Friday 29th October 2021
This week’s DRT bus service launch is Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority’s trial in that rural part of ‘West Huntingdonshire’ lying west of Huntingdon and St Neots.
It’s got the same features and challenges I’ve covered in other blogs about rural DRT operations so I won’t repeat the same old stuff this time but just outline a few differences in this latest addition to the DRT scene and tell you about my journey experience on Wednesday.
It’s operated by Stagecoach using four five year old Optare Solos. Not, I’m sure, because anyone is thinking their 32 seat and 12 standing capacity will ever be needed but more likely as this scheme is only a trial for six months it couldn’t justify an investment in brand new minibuses for such a short timespan.
The interiors are standard Stagecoach bright blue and orange but branded cove panels have been added to presumably remind passengers they’re on more than just an ordinary bus. Even though it is just an ordinary bus.
These, together with the exterior livery, a rather attractive leaflet and the brand name ‘ting’ have been devised and designed by the well known creative team at Best Impressions making this the first DRT scheme to be marketed and communicated in a simple to understand format.
(Bias alert; Ray Stenning the mastermind behind Best Impressions is a good friend.)
‘ting’ was launched a couple of weeks ago when Combined Authority Mayor Dr Nik Johnson, was quoted as saying “I want to be able to offer a world class connected public transport service and that work starts here with the introduction of this six-month trial”.
I know; a bit delusional, but that comes with the territory of being an elected Mayor of a Combined Authority – you have to think “world class”. Anything less just doesn’t cut it.
I did my usual ‘book a journey in advance to travel from one side of the operating area to the other’ for Wednesday – ting’s third day of operation.
I booked on Sunday for a departure from St Neots station at 11:15 with the app confirming my booking for a following half hour ‘window’ and subsequently receiving a reminder text confirmation on Tuesday evening of a pick up between 11:15 and 11:45.
On Wednesday morning at 10:41 came a follow up text confirming the pick up time would be at a rather precise 11:37 which gave a slightly longer wait than I ideally desired in view of my train’s arrival at 11:11. But that’s the reality of DRT modal integration for you.
But it did give me plenty of time to find my bearings and sus out the bus stop which sadly wasn’t showing off bus travel as a very attractive proposition.
In fact you couldn’t see out of the windows at all making it completely useless as well as uninviting.
“World class connected public transport” it certainly isn’t Mayor Johnson – and there certainly is work to do right there.
On the up side a hard at work member of staff at GoWhippet saw my tweet about it and undertook to update the timetable information for its 61 bus route that passes by. Hopefully someone will take a jet washer and a barrel load of detergent there too.
At 11:30 a minibus operated by Dew Coaches on rural route 150 came along and picked a passenger up and when I told the driver who enquired if I wanted to board I was waiting for a ting he said he’d seen two parked up at the large Tesco Extra on the southern edge of St Neots which made me wonder why I was having to wait until 11:37 for my pick up.
Perhaps Stuart was having a well earned break as when he arrived with me at 11:41 he said he’d been busy that morning.
He used to drive Stagecoach buses on the Cambridge Busway but had been asked to transfer to ting, which he’d started driving yesterday so was still quite excited about the new set up.
The only trouble was the mobile phone with all his pick up and route instructions was not recharging despite being plugged in and he was already down to 9% and losing battery power. I’d booked to go the 22 miles west from St Neots to Thrapston Business Park which is shown on the ting map as being outside the western boundary of the area served but still included in the scheme.
Stuart said he’d never been there before so hoped his phone would hold out to show him the way and I reassured him I’d never been there either so he could really take me anywhere ‘Business Park’ like and tell me it was Thrapston and I’d be happy..
Luckily his phone held out and after making our way to the A1 and then on the recently improved A14 we made it to Thrapston in just over half an hour.
When we arrived Stuart mentioned that while he’d been driving he’d had notification of a pick up in Buckden (just off the A1) which he’d guessed was someone wanting to go to Huntingdon which he’d ignored as it would have either taken me out of my way for my journey or taken that person out of their way to go via Thrapston. Nice to see the human brain taking precedence over the software algorithm although it struck me he’d made a few assumptions in his logic.
Stuart added he didn’t think the two buses allocated to the Huntingdon area were very busy compared to he and his colleague in the St Neots area so thought one of those buses would be used for the Buckden rider.
As I bid farewell to Stuart he told me the software had advised him to park up and wait for his next booking in the nearby A14 service area but he was thinking of returning back to base to get his phone sorted. I left him ringing for further instructions.
Ting’s hours of operation are 07:00 to 19:00 on weekdays and 08:00 to 16:00 on Saturdays which seems a bit early to finish, especially on Saturday afternoon. It’s not particularly late for commuters returning from London on weekdays either and wanting to reach one of the hamlets in the area.
Ting uses a standard Via driven algorithm and app with a phone number for those who prefer (which is open to 18:00 on Saturdays despite the service ending at 16:00) and there’s the ability to book a journey up to seven days ahead.
When I tried the phone line I was very impressed to be answered immediately. No “we’re expecting a high volume of calls” which bedevil most business phone lines these days – straight through and answered by a helpful man. I had rung to let them know the electronic sign at the bus stop at St Neots was showing a scrolling message advertising ting, but was displaying an incorrect web address with a “.” instead of a “-” between ting and trips which he took note of – see ting-trips.co.uk.
The fare for my journey would have been £2 (paid to the driver) as ting is using that price as a flat fate for all ting journeys but my concessionary pass was valid although Stuart’s ticket machine rejected it.
Add on fares of £1 single and £2 return are available on to Stagecoach route 905 at St Neots to Bedford and Cambridge or route 904 to Peterborough at Huntingdon which is a good idea.
There are some very isolated rural villages and hamlets in the area served by ting as well as some picturesque places to visit – eg Grafham Water, so I’m sure ting will be welcomed by those people who have felt cut off without public transport as word spreads about its operation.
But six months will soon pass by – it’s far too short for a trial, especially during the winter – and new passengers attracted to ting will be disappointed when the funding runs out unless the Combined Authority’s Mayor comes up with more money to keep it going. Dr Johnson needs to know “world class connected public transport” doesn’t come cheap.
Same old, same old.