Thursday 17th June 2021
I’ve become a bit of a DRT connoisseur.
Sittingbourne, Weymss Bay, Liverpool, Speke, Leicester, Oxford, Sutton, Ealing, Teesside, Newport, Sevenoaks, Watford, Ebbsfleet, Scunthorpe, Milton Keynes … I’ve tried them all over the last couple of years. Regular readers will be all too familiar with my varied experiences so I’m delighted to report I’ve finally cracked the secret of how to make Demand Responsive Transport work like a dream.
You have to book your journey well in advance.
Ideally at least a few days before travel. Even a week ahead. That way, you get ahead of the algorithm’s fiendish habit of telling you there’s “no van available” (yes, some systems even call it a van that’ll be carrying you “in style” to your chosen destination).
Put bluntly, you have to game the system to book your bus ride to your destination, and importantly, back home again, before anyone else does. That way, you’re in with a chance to get a ride at the time that suits you.
And so to the Welsh version of DRT, fflecsi.
Welsh bus passengers were first introduced to fflecsi (Welsh for “flex”) in May last year, during Lockdown 1, as a way of saving resources on three low frequency town routes in Newport and instead run the full size single deck buses on a demand only system using ride sharing software with passengers using an app or a telephone booking. I took a ride once lockdown had ended in August and found it was an inevitability the service would partly revert to a traditional timetabled format as passengers returned. There’s now an hourly timetabled route 26A/C to St Julians in the north east part of Newport supplemented by a fflecsi on demand operation which also operates to the Rogerstone area to the north west.
Meanwhile TfW introduced further DRT fflecsi branded schemes elsewhere in Wales including a simple one vehicle operation in the north west of Cardiff, replacing the hourly localised bus route G1, a further scheme replacing route 152 in the Rhondda, a scheme in the rural area of Pembrokeshire, another in Prestatyn (former route 40) as well as Denbigh (former route 66), then the Conwy Valley scheme got going last November, and finally, on Monday of this week, an eighth scheme began in Ebbw Vale, Blaenau Gwent.
I decided it was high time I started giving these a try, and opted for the delightful Conwy Valley as a good bet to begin, especially as it enabled me to give the new TrawsCymru T19 which serves the area a ride too.
After my last experience of travelling all the way to Scunthorpe, only to find on arrival, it would be a few weeks before I could make my chosen journey at the time I wanted, I decided this time round, nice place though Betws-y-Coed is, I didn’t really want to be stranded there for a few days simply to travel a few miles across mid Wales over to Corwen so booking ahead would be essential.
All the more so because the Transport for Wales (TfW) way of making DRT a practical proposition for such a wide geographic rural area as Conwy Valley is to divide the area up and allocate certain days for fflecsi to serve different areas. So as my chosen segment is only served on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and as my planned journey was on Saturday afternoon and I had to get back to Sussex that evening, I didn’t really want to hang around until Tuesday for a ride if no vehicle was available.
Oddly, I found I could book my intended ride in advance even though the fflecsi website FAQ page tells me I can’t.
Last Thursday evening when booking for Saturday I found time slots available every half hour so I chose 13:00-13:30 bearing in mind my TrawsCymru was due in at 12:50 and received confirmation on the app of a pick up between “13:05 -13:25” which was absolutely ideal.
As regular readers will know, I arrived in Betws-y-Coed on time and found it positively bustling on Saturday lunch time with everyone enjoying the sunny summer weather able to frequent the cafes, restaurants and pubs as well as enjoying the amazing scenery.
Even the Gwynfor Coaches operated Snowdon Sherpa route S2 had a reasonable few passengers on board as it arrived.
Fflecsi are very good at sending you confirmation text messages as well as giving details of your “next ride” showing in the app. I received my first one on Friday evening which uses the 12 hour clock format, while the next one on Saturday lunch time reverts to a 24 hour format.
It was good to see fflecsi has made it on to bus stop plates in the area, which must help raise its profile.
Even more reassuring, when I arrived in Betws-y-Coed I quickly spotted a smart fflecsi branded minibus parked up in the ‘layover area’ guessing it must be my bus ready and waiting.
Sure enough, as the text’s kept coming (see above) telling me my bus was “on its way” (despite it being within full view just parked up!), as 13:15 approached, the driver appeared, jumped in the cab of the smart looking Mercedes Sprinter, and drove round to the bus stop to pick me up.
I was greeted by the most friendly driver you will ever meet. John really was a delight to travel with and turned out to be a great ambassador for fflecsi, as well as his company, Llandudno based Alpine Travel (“North Wales leading coach operator”). If I lived in north Wales I’d seriously think about taking a coach holiday with Alpine if John was going to be the driver.
He made the fifteen mile journey over to Corwen along one of the most scenic stretches of the A5 an absolute pleasure and, what great service, even pulled up in a suitable lay-by for me to take a photograph to show just how delightful it all is.
John is obviously in his element working with his colleagues on the two other fflecsi buses which operate the Conwy Valley scheme six days a week (it doesn’t run on Sundays), telling me about his experiences including how he came across a mother and child recently who hadn’t booked a return journey and the algorithm was telling her there were no buses available to take them home before close of business that day at 19:00 so he personally rang round his colleague drivers to find a way of shuffling the software generated commitments to ensure she got home.
As, John told me, “I tell all my passengers to make sure they’ve booked their ride home” as they get on the bus.
TfW have done well to get Alpine Travel involved. If every driver is like John, then glitches in the software and “computer says no” syndrome, so common on DRT schemes, won’t come across as harsh and unfriendly as they otherwise do.
But, enjoyable as the journey was, I do wonder whether this really is the sensible way to be providing a service between Betws-y-Coed and Corwen, or the other remote rural destinations the scheme covers. It comes back to the same problem…… I don’t know if my neighbour in my remote village has booked a ride to leave half an hour before I try to book and therefore the bus will be gone on its way and won’t be available for some considerable time. But if I had known, I’d happily have booked a seat on the same journey and left half an hour earlier. And we might also have arranged to come back together.
If only the app could show journeys already booked and where seats are available? Like a kind of timetable type of thing perhaps?
It was near on a forty minutes ride until we arrived in Corwen and it was time to bid a fond farewell to John who was heading back to Betws-y-Coed for his next booked ride at 15:00. I wondered if they too would be a sole passenger enjoying the scenic ride home and the company of such a friendly driver.
John handed me a snazzy leaflet about the Conwy Valley fflecsi scheme with details of the area served and the fares charged.
Fares start as low as £1 for a local ride and a maximum fare of just £3. It would have cost me way over £20 if I’d taken a taxi to Corwen, probably pushing £30. So fflecsi is a real bargain, not least for Welsh concessionary passholders who travel free.
The bus is smartly kitted out inside making for a very comfortable ride when you’re travelling alone and can choose the one seat with ample leg room and offers a great way of enjoying the superb views in a way you’d never get from a taxi, or car.
Having got the knack of this book-well-in-advance trick, on Sunday evening, I booked my ride on the newest fflecsi scheme which began on Monday in Ebbw Vale, Blaenau Gwent.
My planned X4 would be taking me from Merythr Tydfil over to Ebbw Vale with an arrival at 14:11 so I booked a first day ride for 14:30 and received confirmation back on the app all was set for a 14:20-14:40 pick up …
… followed by the now familiar text in 12-hour format confirming the pick up at “02:32 PM” which was precise but very convenient, if a little oddly expressed.
Even more odd was a further text received an hour before my expected departure with the timing changed by a minute (presumably because the software had been updated by the vehicle’s latest progress), and the presentation shifting back to the 24 hour clock as seems the custom.
This latest fflecsi operation is operated by Stagecoach with the area covered divided into two zones. The Ebbw Vale zone to the west (zone 1) involves the replacement of two local bus routes the E2 to Briery Hill and the E4 to Garnlydan which both hitherto ran half hourly, with the E2 not running in the evening.
Fflecsi in Zone 2 to the east of Ebbw Vale, down the valley south of Brynmawr, compliments two hourly local routes (1 and 3) operated by Henleys Bus Services as well as routes E3 and X15 operated by Stagecoach which all continue unchanged. However, fflecsi only serves this area in the morning peak and afternoon peak and evening (between 06:00 and 08:30 and between 17:00 and 22:00) leaving the daytime to the conventional routes. I guess this gives a welcome new evening facility for part of the area.
You can get an idea of the geography from the Stagecoach route map of the area available online which perhaps a little confusingly still shows the now withdrawn routes E2 and E4, but without that passengers might not be aware fflecsi exists – and Stagecoach have put a notice about it if you try and find an E2 or E4 timetable online (as shown above).
I’d booked a trip up to Briery Hill formerly served by the E2. Previously the journey would have taken around 15 minutes due to the circuitous nature of the route.
As readers of my last post about Merthyr Tydfil’s new bus station will recall, my X4 was running 16 minutes late as well as actually being timetabled 10 minutes later than when I’d consulted Stagecoach’s online timetable last week (the timetable changed from Sunday), so there was no way I’d make a 14:31, or even an 02:32 PM, fflecsi departure.
However, there’s a handy “edit” function on the fflecsi app which I used to rebook my journey by changing the desired pick up time, and sure enough back came a reply with a revised confirmed pick up at 15:04.
The “Inner Bypass” bus stops in Ebbw Vale are a series of bus shelters completely devoid of bus information or timetables. You have to be a psychic to travel by bus in these parts.
However, impressively there was a bus stop vinyl displaying the fflecsi logo which was very reassuring and there was another passenger waiting there at around 15:00, so it was all looking good.
I was able to monitor the progress of my bus courtesy of the app, noting it was picking up and dropping off around Briery Hill and seemingly being quite a busy bus.
Texts kept coming, and another smart looking fflecsi branded bus arrived not long after 15:04 and three passengers alighted.
You also get a standard text each time chivvying you along, even when you’re standing right by the bus about to board.
The other waiting passenger, obviously an E2 regular, boarded and chatted to the driver while another elderly passenger looking very distressed asked the driver where the bus was to his destination, Garnlydan, only to be told there’s no scheduled bus now only the on demand service. He said he’d been waiting over an hour, and was clearly upset at the thought of not being able to get home. It wasn’t clear whether he’d booked or not or knew about the changes but from what I overheard I’m pretty sure he booked his outward and return journeys by phone before leaving home.
The driver checked his tablet/smartphone device but said he wasn’t booked with him, and the gentlemen was advised to phone the call centre again on the 0330 number – it’s to a centralised location which apparently looks after all the fflecsi routes. I would think it will get quite busy with calls from this area as the demographics didn’t look like they are frequent app users to me. It didn’t look as though this gentleman had a phone on him.
The Mellor minibuses being used by Stagecoach on fflecsi are also smartly turned out vehicles with much better leg room than the Sprinters….
… with a pleasant interior.
The driver didn’t offer a leaflet about the new service, nor did it look like any were available but I’m advised official Welsh Government/TfW policy is paper is a potential transmitter of Covid so no paper timetables are currently allowed. I despair.
It was an uneventful ride up the hill to Briery Hill especially as our driver decided not to follow the route recommended by his tablet/smartphone which he said would have taken over ten minutes (I think it was routing him via the former bus route E2), whereas he drove direct to the destinations chosen by me and the other passenger (which coincidentally were very close to each other) and did it in about four minutes. It cost £1.90.
It didn’t surprise me the bus was being well used, even on its first day.
Replacing two half hourly local bus routes with regular passengers travelling between home and the nearby town centre and back knowing exactly when their bus is due with a demand responsive bus where no one knows when a bus might appear until they make contact either by a telephone call or an app, seems a very odd decision to me. It’s “technology gone mad”. Using an app for technology’s sake rather than for passengers’ best interests.
It’s rather like the Arriva Click set up in Speke, where a regular timetabled one bus operation shuttling around on a fixed timetable is now running round trying to meet everyone’s “on demand” requests.
Which of course, is impossible. It’s a recipe for dissatisfaction. It’s OK if you hit lucky and either book well ahead and grab the bus when you want it, or happen to coincide with another passenger already booked. But it’s tough if not, and the chances are you won’t, and could face an hour’s wait or more, as the Garnlaydon bound gentleman did whom I met at the “Inner Bypass” bus stop, or worse still, be left stranded as he was and I was on my Scunthorpe experience, facing a wait of weeks.
It seems, the only way is to forget about just deciding to travel by bus and turning up at a bus stop when one is timetabled. Instead you have to plan a day or two ahead and book in advance for any certainty of travelling when you want to do so. (And cancel the ride if you change your mind,)
I can’t see how this is an improvement on the fixed timetable routes these schemes are replacing and sadly fflecsi hasn’t convinced me otherwise – although, I’ll happily admit, I’ve not been able to travel between Betws-y-Coed and Corwen by conventional bus before, so that was a bonus, as was meeting John.
And, I should add, the Stagecoach driver was also very friendly and helpful too.
There’s still five fflecsi schemes to try out as well as a whole host of new DRT schemes coming on stream in England (thanks to the DfT’s £19 million Rural Mobility Fund) as well as one starting in a couple of months in Aberdeenshire.
I’m set for a busy summer.