person

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