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Three rural bus rides in East Cheshire

Tuesday 19th October 2021

As regular readers will know I’m very partial to a lovely rural bus ride. The more infrequent and quirky the better. I always feel a sense of achievement by visiting picturesque isolated villages by bus so I thoroughly enjoyed an outing on Tuesday last week when I managed a trio of such bus rides across East Cheshire’s rural finest.

Two of the journeys were on traditional scheduled bus routes, the third was on East Cheshire’s new DRT operation. It was easy to spot a common theme to all three journeys.

Spoiler alert: it was a scarcity of passengers.

Rural buses are often characterised by being withdrawn leaving residents in villages cut off; my travel experiences are the complete opposite – its village residents who’ve withdrawn from using buses leaving them unloved and unused. East Cheshire is a classic of that genre.

This latest DRT operation started in East Cheshire the week before last, on 4th October, thanks to £1.26 million funding from the DfT’s Rural Mobility Fund being paid over a three year period.

Two Fiat Mellor bodied minibuses using the brand name ‘go-too‘ are being run directly by East Cheshire Council themselves rather than contracted out to a bus company. The service runs on Mondays to Saturdays between 07:00 and 21:00 which is two hours later than most operations of this kind.

There’s a flat fare of £3 per journey reduced to £2 for under 16s and concessionary pass holders. After five journeys, the sixth journey is free. During October there’s an introductory offer of two free journeys per passenger. Taxi drivers in the area must be looking on aghast at this state subsidised competition but I expect they’ll soon realise with only two buses across a wide area there’s going to be plenty of times when availability won’t fit in with passengers’ travel needs.

The area served is south west of Nantwich and is very rural indeed. And, let’s put it this way, I didn’t come across much need for the area to be ‘levelled up’ as I travelled around. In fact I reckon there are many towns in the so called prosperous south east which could be candidates for being ‘levelled up’ to this part of East Cheshire.

You can’t use ‘go-too’ to travel within Nantwich itself, but otherwise journeys are possible throughout the area shown on the map above.

Nantwich itself is a relatively small town with a population of 18,000 and draws in shoppers and leisure seekers from the outlying villages, which are the main markets ‘go-too’ is aiming to serve. At the present time much of this market is car based and as you can see from the more detailed OS maps above, it is very rural and sparsely populated.

I travelled south from Nantwich’s small bus station to the village of Audlem on D&G Bus operated tendered route 73.

It’s a one directional circular route taking in a half a dozen villages on a 73 minute journey four times a day.

Departures from Nantwich are at 08:55, 11:45, 13:15 and 15:05.

I caught the 11:45 departure and was joined by just one other passenger as we set off from Nantwich.

The first fifteen minutes of the journey is spent wandering around residential streets in Nantwich, including one involving a reverse round a corner for the bus to turn around and head back to where we’d just come from.

After about ten minutes of this town tour the lady who’d boarded with me in the town centre alighted and it was just me left on board to enjoy the rural ride to Audlem which we reached about 25 minutes later at 12:22.

I’d pre-booked my DRT ride from Audlem the previous afternoon – I didn’t want to get stranded in such an isolated village, lovely though it was – and specified 12:45 as a desired pick up time. You can book up to 14 days ahead using the app but if using the phone line the booking must be made by 17:00 the previous day.

After receiving confirmation pf my booking for a half hour slot, a text came through on Tuesday morning advising of a pick up at 12:47 …

… which was just perfect giving me 25 minutes for a picnic lunch in the rather superb bus shelter in the centre of the village before the bus arrived.

I’d chosen my DRT destination as the village of Bunbury partly because it was an isolated village on the opposite side of the area served by ‘go-too’ and partly because in my research I noticed it seems to have just two scheduled bus journeys a day, on route 70, including one departing at 14:07 which would fit in superbly with my DRT arrival if everything worked out as planned.

Tech company Via are behind the software driving ‘go-too’ so you get to see your bus on its way to pick you up, which is always reassuring and something I miss when using DRT operations with software from other companies which don’t incorporate this feature – so well done Via for that.

Paul arrived with the smart new Fiat exactly as predicted at 12:47 and after introductions we were on our way.

Paul was pleased to be one of six drivers now employed on ‘go-too’ having had previous bus driving experience with both Arriva and First Bus as well as many years driving articulated buses on the Park and Ride service at East Midlands Airport.

We had a good chat on the 35 minute journey across to Bunbury which always adds to the enjoyment of these rural rides. Paul was very amiable and friendly.

The bus was similar to those being used on the East Leeds FelxiBus DRT I’d travelled on the previous week, except this bus was diesel powered rather than electric and the interior was less ‘welfare’ orientated with more comfortable seats and a much brighter moquette on the seats and the ceiling. It still had a somewhat clinical ambiance to it though.

The route across from Audlem to Bunbury was a wonderful wander through rural East Cheshire …

…including a rather lovely lift bridge over the Llangollen Canal in the village of Wrenbury.

Paul recommended I try the village coffee shop – Tilly’s – in Bunbury before catching my return bus to Nantwich on route 70. Arriving in the village at about 13:25 gave plenty of time to take up his suggestion, and I can endorse his recommendation if any readers ever find themselves in this delightful village.

Paul explained he was finishing his duty at 14:30 but expected to park up to await any further bookings before heading back to Nantwich for the shift changeover.

Sure enough on my wander around I found him in the village car park, with obviously no takers. He told me I was the second passenger of his shift, so it looks as though ‘go-too’ is having a slow start.

I’d noticed a poster for the new service stuck up in a bus shelter in Nantwich bus station but surprisingly saw nothing in either Audlem or Bunbury leaving me wondering how the service was being promoted after an initial flurry of ‘roadshows’.

There was a box of leaflets on board the minibus and Paul kindly gave me one which has details of how to book and a map.

Unsurprisingly we hadn’t picked any other passengers up along the route – I doubt anyone has ever travelled from Audlem to Bunbury by bus before, so personally I owe a lot to DRT for enabling me to make the journey. Many thanks to the DfT for its £1.26 million.

After a refreshing coffee in Tilley’s I made my way to the bus stop outside the Co-Op/Post Office in the centre of Bunbury for the 14:07 departure on route 70 back to Nantwich.

Route 70 is also operated by D&G Bus. There are just two journeys a day – one at 10:50 into Nantwich with a return from town at 13:30 which forms the 14:07 I caught going back to Nantwich.

There was no bus stop plate or road markings outside the Co-Op/Post Office …

….but I’ve come to trust Google Maps over many years of travelling in remote locations so didn’t worry too much the bus might take an alternative road that by-passed the stop instead of using the full length of School Lane and turning right into Vicarage Lane.

However, as I tracked the bus heading my way on the very useful website ‘bustimes.org’ I grew concerned that my confidence may be misplaced so I repositioned myself a few yards towards the road junction so I could cover both options.

It was just as well I did too, as the bus appeared on the road by-passing the Co-Op/Post Office and I frantically gave the driver a wave and thankfully he pulled up a little further along and fortunately had a passenger on board who was getting off the bus anyway.

The driver – the same one and bus who’d taken me out to Audlem on route 73 earlier – told me there was no bus stop outside the Co-Op/Post Office – which unusually means Google and ‘bustimes.org’ are allegedly both wrong. I got the feeling this inconsistency wouldn’t trouble many villagers as it came across to me that buses don’t feature in village life much – which, having just one return journey a day, is perhaps not surprising.

And that will be the challenge for this DRT – getting villagers out of their cars which they’ve become accustomed to using for their travel needs.

I did my usual trick while waiting for the bus on route 70 to try booking on the app for a ‘go-too’ bus to pick me up there and then, and interestingly received a rather unhelpful response there was “High demand”.

However, trying again just a minute later, I was offered a pick up in 51 minutes – presumably after Paul’s driver changeover had taken place in Nantwich at 14:30.

Such are the vagaries and pot luck of DRT riding.

Paul observed that he thought ‘go-too’ would appeal to young people wanting to travel from villages into and out of Nantwich rather than use Mum-&-Dad’s Taxis and he’s probably right, especially as they’ll coalesce around common travel times which is what DRT operations thrive on. But I’m not sure that 21:00 finishing time, good to see though it is, will be quite late enough for the young adult market.

It won’t be anywhere near viable though, but there again neither are routes 70 and 73 – suffice to say I was the only passenger travelling back into Nantwich on route 70 that afternoon.

Three rural rides; one passenger making a short journey within Nantwich on one; none on another, and none on the third. One passenger alighted from the outward journey before my third.

i doubt £1.26 million is going to change this situation. Sadly.

Roger French

BusAndTrainUser View All

I used to run a bus company but in retirement enjoy Britain’s splendid scenic delights travelling by bus and train, and commenting along the way.

19 thoughts on “Three rural bus rides in East Cheshire Leave a comment

  1. Your comment about taxi drivers fearing this new operation is an interesting one. On the face of it, DRT is essentially a Uber taxi service using a larger vehicle with lower fares, so why isn’t it successful? Everyone has heard of Uber; I suspect very few people have heard of DRT, and if they had, would not know what it was or how to use it. Is it all down to advertising it more effectively? Given there are now so many, should there be national advertising to get the concept into people’s pysche?

    Liked by 1 person

    • People gravitate to Uber because it is a big, global brand that operates in places like New York and San Francisco, so it has a bit of kudos to it that a minibus run by the local council doesn’t. But it seems like a disproportionate majority of Uber users are in cities, and most people in rural areas are still using traditional local taxi firms.

      But Uber has a global app, whereas all the DRT operations have their own siloed apps, inconsistencies in the way you book and pay for your journeys, and limited scope that potentially rules out journeys that some people will want to make.

      But I completely agree that it is a bizarre use of public money to try to undercut established taxi firms by subsidising non-commercial vehicles that do little more than offer a more restrictive taxi service. Maybe we will see a wave of drivers who work for DRT during the daytime then ply their trade in a Skoda Octavia in the evening…

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  2. Isn’t that the problem though… you can take an Uber from anywhere u like, to anywhere u want to go, with no restrictions on this or that particular journey being not allowed, and at any time of day you choose, and without having to fit in with driver changeover times of which you have no knowledge…etc etc. the DRT offering is under all different names, different fares/pass availability, a million different operating restrictions, operating hours etc etc etc….

    I appreciate that co-ordinating it all would be a Herculean task, but without some kind of uniformity to what is offered, that they are actually aware of, and clearly understand, prospective passengers JUST WONT BOTHER!!

    How come Uber have managed to build a network providing 4 and 7 seat vehicles with ZERO government money, including shares rides to reduce the fares, where councils can’t, even though they have pots of cash to throw at it ?!

    Some would suggest councils are pen-pusher and consultant heavy and still living in the dark ages, with little clue of what the general public want and expect in 2021…

    As Roger states, a LOT of scarce money is being wasted on all this, both now and over the next few years, and the only people getting anything out of it are the app providers and their fees, and then only until the initial fund runs dry. After it’s all over, rural communities STILL won’t have any kind of service, and will have to get an Uber anyway.

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    • Except Uber has allegedly never made a profit, if it doesn’t then one day it will all come crashing down. There again the DfT seem to think that DRT’s can be self sustaining!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Uber have achieved that feat by leveraging huge amounts of investment capital. They are not a profitable company in the current landscape (Covid notwithstanding) – their business model involves exploiting and underpaying drivers, running at a loss in order to undercut the competition and put them out of business, and then using their global monopoly as a launch pad for other ventures.

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  3. This is where the Swiss score with one or two national phone numbers only and a semi-standard offer wherever their PubliCar minibuses run.
    What happened to the the old name “Dial -a- Ride” anyway? The full words for DRT seem rather clumsy to me. Dial- a- Ride would make more sense to me throughout the country.
    Hampshire has “Cango” – yet another name

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  4. My concessionary bus pass gives me free travel on local buses in England within the permitted times. How is this compatible with a £2 fare on go-too? Are DRT operations not counted as local buses?

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      • Is the hope therefore to persuade the elderly to give up on their bus passes in sufficient numbers and start paying. As if they won’t notice? It’s said there’s no fool like an old fool. Never mind anyone else.

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    • The law does not require DRT services to accept concessionary passes (I think the exact details are that if at least half the seats can be booked in advance then it doesn’t count as a local bus service), although many councils do allow them to be used.

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  5. The current 72/73 is an interesting route. Previously the 72 ran through to Whitchurch, running parallel to the railway but serving village centres. The 73 ran from Nantwich through Audlem and the western half of both routes were cut and the Audlem to Aston created to become a circular. However the two directions appear uncoordinated, with a 1200 on the 72 running the opposite way to the 1145 73.
    Audlem is a pleasant village and anyone travelling around the area could do worse than having a bite to eat and a pint at the Lord Combermere opposite the bus stop.
    DRT at £3 a trip may have some takers and the evening service is welcome. There is an £8 group ticket on D & G which is a good deal.
    Passengers are thin on the ground in the area though and without subsidy administered by the pen pushers there would be no service. Passengers have indeed deserted the bus in the area

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  6. The stop outside the Post Office almost certainly exists in the NaPTAN database, it is therefore an official stopping place.

    It is likely a “custom and practice” stop, i.e. it is unmarked. Drivers often don’t know about these, but if it’s a fixed route bus service, the driver should know which sections of road to cover (as per the registered route).

    With that said, it might be an error by the person who has added the service to the Traveline National Dataset (TNDS) or Bus Open Data Service (BODS). In other words, the bus might not be registered to serve that stop.

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  7. The economics of DRT will never add-up because they’re all attempts to provide an Uber level of service at bus service fares.
    I know Uber is generally cheaper than a taxi, but even so my Uber quote was over £9 to go from where I live to a village 3.5 miles away early one Saturday evening a few weeks ago. Ironically, this trip could be made easily by bus had I wished to travel in the week.
    If Uber can’t make a profit on fares like this, how is DRT even expected to cover its costs?

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    • To an extent, I think you’re asking the wrong question.
      Buses in these very rural areas are not generally expected to make a profit, which is why most if not all councils subsidise rural buses to enable them to run. So DRT isn’t intended to cover its costs.
      The question is then whether DRT is going to cost councils more to run than traditional bus services and whether it is going to enable more passengers to travel.
      I would say that the the answers to that are yes and no, in that order – even if more passengers do use it, as a result of massively increased investment, it’s still likely to cost more per passenger than traditional bus routes.

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  8. I think Dan T has the right of it there. If DRT isn’t expected to cover its direct costs . . . then why have DRT at all??
    With the amount of experience now available of many, many (failing) DRT schemes . . . why do transport authorities persevere??

    With apologies for jumping on my soapbox again . . . we must accept that the time of the rural bus is gone, and we need to move on. Either abandon all efforts (other than home-to-school transport where children are entitled), or provide a limited service (school bus AM and PM, plus shopping buses 2-3 days each week . . . all using the school bus resource). Accept that this will be the lowest-cost option, and that it will never cover those costs. Set a per-trip passenger subsidy as a benchmark, and if that benchmark isn’t met, then withdraw the trips.

    Maybe Dorset CC did have the right idea 10 years ago . . . if less than 10 passengers per service-hour travel, then the service isn’t necessary, and withdraw it. Harsh, but if it then allows resources to support “almost-commercial” services (which are actually used by passengers) . . . isn’t that to the benefit of society overall?

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  9. Further to Greenline727s post, I think we need to separate ‘rural’ from ‘deeply’ rural. Many rural villages in Herts enjoy quite a reasonable level of service because they happen to be located between larger points of demand (e.g. the towns of Hertford and Stevenage) with demand at both ends. It also helps that HCC has a policy of ‘local bus first, education contract second’, purely on the basis that students effectively provide the reason to provide the bus that can be used for shoppers until the pm school demand returns.

    The deeply rural villages may have even lost their school buses or there’s only demand for a taxi service. I can see why these villages may benefit from DRT as long as cost per-passenger is not considered an overriding factor!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Dan T is right, of course . . . although I’d perhaps classify a village like Watton-at-Stone as being on an “interurban” route! I’d agree that the Hertfordshire policy of providing a local bus service for scholars instead of a dedicated contract service is (whenever possible) the correct policy.

    With HertsLynx, of course, this DRT network is aimed at “deep rural” villages, where existing services are, at best, once a week shopping services. I’d still opine that any decent demand for ANY form of bus service in these villages has long gone, if indeed there ever was any reasonable demand there.
    Ultimately, it’ll always come down to cost-per-passenger . . . the current fascination with DRT is only because it is funded by DfT monies; and the point being made here is that it is not a good use of public money.

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  11. Much as I hate to suggest it, but instead of bus services or a DRT scheme, would it not just be cheaper to offer subsidised taxi fares for rural residents ?

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