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.