Tuesday 13th July 2021
It really was third time lucky.
Readers will know it’s taken two abortive visits to Scunthorpe, but after much perseverance I finally managed to experience a journey on the North Lincs JustGo DRT service at the third attempt last Tuesday.
I left you in my last blog post on the East Yorkshire operated (along with Stagecoach) FastCat branded half hourly route 350 from Hull via Barton-upon-Humber to Scunthorpe.
But I had a cunning plan to get to Scunthorpe more quickly by getting off the bus at Barton-upon-Humber and calling up my very own personal DRT bus.
If I’d stayed on the 13:40 departure from Hull’s Paragon Interchange it would have got me to Scunthorpe’s bus station at 14:58. By alighting at Barton-upon-Humber Interchange at 14:11 however, and a slick transfer on to my chauffeur driven Mercedes I’d be whisked over to Scunthorpe non-stop via the M180 arriving into Scunthorpe and hopefully be dropped off right outside Scunthorpe railway station, for added personal convenience, well before 14:58.
It turned out to be a half hour ride instead of 47 minutes on the 350 plus a 12 minute walk to the rail station making for an hour’s journey in total. I therefore did it in half the time.
But only because I pre-booked my journey with JustGo three weeks earlier. If I’d left it to respond to my request on the day, last Tuesday, I’d probably be still there, waiting for a bus to become available, based on previous experience.
Despite what they tell you, it’s not Demand Responsive Transport at all. It’s PRT which stands for Pre-booked Responsive Transport.
And PRT is just brilliant. The only snag being, very few people can commit to organising their lives knowing what bus journeys they want to make two or three weeks ahead.
Of course, it’s a complete nonsense. Public transport isn’t meant to be like this at all.
But, with DRT, it is.
Even my careful pre-planning for last Tuesday nearly came a cropper.
The confirmation I received back on the app confirmed my pick up would be between 14:15 and 14:30 – ideal for the route 350 arrival at 14:11.
Nearer the date, my app was confirming the pick up would be at 14:23 by bus D. Perfect I thought.
In the event as I headed over to Barton-upon-Humber on the bus on Tuesday afternoon just north of Hessle I noted we were running two or three minutes late, when an update appeared on my phone telling me “your driver is on their way to pick you up. Please ensure you are at … by 2.14pm in order to be picked up”.
At 14:06 as we crossed the Humber Bridge another similar update came through.
Then a minute later at 14:07 another message to say “Your driver has arrived!” while I was still coming over the Humber Bridge. Unhelpfully the message didn’t say how many minutes I had left to board the vehicle either.
I began to worry the driver might not wait.
Luckily he did, and Barton-upon-Humber’s Interchange lived up to its name as the East Yorkshire bus pulled in along with a Stagecoach bus in the Hull bound direction and my JustGo minibus. All we needed was a train in the adjacent station’s platform for a real modal feast.
I hopped aboard the minibus and away we went.
Another wonderfully friendly driver and we had a good chat on the half hour journey over to Scunthorpe. I asked how many passengers did he think pre-book as far in advance as I’d just done and to my surprise he said it’s not that unusual. Some of the regulars do it all the time.
It occurred to me I was lucky not to find the journey interrupted by deviations to pick others up across the wide geographic area covered by JustGo. The driver said he often gets pick ups in Brigg when in the Barton area. Not today though, and we went on to the M180 for an even quicker journey over to Scunthorpe. No chance of pick ups on that road.
Being dropped right outside Scunthorpe station was also a bonus as it saved the walk from the bus station, but I couldn’t help wonder why the app had let me book this journey in the first place which could have easily been accommodated by route 350. Journeys within Scunthorpe are not allowed on JustGo so they don’t abstract from traditional bus routes, but it seems that doesn’t apply to longer journeys.
North Lincolnshire Council has produced a leaflet explaining how to use JustGo including a map showing the area covered …
… and a frank admission that booking ahead “four weeks in advance” being “more likely there will be a seat” which doesn’t mean, as you might think there’s a risk the bus could be full, it means you stand a better chance of the bus being “responsive” to your “demand“and actually turning up.
It was good to see some leaflets available on board the bus I travelled on in a makeshift leaflet rack behind the pull down seats, that I assume are never needing to be pulled down.
Concessionary passes are valid on JustGo so that was also a bonus. A personal chauffeured Mercedes at no cost to me. I’m beginning to like DRT after all, or PRT as I now call it.
I tried the same trick yesterday on another DRT scheme spearheaded by Andy Street Mayor of the West Midlands in a blaze of launch publicity earlier this year.
It’s centred on the University of Warwick, which is located just outside Coventry, and has part funded the operation along with the Combined Authority.
There are high hopes for this scheme with the launch news release full of optimism … “success will be determined by it being a self-sustaining commercial service, offering car users a more sustainable mode of transport and public transport users greater flexibility. The initial route will operate between the University of Warwick campuses with the view of extending it as the trial progresses.”
Andy Street reckoned “this is a pioneering new type of bus services which uses the latest app technology to offer a bus where you want it and at the right time within the zone, rather than restricted to set routes and timetables. It is just the kind of innovation we in the West Midlands are famed for”.
You’d think someone who knows a thing or two about running buses in the Combined Authority would have let him know the idea “it being a self-sustaining commercial service” is about as likely as England’s football team being able to guarantee scoring five successful penalties (if only). It ain’t going to happen.
This ‘West Midlands Bus On Demand’ got going ten weeks ago and involves four minibuses linking the University of Warwick’s campus located three and a half miles south west of Coventry rail station with surrounding towns including Leamington Spa and Coventry.
Routes that are also well served by conventional bus routes including Stagecoach and National Express West Midlands competitive routes U12 and 12X.
I knew I could book a journey in advance as I’d done it for one day last week but had to subsequently cancel due to changed plans, but early yesterday morning when trying to book my desired trip from Warwick Parkway Station to the University campus I either received the response “Out of operating hours” (which was true, it was 06:30 and operating hours are 07:00 to 19:00) but surely the software doesn’t go to sleep outside of these hours as well ….
…. or when I hit the small “schedule” icon on that display to book a journey for 10:45 yesterday morning I received a message advising “we’re currently experiencing very high demand, and all our seats are filled!”.
What nonsense. This was at 06:31 in the morning and the journey I was trying to book was at 10:45.
I spent the next 20 minutes trying to rebook before deciding despite this negative response I’d still head off to Warwick and try my luck closer to the time.
While I was on the train waiting to leave Marylebone soon after 09:00 I gave the app another try and this time got a journey offered with a pick up between 10:45 and 11:15 – ideal for my train arrival into Warwick Parkway at 10:32 if at the beginning of that ‘window’ but not so good if it entailed waiting until 11:15.
In the event Mohinder arrived at 11:03 having dropped a passenger off at the University’s much smaller outpost campus at Wellesbourne, five miles south of Warwick Parkway, which involved passing where I was waiting, before returning to pick me up from the station.
Mohinder has been working with National Express Accessible Transport (NEAT) on their Ring & Ride contract with West Midlands Combined Authority aimed at “anyone that struggles to use conventional transport” before being asked to transfer over to this new DRT contract which is also operated by NEAT.
The vehicle Mohinder arrived in wasn’t as swish as the one used at the media launch with its tinted windows and smart grey livery. In fact the vehicles being used seemed to be bog standard Mercedes ‘welfare’ style minibuses from NatEx’s Accessible Transport fleet complete with tail lift to accommodate passengers using wheelchairs or who find the boarding step awkward.
It felt as though I was on a bit of a welfare outing rather than a swish DRT.
This seems a shame for a service of this kind which should convey a more appropriate inclusive image.
Although it’s quiet now, with the University on vacation, Mohinder was expecting demand to pick up in September when students return.
I subsequently learned that before the students left for the summer, drivers were seeing about twenty passengers per shift which didn’t strike me as anywhere close to “a self sustaining commercial service”.
We made it to the University campus in twenty minutes and Mohinder was then off on his break.
I understand there are four early turns for the drivers (06:15 to 13:30) and four late turns (13:00 to 19:00) with an arrangement I didn’t fully understand where all the drivers rendezvous to switch over between shifts, park up and then travel in one bus together to a base. Maybe that was happening when I tried to book earlier yesterday morning.
Having successfully completed that journey I decided to book another to take me from the campus to Coventry rail station. I could have got one of the many buses operated by Stagecoach and National Express West Midlands but found that a minibus was available in just two minutes so knew I wouldn’t be stranded, especially as the app also told me a 12X was departing “in 7 minutes”.
I left it another six minutes and then enquired again and found the same bus was still available “in 2 minutes” and this time also letting me know there was both a U12 and 12X leaving in 11 and 16 minutes.
Paul had been parked up nearby on the campus waiting for a booking and soon appeared.
Like Mohinder, Paul had transferred over to this DRT contract from Ring & Ride but whereas Mohinder had previously been a taxi driver, Paul had previous PCV driving experience with National Express in Coventry, Travel De Courcey and a local coach company.
He also foresaw an explosion in demand when students return in September but I said I wasn’t sure whether the price might put them off. My journey from Warwick Parkway had cost £5 and to Coventry was £3, but Paul pointed out a second passenger can be booked for just a flat £1 add on so two could do the Coventry ride to the campus for £2 each (£3+£1 divide by 2) which isn’t bad for a personal bespoke chauffeured taxi type service if you’ve overslept and need to get to a lecture quickly.
But that’s assuming there’s no “very high demand and all seats are filled” which, as ever, is the bain of a DRT user’s life.
Interestingly Bob commented on my last posting that “the ASA is considering investigating the advertising of Demand Responsive service as it considers that many are not as described. It is an issue similar to what happened with Broadband with most ISP’s marking the services as delivering speeds that would not be achieved. The first problem appears to be that there is no real definition of what Demand Responsive means although most peoples expectation would be that you should be able to book a trip to meet your needs and at short notice. Most current service marketed as Demand Responsive appear to full into the category of Pre Book service rather than demand responsive. I suspect like with Broadband a compromise solution will be reached so that say to be Demand Responsive if you book at least say 1 hour in advance 90% of the bookings have to be accepted if not the service has to be marketed as a Pre Book service”.
To test things out, last night I tried to book a ride from Barton-upon-Humber to Scunthorpe for today, Tuesday, at 14:15 with JustGo but the nearest date when a bus is available at that time is Friday. Whereas last night West Midlands On Demand would let me book a ride for 10:30 from Warwick Parkway to the campus for this morning no problem.
So one scheme could be considered a success in that the buses are busy but as a consequence it’s not responsive to demand while the other is successful in that it’s responsive to demand but as a consequence the buses aren’t busy.
Which just about sums DRT up.