Saturday 29th May 2021
I was back on the DRT (Demand Responsive Transport) trail again yesterday. There’s no let up in the current fad for national and local government to fund tech based ‘shared mobility’ schemes especially where they’re seen as the possible magic solution to the ‘rural transport problem’. Here’s another one hoping to do just that.
Using the brand name Katch, the scheme is funded by Suffolk County Council which blog readers may recall missed out on a share of the DfT’s £19 million Rural Mobility Fund announced in March for 17 more such schemes although Katch was already on the planning stocks well before that with a planned introduction back in January, but postponed to April due to lockdown, then postponed again until 17th May.
Katch is based on the small Suffolk market town of Wickham Market and comprises two Renault electric powered eight seater minibuses with a rear tail lift for wheelchair users which if in use reduces the standard seating capacity to seven.
Bizarrely the nearside rather wide sliding door for passengers is manually operated by the driver who has to get out each time and walk round to open and close it and lower or retract the step by foot.
The vehicle interior layout comprises a triple seat behind the driver in front of a double seat, with three singles either side of the space for a wheelchair at the rear.
The moquette style wouldn’t have been my first choice looking rather dull and dated compared to the bright white and green livery with huge lettering on the exterior.
Wickham Market’s railway station is situated at nearby Campsea Ashe which is just over two miles from the town’s Market Square along the B1078 with no footpath for much of the way making it very precarious to walk along.
No bus service gets close to the station so the idea behind Katch is to fill this public transport void and provide a connection to Wickham Market as well as from there to the village of Framlingham 6 miles further on.
The project’s main advocate is Councillor Alexander Nicoll who is Suffolk County Council’s ward councillor for Wickham Market as well as deputy cabinet member for transport. “It’s a really good project. It’s simplicity itself” he told the East Anglian Daily Press.
Katch is described as a shared “taxibus”. The vehicles only stop at designated bus stops and then only a handful of specific ones shown on the map – there are four in Framlingham and three in Wickham Market with the station making eight in total.
It seems it would be too dangerous for the driver to get out and open the nearside door for passengers or the rear door for a wheelchair using passenger at certain bus stops so they’ve been excluded. It’s a shame that some of the isolated hamlets along the route aren’t able to be included.
Bus stop flags with Katch branding have been put up in Wickham Market and Framlingham. But, here’s the thing, you can’t just wait for Katch at one of these as you would an ordinary bus. You have to order the vehicle to come and pick you up like a taxi. But it’s not exactly like a taxi, as it will only observe the bus stops rather than drop you anywhere. So in a way it’s the worst of both worlds – Katch is restricted to bus stops (and only certain ones at that) but has no fixed timetable and is restricted to pre-booking only. It’s a bit like Ford’s Chariot branded trial in London a couple of years ago.
Except when you come to use the Katch app to book your journey, the options offered to you once you’ve entered your origin and destination from the eight bus stops involved ….
…. are half hourly interval departures, rather than being able to choose your own bespoke time.
This half hourly service has been fed into the open bus times database and appears on Google maps, for example, except they’re really phantom departure times as the bus won’t run unless it’s been booked by someone.
Katch has a flat fare of £4 single and £7 return whether you’re travelling from the station to Wickham Market or to the furthest destination served at Framlingham. Compared to a traditional taxi that’s quite a bargain as a normal taxi would cost about £6-£7 to Wickham Market and £15-£20 to Framlingham.
Concessionary passes aren’t valid nor are there any cheaper ticket prices for regular commuters so I’m not sure this scheme is going to tempt many motorists.
However, the biggest thing that’ll catch you out when using Katch at the moment is …. the app doesn’t work, so you can’t use it to book a ride. This is a somewhat large setback for a tech based DRT and I’m told it’s not just a small teething problem but a major flaw which “may take a few weeks to resolve” according to the person I spoke to on Thursday evening when I rang the telephone booking number having decided to check whether the booking I made before the app broke back on 17th May was still valid.
When I rang again yesterday morning on my way to Wickham Market the call handler seemed to think the app was up and running again. It wasn’t. It still isn’t.
My train arrived at 11:42 and I’d originally booked my pick up on the app at 12:00 as 11:30 was obviously too early (those times were the only two options offered as shown above). However when I spoke on the phone the call handler said he’d amend my booking to be earlier and connect better with the train arrival – which surely is the point of the service.
In the event the train was on time and my Katch taxibus was waiting for me with the door open when I came out of the station.
I spotted the second of the two vehicles parked in the station car park where electric charging points have been installed to ‘fill them up’ and indicating business wasn’t particularly brisk.
My very pleasant and helpful driver, Nick, seemed pleased to see me, not least because I was the first passenger to use the service that morning. I got the impression Katch’s first couple of weeks operation haven’t exactly been busy.
We headed into Wickham Market and soon got chatting about the service. Nick used to be a taxi driver and when I asked if the local taxi company was upset about this new venture potentially taking away customers he didn’t think it would be an issue as the nearest taxi business is based in Woodbridge, 5 miles away, which is why the taxi fares are so high because of the dead mileage.
The electric vehicles have a charge of 70 miles which Nick thought would be adequate for a day’s work. Certainly on current trends it’s not going to be a problem. However it would only cover about five round trips to Farlingham.
He explained plans are in hand for a formal launch for “Katch” on 21st June with local dignitaries and the TV and media attending so expect lots of the usual positive spin for that.
Let’s hope the app is working by then.
And the Twitter profile is updated.
Although, I like the retweet!
I understand funding is set aside for a year’s operation of Katch which is quite short if the Wickham Market market is really to be tested.
PS Fellow bus and train blogger, and Suffolk resident, Steve, wrote about Katch a couple of weeks ago wondering exactly who the scheme is aimed at. You can read his conclusions here.
So this is basically a normal bus route but you have to pre-book it – therefore the bus drivers can sometimes get a free break? I’m not sure what the economics behind that is. Surely a normal hourly bus route with one minibus would be cheaper and more than adequate for the current service level. Also it must be horrible if say you live in Easton, you see that a new half-hourly bus is coming to your doorstep and yet you cant even use it.
I’m a little confused as to why that “Citroen” bus has a great big Renault badge on the front? I note Steve’s blog post says “leased from Citroen” but that seems a little unlikely for a Renault vehicle.
Tous les bus français se ressemblent? 🙂
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I’ll update to Renault – thanks for badge spotting.
It triggered my inner pedant 🙂
I don’t know the area but there appears to be a similar (but not identical) system already operating.
It still seems to exist as https://www.suffolkonboard.com/rural-transport/ is copyright 2021.
I cannot see the point in having two systems with different conditions, different fare structures, operating in the same area. Are there two different sets of staff? (The phone numbers, at least, are different).
My worry would be that it will result in a cry of ‘We did try, but there is just no demand’ from County Hall. I feel sorry for the drivers to be honest. You would want passengers.
Anyone who hasn’t clicked on the link Roger has supplied in the PS should be encouraged to do so.
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Thanks for that links – it’s all very odd. I must investigate further
I’m curious why there is a label with the word “Bus” in the windscreen. There appears to be a private hire licence on the rear.
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What a ridiculous waste of time and money!
🚌 Wickham Market already has an hourly bus to Woodbridge and Ipswich in one direction, and Saxmundham and Aldeburgh in the other, with buses calling at or close to the stations in Woodbridge and Saxmundham for any passengers wanting to connect with rail services to further afield. Passengers travelling to Ipswich who prefer the idea of a 30 minute train journey to a 1 hour bus journey can change to the train at Woodbridge to do the journey in under 45 minutes, about the same as they can using Katch to Wickham Market Station.
🚌 Framlingham already has a bus every 1–1½ hours to Ipswich, which take about 50 minutes, and it is unlikely that using Katch to Wickham Market will be quicker any passengers making that journey.
🚐 But most ridiculous of all, in terms of existing services, is that there is already an extensive set of demand-responsive services running across Coastal Suffolk, including one that covers the areas of Framlingham, Wickham Market and Campsea Ashe. The only advantage that Katch has is that the existing “CATS” service runs 0700 to 1900, 6 days a week, whereas Katch starts earlier in the morning, runs into the evening and runs on Sundays … but wouldn’t it make more sense to expand the existing service rather than set up a new one competing with it?
🚏 And as you say, the connections with trains are poor … not bad when you’re catching a train but horrendous when coming off the train. (Confusing as the timetable on bustimes doesn’t match what you were getting on the app). They could easily resolve this by running a continuous route around Framlingham and back again rather than being scheduled to run the loop around Framlingham twice (assuming that bustimes is accurate on that score), which would allow one bus to meet the northbound trains and one bus to meet the southbound trains, which are at xx42 and xx05 respectively, so best to have the running times slightly offset rather than strictly every 30 minutes as well.
🚏 And that’s not to mention the worst aspect of all, that the taxibus would offer a useful service to intermediate stops, such as Easton or Parham where there is a proper bus stop – https://goo.gl/maps/6LVAz4CeguN3ihyQA – but because they have gone for an unsuitable, non-standard vehicle they are unable to provide that useful service. How much does it cost to have two vehicles and two drivers available at all times, plus all the running costs of the app, and how much will they save on mileage costs by not running any journeys that are not needed?
😡 Very much the worst of all worlds from a passenger point of view – reduced flexibility because you need to book ahead, but without the advantage of buses running when you want them and where you want them.
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Katch seems to be set up to fail . . . maybe after 5 years of DRT schemes across the country starting and failing in short order with huge financial losses . . . the penny will drop, and the money set aside for future schemes will be diverted to . . . proper bus services that run from somewhere to somewhere else and that real passengers will use.
Mind you . . . I’m not holding my breath . . .
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I just dont understand the purpose of Katch. The name and the vehicles used do not seem to be very inspiring and look rather tired and run down and not really suitable
I doubt there is demand to even one bus let alone having another one sitting around doing nothing
You have to ask the question as to why if it is a point to point service is it just not an ordinary bus service ?
Not excepting Concessionary bus passes will make certain it does not work. The need to pre book and the poor rail connections will also ensure it will not work particularly when there are alternative cheaper and more convenient bus services in most cases
If it averages 1 passenger per trip it will be doing well
The other problem with these type of pre book services is each one has its own bug ridden app to be mastered and of course they frequently do not work. You also have the cost of a phone line and an office and a person to answer the phone
I would assume this would only be a part time job for someone as it would work out very expensive otherwise
Looking on the Katch Web site it has a Heading book although it does not give the hours that you can phone to book the service. Surely they will not have some to answer the phone from 6.30am to 10.30 pm
Nothing to add to the previous comments about Katch; it almost seems like someone’s found some money in the council budget at the end of period so need to spend it on something, anything, in order to keep their budget for next year…
Changing the subject entirely, I travelled on Hulleys Snake X57 this (Sunday) morning, on the first trip from Manchester to Sheffield. It was surprisingly busy (into double figures for most of the journey) but by the time we’d got through Glossop we were late, just as you were, simply because of traffic congestion. By the time we reached Snake, we were nearly 15 minutes late, and after the double-run to Fairholmes (where we neither dropped off nor picked up anyone, despite the popularity of the place) we were nearly 25 minutes late by the time we got back onto the main road. The driver went to the loo after loading up the passengers waiting for the return trip at Sheffield Interchange – as he said to another passenger, Manchester to Sheffield and back is a long way when you’ve got your legs crossed! – which meant the return journey was late leaving Sheffield and would then have been further delayed because of the traffic…
The route is satisfying a previously unfilled niche, and I think will probably be successful, but it really does need the running timings reviewed. Given that the buses appear to stand for as much as 1hr 15 at Manchester Airport, there’s plenty of room for retiming west of Ladybower whilst retaining the combined frequency between Ladybower Inn and Sheffield.
Incidentally, I got talking to a group of retired railwaymen who were travelling on the route as part of a bus pass trip around Britain and they mentioned learning about the route through your blog, so you’re definitely having an influence on people’s route choices!
My later journeys included Hulleys X70 from Chesterfield to Bakewell which lost 15 minutes in the Rowsley area again because of traffic congestion, and the Trent 6.1 had a good run from Bakewell to Matlock but struggled through Matlock Bath losing over 10 minutes simply because of the weight of traffic; apparently Matlock Bath is much more of a tourist destination than Matlock itself, with hundreds of motorcyclists there today taking up every available parking space.
On the positive side, both on the 6.1 and later on the i4 to Nottingham I noticed that the majority of paying passengers were using the touch-on, touch-off contactless option, many using phones rather than cards. It does seem rather slow as alighting passengers have to sidestep to the ticket machine to touch out – so maybe it would be better for TB to add touch-off pads by the door as Transdev have – but it’s a definite success for the industry and I suspect it’ll spread industrywide.
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I think today the roads around the peak district and really any national park were super busy as it was the first day of true good weather, so I imagine normally the traffic wouldn’t be that bad. I went on the X57 towards Manchester and we got to Glossop on time, caught a bit of traffic there but reached Manchester on time too. My journey was also quite busy although most of the bus alighted in Glossop with few going onto Manchester.
Also, the fairholme loop is only run on Sundays, so it isn’t having too much of an effect on timings
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Great feedback, many thanks and good to know the X57 is gaining in popularity as I thought it might if it could get through the winter. Such good news it has done. And wonderful to hear these travel musings are reaching retired railwaymen! Thanks again.
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Off topic, but a reply to “A Train Driver”. Matlock Bath has been a favourite destination for motorcycles for many years, probably since the 1930s. And probably caused congestion since then!
Trentbarton has had “touch-on, touch-off” since Mango discount cards replaced paper multi-journey tickets in 2008. Separate touch off pads were provided. However, when Init ticket machines were replaced with Ticketer in 2019, the new machines couldn’t read Mango cards. So the cards have been replaced with a phone app. Ticket machines have been modified so that you can touch-off with either the phone app or contactless. With current loadings, it probably doesn’t matter if the process is a bit slow!
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What happened to publicity for this scheme? It seems a rather complicated venture with designated bus stops etc. I had never heard of it until reading a post on’next door’ so isn’t this rather a waste of public money?
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Reverting back to the Katch service.
When it was first launched, I was an enthusiastic user. Buses were at the station on the hour, meeting trains from Ipswich that arrive at xx42 – and as you have to prebook, if you were the only booking, they didn’t have to hang around until the top of the hour, they could leave straight away. One contributor above has mentioned that there is very little time saving between the direct Fram/Ipswich bus, and a Katch bus to Wickham Market station, followed by the train to Ipswich. True, but a) the last bus leaves Fram at 6.40 pm (Katch used to operate until 10.00 pm) and b) the 118 is really uncomfortable, and doesn’t go to the train station (it’s about a 15 minute walk from the bus station). So I was a regular user, and very happy with it.
Unsurprisingly, I was in a minority! As mentioned above, it won’t suit very many people, and I’ve got to say it was an unusual journey if anyone else was on the bus. So naturally, operating hours became shorter – reduced to one an hour from two, and recently amended to the last Fram/Wickham Market station bus being at 7.00 pm (so removing one of the advantages, the later journeys as compared with the regularly scheduled 118 bus). Still just about worth it, as the trip is more comfortable.
But the recent timetable change has completely ruined it. Two more destinations, the other side of the station (Snape and Tunstall) have been added – in itself a good idea – but the timetable now has buses arriving at xx30 (to “connect” with the xx46 arrival of trains from Ipswich – a 44 minute wait), and the (now final) return trip at 7.00 pm dropping you back at the station at 7.24, a bone-chilling 42 minutes before trains back to Ipswich – and if you know Wickham Market station, there’s not much there to occupy yourself! As an aside, this bus practically never goes into Wickham Market town as no-one else is on it – it can go direct to the station which takes about 12 minutes, thus leaving you waiting for the next train for 54 minutes.
So as another contributor above has mentioned, I am getting the feeling that the council, already presumably losing money hand over fist on every journey, are now “setting up to fail” by making the rail connection so inconvenient that no-one will use it, giving them an excuse to withdraw the funding as it is proving unpopular. I’m certainly bailing out of using it, back to the 118 rattler for me!
14.4.2023 – I just read (in RailFuture’s Rail User Express) that Katch has been relaunched! – the main differences seem to be that the ‘route’ is extended south to Snape, and that the fares are more complex, but maybe cheaper in some cases. Phrases like ‘Katch collects you from your chosen stop at your chosen time’ sound wonderful, but I wonder if this is bending the trades description act a bit.
There is no mention of whether the connection times with trains are any better, and I wonder if this sort of service would be better if it were actually run by the train company? – after all they should have a lot to gain, and if the minibus met every train – and that was publicised – there might be little need for the app or telephone booking.