Thursday 22nd April 2021
Readers may recall my attempt to try out North Lincolnshire Council’s JustGo branded Demand Responsive Transport service when it launched last September.
The £9 million (over three years) scheme is operated by Go-Ahead owned East Yorkshire using software provided by tech company Liftango and Mercedes minibuses redundant after the TfL funded scheme operated by Go-Ahead London in Sutton was abandoned prematurely in March 2020.
I visited Scunthorpe on JustGo’s first day on Monday 7th September but struggled to find a minibus available without a significant delay so gave up, promising myself I’d give it another go in a few months.
Following my blogpost that day East Yorkshire’s highly capable Area Director Ben Gilligan got in touch and invited me to a virtual meeting with colleagues from Liftango to discuss the shortcomings I’d highlighted during my visit. I was very impressed with such thoughtfulness.
They undertook to look into the points I’d highlighted and make improvements, so it was with renewed confidence I headed up to North Lincolnshire this morning taking the train over to the eastern side of JustGo’s operating area at Barnetby to begin my travels.
I noticed the map showing the area JustGo serves has been updated showing more places connected by conventional bus routes where JustGo minibuses won’t operate.
Back in September this was only within Scunthorpe itself…
…. but the map now includes four more splurges of coloured shading indicating no-go areas due to routes 4/X4, 100, 250 and 350 operating along these corridors.
This has presumably improved JustGo vehicle availability for passengers who have no alternative bus route, as has an extra vehicle added to the operation earlier this month bringing the number of minibuses involved in JustGo up to seven.
It’s was also announced recently the app has been adapted so passengers wanting to make a journey which can be accommodated by conventional bus routes now receive a message referring them to the website of the relevant bus company which runs that route.
Although in practice I only received a message telling me the destination is “not within the zone” with no alternative suggested when I gave it a try.
This “not within the zone” restriction doesn’t apply to parallel rail routes so I thought I’d use JustGo for a trip from Barnetby back to Scunthorpe rather than use the train. This route is served by the Hornsby/Stagecoach operated route X4 but I assume its low frequency (five journeys a day, 2-hourly, Mondays to Fridays only) means it doesn’t count, whereas the more frequent hourly route 4 as far as Brigg does.
All was going well on my train journey up from Kings Cross so I took the opportunity of booking my JustGo ride after boarding the sparsely occupied TransPennine Express train and we were leaving Doncaster.
It’s just as well I did, as, spoiler alert, trying to book a journey on the app was a frustrating task. Whatever time I entered to be picked up from Barnetby station soon after my train’s arrival scheduled for 12:17 it gave the rather unhelpful response “No vehicle available”.
I had a look at the alternative of reversing the direction and getting off the train at Scunthorpe and heading out by JustGo to Barnetby instead, thinking there’d be more chance of buses returning from the town centre around lunch time with passengers completing their morning’s shopping. But no luck with that either. “No vehicle available” was all the ‘computer says no’ app could reply.
I tried some other origins and destinations across the whole JustGo area. Back came the same “No vehicle available.”
Then I spotted a tweet from earlier in the week in which JustGo advised of “technical issues” with the app, advising passengers to “try again shortly” and although there was a follow up tweet confirming the issues had been resolved I decided to give the call centre a ring in case the gremlins had reappeared and see if a human could book me a ride.
Impressively the phone was answered straight away and a very pleasant and cheerful lady on the other end was brutally honest “you’ll be lucky to book a ride today”, she advised “we’ve been very busy”.
It seems the combination of a sunny day and post lockdown out-and-abouters are proving too much for JustGo to cope with. Even that seventh vehicle hasn’t cracked the problem.
There’s also currently a Covid capacity of seven passengers per vehicle my helpline lady explained, but I can’t see that causing the booking bottleneck since I’ve never been in a DRT vehicle with more than three people going the same way anywhere I’ve travelled.
She said it’s best to book in advance and when I asked if that meant hours or days (the app lets you book a journey up to 28 days ahead) she said “definitely a day or two ahead if you can”.
My helpful lady asked me how late I could travel and tried booking more journeys for me with alternative times up to 14:30 but there was nothing doing.
I decided to abort the whole JustGo mission for today and amuse myself in Scunthorpe by exploring what delights the town has to offer instead, which in the event proved just as challenging.
I spent around 45 minutes watching the comings and goings in Scunthorpe bus station this lunch time (riveting retired life I lead, I know) and interestingly never saw a JustGo vehicle once, whereas at least I did eyeball one on my September visit.
I then set about interrogating the app to see when I could actually book a ride from Barnetby to Scunthorpe today by submitting journey requests to be picked up every hour until something positive came back. I was beginning to think it was one of those journeys “not within the zone” due to the low frequency X4, notwithstanding what the map says.
Thirty per cent of my smartphone battery power later it turns out I’d finally get a ride with a pick up this evening at 18:07. Not particularly convenient if I’d been after a bit of Scunthorpe shopping and anyway by then I’d be well on my way towards home on the train. I declined the offer.
I then carried on trying to book a journey from Barnetby to Scunthorpe at around 12:30 on upcoming days and after getting rejected for tomorrow, Saturday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I finally got the offer of a ride in a week’s time on Thursday.
If this is the future of rural bus routes then God help us. And we’ve got 17 more such schemes coming on stream over the next few months thanks to the DfT’s Rural Mobility Fund and the euphoria over “Bus Back Better”.
I don’t blame bus companies such as East Yorkshire for taking on these DRT contracts. There’s money to be made and I’m sure they’re complying with a specification laid down by the Council for the number of vehicles to operate, rather than whether passengers can actually book a ride.
I do believe the tech companies such as Via and Liftango have a lot to answer for with their persuasive sales patter to Government and Local Authorities who fool for the ‘it’s got to be good because it uses an app and an algorithm’ mantra as well as the “technology that powers convenient, efficient and sustainable shared transport” boast.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Give me an infrequent conventional rural bus service any day. At least I know the bus will come, I’ll be picked up and can travel ….. without having to book my journey a week in advance.
And it’ll cost less to the Council to provide.