Friday 25th June 2021
Trying out new Demand Responsive Transport services in their first week or two, as I often do, can give an unfair assessment due to initial teething problems or the fact few potential passengers know about their existence in the early days. So it’s always good to make a return visit after some time has elapsed and see how things are going.
On Wednesday I managed to catch up with three of England’s most recent schemes in Watford, Ebbsfleet and Milton Keynes in a bit of a DRT whirlwind tour of the Home Counties.
Here’s what I found.
Watford – 12 months on
Watford’s brush with DRT began last July and is the pet project of Peter Taylor, elected Mayor for the town since 2018. It’s operated by Arriva Click. I emailed him a copy of my blogpost from last August describing my rather dispiriting experience and downbeat prognosis for success and he kindly replied seemingly undaunted by reports of low take up and remained enthusiastic for the future. That’s politicians for you.
Of necessitity Wednesday’s DRT Tour schedule was fairly tight so to help with connections I decided to book a ride with from outside Watford Junction Station to Bushey Station just down the mainline, which of course could equally well be achieved by the half hourly London NorthWestern trains taking a couple of minutes, the quarter hourly London Overground taking five minutes or one of the nine buses an hour on TfL routes 142 and 258 taking 12 minutes.
But that wouldn’t have been as much fun as having your own personal minibus summoned by a click of an app at exactly the time you want it – the whole raison d’être of DRT.
As readers will know I’ve mastered the trick of booking in advance for my DRT rides rather than expecting, as the words “Demand Responsive” imply, a bus will arrive in response pretty soon after “demanding” it. Notwithstanding grandiose claims from the pedlars of such schemes, they can never truly be demand responsive. The Watford scheme allows bookings up to two days before travel but I left it until I was travelling towards Watford Junction on the train about half an hour before the train’s arrival.
Bingo, with a train arrival at 12:49, back came an opportunity to book a ride leaving from outside the station at 13:00. Perfect.
Ride booked, it was a simple case of waiting outside the station and as 13:00 approached, sure enough the app was confirming the bus was nearly with me and it came into view and stopped conveniently in the first bay of the bus station.
We were soon away (“we” being just driver David and myself of course) and did battle with Watford’s notorious traffic queues, including negotiating temporary traffic lights for roadworks on the busy Lower High Street, and made it to Bushey Station in ten minutes, not needing the latitude given in the app’s prediction of nineteen minutes.
It was therefore only a brief opportunity to catch up with David to see how things are going. He’d only recently joined Arriva Click, indeed I got the impression this was his first week, so there wasn’t much information I could ascertain from him about passenger loadings but he did observe it had been a difficult time due to Covid restrictions, which is obviously the case. David thought there were just two other vehicles out on the road, and one of those was parked up in the bus station by Watford Junction and, coupled with the fact, my booking was returned exactly as I’d requested indicated to me the service wasn’t exactly pulling in the passengers.
Concessionary passes aren’t valid on Arriva Click in Watford but to my surprise the fare was only £1 and I subsequently found out via the Click website that a special offer applies this week with all journeys priced at a £1, which made me wonder how well this had been promoted as nothing had appeared on social media.
My assessment therefore remains the same as last August. This scheme is a complete waste of money and Peter Taylor would be well advised to pull the plug on the original four year £2.6 million contract and turn his attention to other ways for enhancing “sustainable transport options”.
Ebbsfleet – 7 months on
Arriva Click also won the contract to provide a DRT operation in the burgeoning Ebbsfleet Garden City. It began last December replacing an unmemorable 65 minute frequency route 484 as well as peak and evening journeys on route 485/A through the area so inherited a base of passenger journeys, albeit a low one.
This scheme is funded by house builders Redrow and Henley Camsland and provides opportunities for residents moving into the thousands of new homes being built over the next few years in the former chalk quarry enabling them to reach rail stations at Ebbsfleet International and Geenhithe as well as the Bluewater shopping centre and Darent Valley Hospital and any other destinations in the area served.
I thought I’d book a journey from Ebbsfleet International Station over to Greenhithe Station and looked to see how things were panning out as I travelled down from Bushey Station towards Euston, but the options returned were impressively only 5 or 11 minutes ahead so obviously I couldn’t book those as I was still leaving Hertfordshire.
Later, as I sped along HS1 in the train from St Pancras I tried again, but this time only received one option of 5 minutes away, which was still too tight…
… so I sat tight and waited until I arrived at Ebbsfleet at 14:30 and tried again.
Only one option was offered, and that was for a pick up in 11 minutes so I booked that ready for a trip over to Greenhithe Station, coincidentally from where the app showed the bus was coming with Charlotte at the wheel to pick me up.
Coincidentally, as I was waiting at the prescribed location, an Arriva Click appeared as my due time of 14:44 approached but it turned out it was for two other people travelling together who’d alighted from the same train as me and also booked a ride.
They were waiting right outside the station exit, but I’d walked over the bridge to where the app was telling me to wait, albeit it turned out that wasn’t where drivers pull in to pick up, which was logically by the bus stops where Charlotte soon appeared and stopped ready for me to board.
I trotted along there and we headed off for the ten minute ride over to Greenhithe Station. Charlotte was a great ambassador for the service and was obviously enjoying her work, which she found much more satisfying compared to her previous job as a driver at Arriva’s Dartford bus garage with its TfL bus route work. I can fully understand that.
Charlotte said demand for the service was steady and on one occasion had as many as six passengers on one journey travelling to Bluewater. As more residents move into the growing residential area, with good publicity for Click, and a 30% discount on the fare for residents, it’s a good proposition to reach the shopping centre and station, particularly as Charlotte pointed out, houses are being built aplenty, but there aren’t any pubs or local shops nearby yet making it feel quite isolated. Good for transport, but not so good for social cohesion.
As I explained in my post on this service back last December there are exciting plans for electric buses on an expanded Fastrack network with exclusive road access including through a tunnel from the quarry to Bluewater so long term there won’t be a need for DRT. In the meantime it looks like it’s performing a useful role in what otherwise is quite a car dominated area (cf the size of car parks at both Bluewater and Ebbsfleet International), although each time I tried to book on Wednesday one of the only two vehicles which Charlotte thought were on the road was very quickly available indicating demand as being fairly “soft” I would suggest.
I could have used my concessionary pass on Arriva’s ten minute frequency Fastrack B which takes 12 minutes for the journey to Greenhithe but it’s more fun summoning up your own personal bus, especially when waiting time was so small, and it only cost £2.80 – much cheaper than a taxi.
That price was in fact a 30% reduction on the full fare price of £4.20 thanks to the fact I’d enquired with Arriva Click on Tuesday afternoon whether concessionary passes are valid and been advised if I emailed a photo of my pass, they would apply the 30% discount with a code on to my app – but it might take up to five days to do “as we’re getting a lot of emails at the moment”. In the event a shout out to Rob (at “Arriva Click’s Control & Customer Operations Centre“) as I sent the photo through on Tuesday evening at 20:53 and got an email back from Rob confirming it had been actioned at 23:24. Now that’s under-promising and over-delivering big time!.
Milton Keynes – 3 months on
Last up of my three DRT catch up visits is the newest scheme, MK Connect, introduced three months ago at the end of March.
For the purposes of my scheduling on Wednesday I sampled this operation first that morning by taking the train from Euston to Bletchley and expecting to click an MK Connect ride from there through to Milton Keynes Central Station.
I set about booking my pick up on the train from Euston however the clever Via app software referred me to the very train I was on as a way of making my requested journey from Bletchley to Milton Keynes Central, which rather disrupted my plan for a DRT test ride but, of course, was quite right as Milton Keynes Council did pledge when introducing MK Connect that it would compliment rather than compete with existing public transport services.
So when I arrived at Bletchley I instead decided to book a journey to an obscure part of Milton Keynes I knew wasn’t served by train or conventional bus in the far north east corner of the area served but that didn’t go down well with the software either …
Instead I submitted a journey request to a location just a bit more than a reasonable walking distance from Milton Keynes Central Station and back came a wait time of 24 minutes, so opted for that and watched the clock count down to my Toyota’s arrival.
It looked a rather circuitous route being taken as the taxibus approached me but it then became obvious why, as a passenger was already on board and being dropped off along the way.
I was following the vehicles progress towards me on the app, but something didn’t look right when I received a message to say the vehicle had arrived but the app was showing it not moving some distance away.
This continued for a few minutes and luckily the software gives an icon to use to phone the driver which I then did asking him where he was and he replied at Bletchley Station and asked where I was. I said I was waiting as instructed by the “drop off point” outside the station, and after a few seconds the driver and vehicle then appeared.
There was just a wonky small vinyl on the front nearside door to denote it was an MK Connect vehicle, but from the front, rear and offside it could have been any anonymous taxi.
It’s very difficult to pin down the level of resources being thrown at MK Connect. It was introduced by Milton Keynes Council to save money on low frequency tendered bus routes they fund, yet when I’ve asked drivers how many vehicles are out at the time I’m travelling I get various replies, including an estimate of 30 on Wednesday morning. If that’s the case I can’t possibly see how this is saving the Council money.
We made it to central Milton Keynes (as opposed to Milton Keynes Central) in the time predicted. My driver wasn’t particularly talkative so I didn’t learn too much about the latest experiences. I got the impression the service is being well used and certainly if there are 30 vehicles out on the road and 24 minute waiting times, that’s a good indicator business is brisk. Indeed I tried to book the same journey again while at home yesterday afternoon and was offered a ride in 41 minutes which is outside the “average wait times range between 5 and 30 minutes” pledge on the MK Connect website.
As I mentioned when I wrote about my MK Connect experience at the end of March, this is almost certainly at the expense of local taxi companies not least because concessionary passholders – who travel free (and now not just locally based residents, but the MK Connect website confirms all passholders travel free) – have effectively got a free taxi service across the town with MK Connect. If they don’t mind the wait and are creative in their journey requests by including a bit of a walk, as I did. Other passengers pay £2.50 flat rate off peak (£3.50 peak) which also compares well with a.taxi but works out costly for a regular traveller without any return tickets, weekly or longer period tickets, as mentioned last time.
It will be interesting to see how the finances are stacking up for Milton Keynes Council and whether Via, who operate this service with gig economy style “self employed drivers” are shouldering some of the expansion costs as a short term hit for long term gain in the burgeoning DRT business.
Twelve, seven and three months later, these three schemes are turning out much the same I found on my first visits.
Stand by for more DRT experiences in the coming months.