Saturday 9th October 2021
A couple of exciting zero emission developments were added to the Leeds bus scene in September. I caught up with both during a visit on Thursday.
First up is another DRT operation using electric Fiat minibuses with Mellor bodies. I know, I know, you must be tiring of reading write ups about DRT schemes, but this one is the first to be introduced by one of the six 1970s style Metropolitan Authorities which we now call Combined Authorities. (Liverpool’s flirtation with DRT was an Arriva initiative although one bus remains in Speke courtesy of Merseytravel).
It’s in East Leeds and called FlexiBus. An unfortunate choice of name as both Google and the Apple App store reckon you meant to type in the out-to-dominate-Britain’s-express-coach market upstart called FlixBus instead and direct you to their website and App.
It’s a three year “pilot” by West Yorkshire (Metro) Combined Authority which “will be the first trial of digital DRT within West Yorkshire and will be used to evaluate the impact, effectiveness and commercial viability of the DRT service for wider applications in West Yorkshire”. It’s a pity they’ve not been regular readers of these blogposts as I could have saved them the £2,234,000 budget set aside for FlexiBus from the “Leeds Transport Investment Programme” (£763,000), the “Local Transport Plan Integrated Transport Block Programme” (£703,000) as well as Section 106 funds of £768,000, by telling them for free “commercial viability” is just never going to happen.
And that’s not all. It might just be a scheme with seven minibuses running around East Leeds carrying very few passengers between places not previously easily connected on the city’s radial bus routes to you and me but to a Combined Authority which thrives on bureaucracy an initiative of this kind needs a whole industry of project teams and management systems to ensure the pilot is properly delivered and monitored.
I was intrigued to read the Combined Authority and Leeds City Council “adopt PRINCE2 and Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) to deliver projects” especially having spent a career running buses and not having a clue what they’re going on about.
What’s more …. “it is proposed to use these (PRINCE 2 and MSP) for developing and delivering this Project. Following the ‘Decision to Proceed’ from DfT, a dedicated programme team, with a clear and accountable Senior Responsible Officer (SRO), Programme Board, Project Manager(s) and work stream leads. Resources have been brought together from across the Combined Authority and additional technical specialists from LCC will be utilised on the project as required”. That’s according to the Combined Authority’s Scheme Summary document.
Originally the plan was to introduce two pilots across two distinct area of East Leeds…
… but as you can see from the map now displayed on Metro’s website shown below, these have been combined into just one area which includes journeys to and from the city central Bus Station, St James’s Hospital and three supermarkets at Hunslet (Morisons), Killingbeck (Asda) and Seacroft (Tesco) even though these lie outside the geographic area served. One of the justifications for the scheme in the business case was the difficulty for residents in East Leeds to access supermarkets by bus.
FlexiBus is a Monday to Saturday operation between 07:00 and 19:00 with no Sunday service. There’s a flat fare of £2 and concessionary passes are valid (but not before 09:30 on weekdays). Fares are paid to the driver in the normal way. The seven minibuses are operated by First Bus from its Hunslet depot just on the edge of the operating area.
It’s difficult to work out exactly where the boundaries are on the map. Whereas Apps for other DRT operations allow you to use a map within them to determine your precise pick up and drop off point, the FlexiBus App only allows you to enter the addresses, by typing them in, and will only let you know you’re out of the area after you’ve tried booking a journey.
This happened to me when I tried to book my journey in advance for Thursday lunchtime while at home on Wednesday to take me from Cross Gates railway station – which I saw is definitely in the area served – to the new Park and Ride site recently opened at Stourton which is adjacent to Leeds Enterprise Zone which is shown on the map.
But the App told me that journey wasn’t possible so I booked to go to the Park and Ride site at Temple Green, north of the River Aire, instead leaving at 12:45, which was accepted and booked. Simple.
I arrived at Cross Gates Station in good time at 12:24 thanks to Northern Rail and waited alongside the station entrance, with its signage in a rather strange font, for my 12:45 pick up.
To my surprise the minibus was silently gliding towards me within just a few minutes at 12:30 and after introductions with driver Marianne we were soon on our way, efficiently ahead of the originally expected departure time.
Marianne was absolutely brilliant. She was so friendly and interested to hear about my Guinness World Record attempt at travelling on every DRT scheme there is (only joking).
I immediately noticed the quiet transmission as the bus pulled away with only the usual hum-come-whine you get from electric propulsion barely audible. Acceleration was impressive.
Seats inside the bus are quite well spaced out with only twelve standard seats spread around the interior.
The ambiance isn’t exactly enticing. I’m not sure BMW Driver would be impressed. One Tweeter observed on Twitter they’d seen more salubrious prison cells; another commented it’s “DSS waiting room chic”.
The sign says there’s an option for two wheelchairs but that didn’t look practical to me (or Marianne) with four seats having to be removed to create space for the second wheelchair.
Access to the emergency exit door at the rear has been allowed for in the layout.
The moquette is a bit ‘busy’, as you can see, and as per the trend nowadays, includes some on the ceiling along with an opening roof window too.
But it doesn’t really do much for improving the aura of the bus. It’s such a shame when over £2 million is being spent on this project, that the minibuses on which passengers travel are far from what could be described as luxurious and enticing.
We headed off towards the Temple Green Park and Ride site which involved using the M1 for one junction to the A63 at Junction 45 where the site is located.
Once we were there Marianne was interested to hear the App wouldn’t let me book a ride to the Stourton Park and Ride site as she’d been told it is in the area served.
So once Marianne had confirmed on the tablet/SatNav we’d arrived she offered to take me on to the Stourton site which was very kind of her especially as I tried to book the journey there and then but it still reckoned it’s not available.
We headed towards Leeds city centre on the A63 to cross the River Aire, passing First’s Hunslet depot where the seven buses are based, and then headed out passing an Industrial Estate (which now seems to be called the Leeds Enterprise Zone on the FlexiBus map) to get to the new Park and Ride site at Stourton.
Total journey time from Cross Gates via Temple Green to Stourton had been not much more than twenty minutes including a photo stop at Temple Green.
Having arrived at Stourton I took a look at the FlexiBus map again and I think Marianne may have done me a big favour as I don’t think the splurge of pale blue to denote the area covered does extend as far as the new Park and Ride site. But it’s difficult to tell. However, it was excellent customer service on her part to deliver me to where I wanted to be. Although the alternative was for her to just parked up to wait for another booking, and she told me she has the freedom to choose where to park to do that. As do the other drivers, which seemed a strange way of organising things as all seven buses could in theory be waiting at the same location.
Marianne also explained the number of passengers using FlexiBus is building now the service is into its second week and “initial teething problems with the tablets last week” have been ironed out. She was carrying about ten passengers a day and on some journeys more than one passenger has travelled together a couple of times. That’s £20 revenue then – assuming they were all fare payers, which is highly unlikely.
FlexiBus reminds me of Oxford’s Pick-Me-Up in that it serves an area east of the city centre where most of the traditional bus routes are to a radial pattern making cross area journeys a challenge, which DRT can theoretically help to resolve.
But as Oxford Bus found after a couple of years this comes at a hefty operational cost and there just aren’t enough passengers travelling often enough to reach viability, let alone the significant costs involved in running the seven minibuses this scheme employs as well as charging very low fares.
Frankly, commendable though it is in using “zero emission” propulsion, as with all the others, FlexiBus stands no chance of survival once the initial funding runs out after three years, but I’ll leave it to the “Senior Responsible Officer, Programme Board, Project Manager and work stream leads” to work that out for themselves.
Having arrived at the new Park and Ride site at Stourton I spent a bit of time having a good look around to see what’s on offer.
It opened for business a month ago on 6th September and really is an impressive set up. Mind you at a cost of £38.5 million it ought to be.
According to Leeds City Council it forms part of “Connecting Leeds ambition to improve the bus network, provide better connectivity and reduce carbon emissions in the city”.
The site provides a massive 1,200 spaces with the unique feature being solar panels on roofs to provide power to run the site and which provide the bonus of providing covered parking for I’d guess between a third and a half of the spaces.
There’s also 26 electric charging points including some designated for disabled badge holders.
Although surprisingly these don’t have the luxury of being under cover.
I always feel it’s a bit odd that cars parked all day at car parks like these (and at railway station car parks) will monopolise the charging units all that time. Surely as more cars become electric that’s not going to work? There simply won’t be enough charging points if they’re monopolised by one car all day.
The building housing a waiting area where motorists change into bus passengers also has toilets and a manned information point as well as ticket machines and real time signage.
It all felt very pristine and new and I hope the commitment to manning the site continues beyond an initial flurry after opening.
Buses run between 06:00 and 20:30 on Mondays to Fridays generally at a ten minute frequency reducing to every 15 minutes first thing and after 19:00. Saturdays sees a ten minute frequency between 07:00 and 18:50 and a twenty minute frequency runs on Sundays between 10:10 and 17:30.
It’s free to park with the bus return fare a very reasonable £3 which reduces to just £2 after 13:00. Concessionary passholders pay £2 in the morning too (not before 09:30 on weekdays though). While this might entice motorists, it’ll do nothing to reassure passengers using standard bus routes in Leeds are getting comparative value for money. Marianne reckoned residents of nearby Belle Isle are already walking down to the site to use the cheaper service.
First Bus won the contract to operate the service (as they do with the other two Leeds Park and Ride services at Elland Road and Temple Green) and are deploying five stylish brand new electric BYD Enviro 400EV double deck electric buses on the service.
They’re kitted out in a light grey leather style moquette which offer a comfortable seat including two extra wide looking ones at the front of the lower deck.
The seats have high backs except for the double seats in front of the stairs on the upper deck and the rear five seats.
The cove panels on the upper deck look a bit busy especially with the vents and the messages, but the route maps are useful.
There’s a monitor at the top of the stairs …
… which annoyingly was showing the incorrect time.
There are roadworks for what look like the construction of cycle lanes on the route into Leeds taken by buses on PR3 which must be causing disruption at peak times …
…. especially as part of the bus lanes have been temporarily suspended …
…. but further on they’re in situ and must help speed buses along and will be a dream when the works are finished.
I found the livery a bit garish and it certainly shouts out its messages including zero emissions
The driver I travelled into the city centre with was very pleased with the new buses and proudly showed the dashboard off to me …
… as well as wanting me to ‘clock’ the camera “mirrors”.
On Thursday one of the buses allocated to the service was an electric Yutong E10 single decker usually used on route 5 and introduced about a year ago. Presumably these are acting as back up buses to ensure the “zero emission” claim of the service is maintained.
It’s a great development for Leeds especially if more than 1,200 cars can be kept out of the city centre.
And in that respect ideally to really make an impact on traffic levels a city centre car park providing the same capacity should have closed on 6th September.
That really would be leading the way.
As would spending £38.5 million on improvements for passengers using the network of ‘ordinary’ bus routes.