YorBus and HertsLynx
Thursday 23rd September 2021
I’ve been back out and about on the DRT trail again. It’s almost becoming a full time occupation as the DfT’s Rural Mobility Pot Of Gold funding kicks in with nineteen schemes starting up as the money begins to flow.
First up last Saturday I took a ride on North Yorkshire’s YorBus – and no its not one of my typos – that’s the catchy brand name the agency came up with in the ‘what shall we call it’ brain storming session (it’s presumably short for Yorkshire Bus).
Introduced pre Rural Mobility Fund handouts back on 1st July it’s had time to bed in being in its twelfth week so I wasn’t expecting any teething problems nor did I find any, although one distinctly non-techy aspect took me by complete surprise.
I’d already downloaded the Via algorithm run App and confirmed my status as a concessionary pass holding passenger so all rides would be free for me (except presumably before 9.30 on Mondays to Fridays). But fare payers also get a good deal with an astonishingly low flat fare of just £1.20 a ride (65p for children aged 5-17).
The YorBus area stretches from Ripon and the village of Bishop Thornton in the south with the A1(M) its eastern boundary, and the market towns of Bedale in the north and Masham in the north west.
Operated by North Yorkshire County Council themselves rather than contracted out to a bus company, the hours of operation are 06:55-18:00 on Mondays to Fridays and 09:00-18:00 on Saturdays with no Sunday service. Two Fiat 16 seat minibuses are deployed to the scheme with four driver shifts on a Monday to Friday to ensure both morning and evening peaks and mid duty meal breaks are covered with just two shifts on a Saturday so watch out when one driver goes off on a meal break meaning there’s just the other one left active on the road.
If journeys take a pretty much direct line of route between Ripon and either Bedale or Masham – which must be by far the most popular places served – it takes about 20-25 minutes travelling time. I took a journey from Ripon to Bedale and we did it comfortably in 25 minutes even taking two other passengers home on the way and being routed via the village of North Stainley on the A6108 to drop them off and then almost travelling into Masham on our algorithm prescribed route then taking the B6268.
This interested me as if you used both minibuses on a conventional timetable you could easily operate a two bus an hour frequency on a circular route clockwise and anti-clockwise (with each hourly) linking Ripon with Masham and Bedale and all the villages in between. Or do that with one of the buses clockwise one hour and anti-clockwise the next and use the other bus for some regular journeys to the other isolated villages not on that line of route.
That way everyone would have a best ever service and importantly know when the bus is coming. Not exactly revolutionary I know, but it might work better than the pot luck random nature of DRT travelling. And I know it won’t make work (or profits) for tech type people nor make for good photo opportunities for politicians who love to ingratiate themselves with anything ‘ground breaking’ like an ‘Uber style bus on demand’ but boring buses actually do work better for passengers.
For example, on my way to Ripon to give YorBus a try out at 12:47 on Saturday I asked the App for my planned journey from Ripon to Bedale and it offered me a ride in 4 minutes. Superb service. Except I was in Harrogate so I had to decline the offer.
Forty-two minutes later at 13:29 on arrival in Ripon I tried again when I was ready for my onward journey to Bedale and this time the best the App could offer was a 49 minute wait. How frustrating is that?
There’s no opportunity to book in advance with YorBus – which I’ve found to be the only way DRT can give some certainty and reassurance for passengers – so you just have to play roulette with the App when you’re ready to ride, and hope for the best.
After I arrived in Bedale and let Dave my driver for the trip disappear into the distance having picked up three passengers and a dog heading back south towards Ripon, I left it a few minutes and tried to book another trip for myself from Bedale back to Ripon at 14:52.
And to my surprise the App offered a journey in just 3 minutes which I can’t imagine would be Dave as he would have had to turn round and come back for me so I assume it was the second driver out on the road that day. As I didn’t want to go back to Ripon I declined the offer but tried again almost an hour and a half later at 16:18, just to see, and this time would have faced a 43 minute wait demonstrating exactly the point I’m making.
Please – those advocating DRT as the way forward – please, please take note. It’s not.
The minibuses being used on YorBus are very functional in design and layout.
They have a manual ramp for wheelchair access at the front door as well as a rear wheelchair lift.
The capacity sticker indicates the bus takes up to three wheelchairs if eight ordinary seats are removed.
It also indicates there are 15 seats but I counted 16 including three single seats on the nearside in a row of six with tip up cushions….
… and one poked into the offside rear corner.
The cushions have a kind of plastic covering which makes the interior feel rather basic and ‘welfare’ like. Leg room is also very poor indeed.
I don’t think it’s going to tempt many motorists out of their luxury cars.
But there is some moquette stuck to the roof and a glass panel to watch the clouds go by.
I understand Transdev Blazefield suggested some common branding and joint ticketing with their route 36 which would make perfect sense for the obvious tie in there is at Ripon for through passengers to and from places like Bedale and Masham from Leeds and Harrogate but this was turned down by North Yorkshire County Council as being ‘all too difficult’. Yet it’s often local authorities who chastise operators for a lack of integration.
I wasn’t particularly impressed by the fading posters about YorBus stuck up in the bus shelter in Bedale with sellotape either.
A clue as to how they’ll look in a few more months and years was from the other timetables on display.
These are for the conventional routes still running in the area as YorBus has been added on top of existing, albeit rather sparse, services linking some of the main villages and communities. I assume they won’t be long for this world now the £1.20 a ride ‘Uber style on-demand bus’ is around to kill then off.
The most bizarre thing about YorBus is despite all the tech stuff to book your ride through the App you have to pay your fare to the driver and although there’s a credit card machine to take card payments there’s no ticket machine so the driver has to hand write out a ticket in a duplicate book for each passenger including writing the origin, destination, fare paid and date and hand the top copy to the passenger. As Dave observed “digital meets analogue”.
No hand writing of tickets down in Hertfordshire where HertsLynx got going on Sunday.
This very much is a DfT funded scheme receiving a cool £1.4 million handout from the Rural Mobility Fund for the four year project.
It covers the rural area to the north of the County centred on the market town of Buntingford and has been introduced on top of existing services, albeit there aren’t too many in the rural area.
The area map identities purple ‘Key Hub Towns’ and a green ‘Free-Floating Operating Zone’ which all sounds a bit complicated especially when the only restriction is not being able to book a journey within each of the purple ‘Key Hub Towns’. Otherwise you can book a journey from anywhere to anywhere including travel between the ‘Key Hub Towns’ – for example, Stevenage to Hitchin where there’s a frequent conventional bus service.
Fares are on a promotional offer for the first month until 19th October offering some great bargains, which have the side effect of somewhat undermining the conventional bus routes. There’s no indication of what fares will apply after this introductory period.
HertsLynx runs 07:00-19:00 Mondays to Saturdays and 10:00-1600 on Sundays offering significantly improved travel opportunities particularly for rural dwellers across the area and between those hub towns especially where and when the service is not so good (eg Hitchin to Bishops Stortford).
The service is operated by Hatfield based Uno with three smartly appointed Mercedes Sprinter 16 seat minibuses in a swish black and green livery. I understand there are plans to expand the fleet to five as demand grows.
The service began on Sunday so my try out on Monday, its first weekday, was always at risk of experiencing teething problems and it didn’t disappoint in that respect.
One positive is you can book a journey in advance during the operating day and are offered options up to every fifteen minutes or so (subject to vehicle availability) as shown below at the bottom of the image for a sample Royston to Buntingford lunch time journey.
I took the precaution of booking my ride from Royston railway station to Stevenage railway station early on Monday morning before leaving my Sussex home and chose 11:10 am which was 14 minutes after my planned train arrival allowing time to find my bearings and any late running by Thameslink.
I was offered pick ups about every half an hour which was nice to see and obviously reflected the lack of passengers for the first weekday operation.
To confirm the booking I had to pay the £4 fare either by previously buying credits through the App or paying for the journey there and then with a bank/credit card. There was no way to indicate I had a concessionary pass and no clue how to register it.
Once the booking was confirmed on the App I was advised I’d receive notification of the vehicle’s arrival just before the pick up time, but nothing was received.
I did receive an email confirming my booking and the fare paid and this gave a phone number if I had any queries.
As 11:10 arrived with no indication of a bus coming and the App not updating I decided to give the number a call. I saw later it’s also the number advertised on the side of the vehicles to use as an alternative to the App to book a ride.
This goes through to Uno but unfortunately it was on answerphone, so I left a message asking for someone to ring me back and help with a non-appearing minibus.
No call came back but luckily within a few more minutes Neil arrived. It turned out he’d only just taken over the bus from Adrian in Buntingford and this being his first shift with HertsLynx since returning from holiday on Sunday naturally needed a quick bit of training and familiarisation of what to do from Adrian before he got going. Hence the slight delay in getting to me.
Unfortunately it then became evident Adrian had forgotten to hand the electronic ignition key for the minibus over to Neil, so after pulling up at Royston without Andrew in the vicinity it wouldn’t start and we were stuck fast immediately outside the station entrance blocking the exit route.
Taxi drivers and motorists dropping off passengers seemed to understand as Neil kept getting out of the minibus to indicate to them to use the entrance slip road, and the resulting delay for 40 minutes waiting for the key enabled us to get to know each other. It turned out Neil’s father worked as a bus driver at London Transport’s Palmers Green garage when I did my two stints there as a bus conductor in the early 1970s – what a small world, as they say.
It also gave me a chance to take a look around the bus. A few times.
It’s to Mercedes upmarket specification favoured by a number of DRT operators including Arriva Click.
After about 40 minutes the cavalry arrived in the form of Uno’s Commercial Manager Ed Cameron who luckily was in the Buntingford area and was able to ferry the ignition key over to us and, better late than never, after a little more familiarisation in procedures for Neil from Ed, we were on our way to Stevenage.
It was a good run along the A505 and A1(M) and we arrived in Stevenage 23 minutes later. At least that went well.
Poor Neil didn’t have the best of starts for his time with HertsLynx which he’s looking forward to being involved with rather than Uno’s conventional bus routes he’s been driving. He coped admirably with having a passenger as soon as he clocked on for his first shift on the first weekday with no knowledge of what to do, which must have been a shock enough, but then to find he was stranded in a minibus which wouldn’t drive AND with that passenger being someone who writes sceptical blogposts about DRT, it was quite a first day challenge. But he’s such a friendly man and I am sure will be a great ambassador for HertsLynx over the four year contract. One thing’s for sure, he’ll know to make sure the relieving driver hands over the key in the future!
It was also a bonus to see Ed again, who’s been doing some great work since his arrival at Uno from Best Impressions a few years ago.
Teething problems will happen, it’s just unfortunate this one needed emergency dental treatment, phone lines were going unanswered and there was no indication how to register a concessionary pass.
Later in the afternoon I received a call from a profusely apologetic Alice, the Project Manager for HertsLynx at Hertfordshire County Council which was good of her. Not least the reimbursement of my £4, a free ride offer for a friend and registering my concessionary pass for future free rides. Alice was understandably devastated to hear of my experience especially after working hard for months to get the service up and running.
I reassured her in my experience these things happen and it’s a learning experience for everyone including me …. and it’s yet another adventure I can write about. But I did come away wondering how much training and familiarisation the ten or so drivers have been given. And who’s meant to be answering the phone.
More DRT riding coming up in the next couple of weeks in Aberdeenshire and Leeds with plenty more to come later in the year.