Maidstone’s Park & Ride to end

Thursday 20th January 2022

The pandemic hasn’t been kind to Maidstone’s Park & Ride service. Rewind to those carefree pre-Covid July 2019 days and there was much celebration as Maidstone Borough Council officially handed over the running of the town’s Park & Ride operation to Arriva with a six year contract committing the company to “provide both peak and off-peak services with upgraded vehicles to Euro 6 standards”.

Two and a half years on and the future of the service is bleak with Arriva announcing last month it will cease running the service in a month’s time after Saturday 19th February unless additional funding is made available.

Introduced 34 years ago in 1988, Maidstone’s Park & Ride at one time included four car parks offering 1,600 parking spaces for commuters and shoppers throughout the week. The large Sittingbourne Road site at Eclipse Park closed in February 2016 (it’s now an M&S store) while a smaller site closed at Combe Quarry in Tovil even further back in 2007 and was redeveloped for housing.

It’s not the first time the Park and Ride operation has been under threat. Back in 2018 the Council run services numbered 501 and 503 to the two car parks were losing money hand over fist. The service was given a stay of execution in January 2018 with councillors introducing a cashless “pay to park” arrangement which officers warned at the time could drive away a quarter of existing core users. In the event a whopping £242,000 subsidy for the year ended April 2018 rose to over £300,000 the following year.

Against that background it was somewhat courageous of Arriva to take on the contract as a “commercial” proposition reportedly receiving reduced funding from the Council of £162,000. The Council may have thought they’d got a good deal and a problem solved, but then along came Covid and Park & Ride is under threat of closure once again.

The two current car park sites are located on London Road close to the M20 junction to the north west of the town and just off the A20 Ashford Road to the east of the town. Both sites are well located being only around a ten minute bus ride from the town centre.

I recently took a ride to and from both sites to see what the background to the potential withdrawal is all about.

There’s been a bit of a backlash since Arriva’s bombshell announcement with opposition councillors pressing the Borough Council to overturn a decision taken at last month’s Strategic Planning and Infrastructure Committee refusing a request from Arriva for an additional £25,000 a month funding for three months to keep the service running.

There’s also the inevitable petition doing the rounds, which interestingly was advertised on the buses I travelled on as well as at the two Park & Ride car parks.

I arrived at the London Road site in time to catch the bus leaving at 10:00. It was noticeable just how empty the car park was with around 70 cars parked. In fact part of the site had been requisitioned for a Covid test facility.

The site is well signposted including a large Park and Ride sign on the M20 advising motorists to leave at the upcoming junction to access the site.

The car park itself is also well signed with plenty of information about the arrangements for parking and prices of bus fares.

It’s free to park and the fare on the bus is a very reasonable £2 return in the off peak and £3.20 in the peak with concessionary passholders travelling free. Perhaps no surprise therefore I reckon eleven of the twelve passengers who joined me on board the 10:00 journey into town looked like they were passholders as did most I saw on my four trips up and down the route.

The three buses used on the service are four year old Alexander Dennis Enviro 200 buses with a bespoke livery based on Maidstone’s dinosaur connections first launched at the 2019 change. The buses are named Iggy, Steggy and Spike in tribute to the discovery of ‘Iggy’ the dinosaur whose fossilised skeleton was unearthed in 1834 in the Queens Road area of Maidstone.

The names are carried on the nearside of each bus under the Borough crest. I was a bit puzzled by the window poster above stating “Fares from £2.50” whereas it’s actually £2.

The biggest issue with the service from a user perspective is the frequency. The buses display the ambiguous claim “up to every 20 minutes” ….

…. which is the case for peak hour journeys when all three buses are on the road. But come mid morning the frequency reverts from every 20 minutes to every 25 minutes using just two of the buses which can do a rounder in 50 minutes.

It’s not easy to remember departure times on a 25 minute frequency.

Fortunately bus stops at both car parks and in the town centre have a departure list showing the times when buses leave, as it’s almost impossible to do the mental arithmetic of adding so many 25 minutes on to work out when a bus will leave to suit your needs.

It’s all very well having those times on display, but most people will be out shopping in the town and unaware when the next bus back to the car park might be. It makes me wonder whether a half hourly service would have been far more preferable in the off peak so at least it’s memorable.

However neither a half hourly nor twenty-five minute interval service are particularly conducive to attract motorists to just turn up randomly at the car parks. Indeed on my visit to the eastern site at Willington Street I saw a car drive in just as the bus was leaving meaning the occupants had a twenty-five minute wait for the next one, and although there’s a shelter it was still cold on a winter’s day to wait that long.

The Willington Street car park, off Ashford Road, is clearly not as well used as London Road with just 35 cars on site at 11:00 and there was plenty of room for more. In fact learner drivers were taking advantage of the space to practice driving manoeuvres while I was there.

Like the London Road car park, this one is well endowed with notices explaining the virtues of using Park and Ride … for commuting, shopping and days out ….

…. as well as departure times and fares

It’s also well signposted from Ashford Road.

The route into town from the London Road site from just where the bus leaves the car park is blessed with a bus lane for the first half mile (about a third of the journey length into the town centre) which must help peak hour buses.

Buses don’t stop at any bus stops along the route, only setting down and picking up at three stops in the town centre; two by the shopping area and one by Maidstone West station.

That’s told you.

It turned out the dozen passengers on the first journey I made was the most I saw during my visit with most other journeys carrying between four and eight, and as already highlighted I reckon about 90% were concessionary passholders which would attract a discounted reimbursement from the county council on that £2 return fare representing a very low income. No wonder Arriva are struggling to make the service financially sustainable.

It’ll be interesting to see if the Borough Council does an about turn and provides the additional funding requested by Arriva. There’s much lobbying going on to persuade the Conservative controlled Council to keep the service going, mainly from the LibDem and Labour opposition councillors.

Back in July 2019 William Cornall the Council’s Director of Service and Regeneration said: “we have worked very closely with Arriva to make sure the popular Park and Ride services continue to the same high standard we have come to expect. As part of the arrangement Arriva will have the exclusive use of two car parks located at the current Park & Ride locations – Willington Street and London Road which will be free of charge to users.”

While Oliver Monahan, the then Area Managing Director of Arriva said: “from 1 July, Arriva will be running the Maidstone Park & Ride service. This is an essential service helping connect people to the town centre whilst supporting local businesses. Arriva are proud to be offering this public service and we look forward to serving customers with a frequent, punctual and reliable bus service.”

Oliver is no longer with Arriva, and sadly it looks as though this essential service won’t be either. But from my observations last week not many people are going to miss it, notwithstanding it might have been “popular” and “essential”.

I doubt another bus company will register the service and fill the void left by Arriva. The London Road car park site is leased by the Council and offers potential as development land for housing being surrounded by similar sites with planning permission or pending applications for over 500 new homes.

Map courtesy KentOnLine

The Willington Street site would prove much trickier to develop as it lies within the environs of Mote Park. But a judicious diversion by Arriva of its half hourly route 4 to loop around the car park might keep the facility going for motorists and give a revenue boost to that route.

But there are plenty of car parks in Maidstone town centre with the Borough Council owned sites typically charging between £2.10 and £2.70 for up to two hours parking (£4.20 to £5.40 for four hours) but the privately owned large multi-storey above The Mall shopping centre charges just £2 for up to two hours and £3.50 for up to four hours.

And that’s the problem for Park and Ride.

As well as that 25 minute frequency.

While in Maidstone I took the opportunity to have a look at the £1.4 million recently refreshed bus station under The Mall (formerly The Chequers, formerly The Stoneborough Centre).

It used to be a dismal, depressing and dowdy place to catch a bus but I was impressed with the way its been spruced up with improved lighting helping to make the ambiance much better.

There are still five departure points either side of the tunnel but the frosted glass panels by the departure stands have been removed making the site feel much more open.

There are few seats to be found – just a rather basic bench at each departure stand either side of the tunnel …

… but each point has a list of departures for frequent routes and timetables for less frequent routes as well as a ‘where to catch your bus’ in Maidstone town centre map which is useful.

It reopened last October.

I also wandered over to Maidstone East station to take a look at the £5.2 million project to refresh the entrance and ticket office also completed last year and officially launched last month.

There was Iggy again to reinforce the link between Maidstone and the Iguanodon discovered by Gideon Mantell in 1822 – and I know all about as I scanned the QR code on the sculpture which took me to the Maidstone Museum’s website.

Meanwhile the entrance area both outside and inside the revamped station is looking lovely and pristine and long may that continue.

It’s still a bit of a route march down the stairs and long slope to access Platform 1 from the ticket office…

There’s a lovely view of the rear of the ticket office which is sited over the tracks from the ramp.

There’s step free access to both platforms from side accesses directly from forecourts on either side of the tracks.

It all looks good; but £5.2 million?!

Maidstone is set to lose its Park & Ride, but it’s got much improved bus and rail stations.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu.

Next blog, Saturday 22nd January 2022: Travelcard under threat

22 thoughts on “Maidstone’s Park & Ride to end

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  1. An interesting look at a Park & Ride, and with the pressures for passengers to leave the car at home, to lose the service then the site becomes hosuing, yet again, not affordable, the new resisents will all have cars to drive into town. The incentives to use any Park & Ride seem wrong anyway, as its usally charged at per person rather than per vehcile parking so four adults may feel they can cover a car park cost between them better than indivdual park & ride fares, and as you say with the wait time of 20 minutes if you arrive as its leaving. Nearer Brighton, Horsham seems to have a service thats well supported. Brighton is still fighting with the ideals of P&R against the space to have it and that ‘it encourages more cars’, but those that have a car on the drive will want to go into the centre and make a short walk into the main shops, as some still have that impression that buses are for a different class of people!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent article Roger . Here Worcesters Park and ride worked well when run by First Midland Red West Buses Limited but when taken in house by Worcestershire County Council as Whoosh terminal secline began resulting in terminal decline and ultimately the axe although much of the infrastructure still remains nearly a decade later yet another folly into why councils should never be involved in bus services which should always be commercial where here in Birmingham 91% of the network is comm.mercial with Transport for West Midlands wasting millions on the remaining 9% on services no one uses only me. A body unfit for purpose

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  3. P^R services are normally very very expensive and brig in little fare revenue, A £2 Return far is less then what a normal bus service fare or a single journey is. The reimbursement rate for the passes is probably only about £1.20

    The subsidy works out at about £3,800 a day and Arriva are asking for another £1,500 a week for 3 months. What happens after the 3 months if they were to get that funding who knows. The true cost of the service though is even higher , The two car parks probably cost the council at least a £100K a year

    In its current form that P&R service is simply bot viable. No normal bus service would get that level of subsidy

    Many councils when it comes to subsidies set a maximum subsidy per passenger On this P^R serice you are probably looking at a Subsidy per passenger of over £15

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  4. Did the P&R use to have a better service? Anything less than every 15 minutes is just too sparse to work for a P&R service, where you need to have a turn-up-and-go frequency, but especially if it’s an odd frequency like every 25 minutes.

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  5. Interesting as always, and thank you. I am working in Maidstone this quarter and commuting most days from Brighton, in my i3 BEV.

    My all-day, city-centre adjacent parking INCLUDING charging for my car has cost me £2.64. £2.99, £2.87 so far this week, and £2.90, £2.69, £3.09 last week. ICE cars have to pay £7.30 in the same car park.

    Compare that to £3.20 for a peak return fare and a wait of up to 24 minutes. Of course, to acheive that, I did have to have the wherewithal (thanks to my late Mother) to quit wet cars.

    I can’t decide whether to continue boasting about or keep quiet and keep ‘my’ parking+charging space free.

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  6. Another interesting insight, Roger. My nearest P&R sites are in Guildford, which has four of them but one is closed for the meantime due to COVID. Stagecoach runs the service very well, with modern battery-electric buses parading down the street, however it does not really attract the motorist much as these services only run on weekdays and not weekends, something that I think Surrey County Council, who are funding the services, have missed a huge opportunity.

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  7. There may be exceptions, but isn’t park’n’ride a waste of land space, that could be better used for commercial or housing purposes? Such purposes would bring more passengers to the traditional bus services.

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  8. I’d imagine park n ride and parkway stations are the most under threat as the users are not proper public transport users,with the few people who actually live near the park and ride.Why get out their car and get a bus or train and risk COVID-19 instead just drive straight into the centre.Of course those types are the very ones fueling all of this out of town car centric development so probably aren’t interested in town centres anyhow.Perhaps if it closes they could build houses for people instead of cars on the car parks?

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  9. It’s the carrot and stick approach that is needed . . . the carrot is the park and ride service with high frequency timetables and high quality buses; the stick is to increase the town centre car parking charges to such levels that any parking time under 4 hours is cheaper to use the P&R service.

    There’s no need to spend £millions on fancy terminal buildings . . . schedule the service to run every 10 minutes or better, and ALWAYS have a bus on stand to load passengers as soon as they arrive. Some decent bus priority measures along the route will also help.

    It’s all low techy-techy; very much not “sexy” . . . which is why no council will do it properly. See the DRT vs proper bus debate . . .

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  10. How on earth do they ever think they will run any Park & Ride service at a reasonable profit when they still have huge car parks in towns/cities, and its cheaper/more convenient to park there.
    Forcing most parking out to the Park & Ride sites combined with a lowest possible fare, reliable, frequent service is surely the way forward.

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  11. There is a different point of view, as evidenced from this article about Ipswich. https://tinyurl.com/3bekezv6.

    Please note what the Council leader – by no means anti-bus – said: “As a council we will do everything we can to support our businesses in the town centre. Having reasonable car parting is vital to that”.

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    1. I agree with Streetdeck, but sadly another quote in the EIpswich story explains another problem with this: “To get motorists out of their cars you have to offer a big carrot – if you try to force them out by putting up car park prices you only succeed in sending them to other towns or cities instead.”

      The ability (actual or perceived) of car drivers to ‘vote with their wheels’ has led and continues to lead to poor decisions. Sadly sticks are needed too.

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    2. And this is the crux of Park & Ride issues in many towns – councils want (and have become dependent on) town centre car park revenue yet don’t want the congestion cars cause in town centres. Hard decisions need to be made.

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  12. I know the London Road site and area fairly well. There is – even post-Covid – a regular bus every 15 minutes from a stop a few minutes walk from the car-park. I don’t know how much time is saved by getting the ‘P&R’ bus over the regular: maybe try a 3-door single-deck continental style – they are quicker, as I know from experience, than a 1-door d/deck, especially if the norm is off-bus ticket sales, or (heaven forfend) there is a conductor on board.

    Maidstone traffic can be dreadful I wonder if the money from selling the car-park sites could be devoted to bus priority schemes – might be a better long term investment.

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  13. Glad you took the opportunity to look at Maidstone’s rejuvenated bus station, which shows what can be done with existing infrastructure to make for a far more pleasant experience.

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  14. “Free with an ENCTS pass after 9.30am” should surely carry a Saturday qualification? But of historic/pedantic interest now, it would seem.

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  15. By 1999, when I became Transport Officer at the Borough Council, Maidstone also had a fifth Park and Ride service (Saturdays only) using one bus to shuttle between the Kent County Council offices at Springfield and the town centre. The London Road to Willington Street crosstown service operated every 12 minutes (five buses), Coombe Quarry every 15 minutes (two buses), and Sittingbourne Road every 10/15 minutes (three buses).

    Also an hourly Park and Sail service on the River Medway, on Saturdays between mid-October and Christmas from Allington Lock to a point by Bishops Way (the maximum service the one boat could operate). This had also previously operated at peak times on Mondays to Friday, but long-term road works at the nearby M20/A229 junctions resulted in users deserting the service. It ceased when the rural museum denied our use of their car park on key days.

    P & R Season tickets were sold to KCC en-block as their offices were on the Sittingbourne Road service.

    But all of this came at a cost, which was an ongoing expected loss, despite low fares and full buses at Christmas. The problems arose as the economy cooled and town center businesses started reducing staff numbers or closing down. Then, for the first time ever, and just before Christmas, the snow came down such that all buses had to stop operation at zero notice!! This caused a very high loss of over 10% of our expected annual revenue, and the following year many people were buying items for home delivery. Fares were already beginning to creep up each year to the point where alternatives were being sought, and the budget pruned wherever it could be. But the loss remained stubbornly at around the same level, and fares continued to be increased.

    Bus passes were accepted as there are many alternative towns and shopping centres that motorists could choose and MBC received the operator’s reimbursement – the amount of which rose considerably.

    Park and Ride and Car parking services were operated under separate budgets and talk of car parks cross-subsidising P & R were not welcomed. The reverse happened with the closure of Coombe Quarry. It was made clear that motorists must have a choice. and parking fees would not be used to engineer this.

    The pressures to reduce the loss continued

    It’s nine years since I left MBC and from what I see and hear motorists still remain the clear priority.

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