DRT riding in rural Norfolk

Tuesday 12th April 2022

It’s been a while since I tried out a new DRT service so I was pleased to put that right yesterday by giving the recently introduced new scheme in rural Norfolk the once over.

It’s been included as part of Norfolk County Council’s well established ‘Flexibus’ brand which has been running flexible ‘demand responsive’ buses in three areas of rural Norfolk for some time.

The three areas are Harling, Wayland and Wymondham and each has a map showing the area covered. But it’s a fairly restricted service only available between 09:00 and 14:30 on schooldays and 08:00 and 16:00 on Monday to Friday school holidays.

The schemes also use old technology with passengers either needing to book by telephone or completing an on-line form. Ride requests must be submitted by 15:00 the previous day (Friday for travel on Monday).

There’s also a similar scheme based on Acle although this seems to have set times for most of its journeys.

This latest addition to the ‘Flexibus’ brand (which has a discreet + sign added making it ‘Flexibus+’) began on Monday 28th March and is operated by the young dynamic and eager to grow Vectare bus company using Via Transportation’s app and software. It aims to provide a major step change for Norfolk’s rural dwellers, not least the ability to book a journey up to two weeks in advance and use app technology as well as a phone booking arrangement.

I had an opportunity to have a chat with Jonathan Hampson, Via Transportation’s Head of UK Partnerships, at last week’s Young Bus Managers’ conference in Cardiff where I was doing my usual co-hosting role and happily he was one of the attendees. It was good to exchange thoughts on the role and funding of DRT and while our enthusiasm for DRT differs we both agreed on the vexed issue of funding – it’s no good anyone thinking DRT is the silver bullet to solve the rural transport subsidy challenge that’s bedevilled local authorities grappling with ever reducing budgets over the last few decades. It won’t. Rural bus provision whether with a big or small bus, scheduled or on demand, will always need funding.

So it was disappointing to see Norfolk County Council’s news release heralding Flexibus+’s launch acknowledging the £700,000 grant from the DfT’s Rural Mobility Fund will allow the scheme to run for four years “in which time it is hoped that it can become self-financing and continue to run for many years to come”.

Sorry to disappoint the 7,700 people living in Swaffham and the twenty hamlets located in the 85 square miles operating area served by Flexibus+ but come March 2026 the service will almost certainly end when the funding runs out. Enjoy your new found rural mobility while you can.

As readers will know I’ve learnt the more you can plan ahead with your travel requirements the more likely it will be that DRT will meet your needs. The chances of summoning up a DRT bus “on demand” in the “here and now” and expecting it to be “instantly responsive ” are pretty much close to zero, especially for any established scheme with growing usage.

So before heading off yesterday to Swaffham (the main trip attractor of this new Felxibus+ operating area which extends to the south of the town) I successfully pre-booked my two journeys on Sunday evening, using the easy to use Via app, so they’d connect with the First Eastern Counties excel branded bus route from Kings Lynn.

You’re given 20 minute slots to choose from when making a booking and as my excel bus was due into Swaffham market place at 12:13 I selected the 12:15 to 12:35 window and at 21:00 hours on Sunday evening came a reassuring text confirmation.

I also booked my return journey from the hamlet of Cockley Cley where I’d planned to travel allowing enough time to eat a picnic lunch on the village green before heading back and received confirmation of that too so all was well as I set off on Monday morning.

My connection was a handy 11 minutes in Kings Lynn between the Great Northern train arriving at 11:31 and the excel bus leaving the bus station at 11:42 – which also calls at the station a minute later – but as sections of the line north of Ely are single track I’m always weary of late running causing delays when trains pass at Littleport. In the event the southbound train had been cancelled and we arrived into Kings Lynn just four minutes late at 11:35 giving enough time to wander through to the bus station.

First’s excel (Peterborough to Norwich) service really is impressive with its half hourly frequency and superbly branded and comfortable buses.

We did a quick bus and driver change in First’s bus garage on the southern fringe of the town – which was handled very professionally by both drivers by placing one bus platform right up against the other meaning a quick and slick changeover for everyone on board.

But even so it cost us a few minutes and I worked out our arrival time in Swaffham market place was going to be nearer 12:18 – just as I received an updated text from Flexibus+ at 11:48 advising my bus would be with me in 30 minutes making for a tight spot connection.

Just as a precaution I replied to the next text giving me a 10 minute warning and as I wasn’t sure whether that would be received gave the Flexibus+ booking line a call to explain the situation.

Tom from Vectare answered the phone very quickly (no Council switchboard to negotiate here as I’ve experienced elsewhere) and said he’d let the driver know which was all very reassuring.

Arriving into Swaffham at 12:18 the phone rang and it was Tom letting me know the driver had been delayed on the previous drop off in North Pickenham and would be with me in about ten minutes. He also confirmed this in a text which was all good especially as the app was erroneously telling me the bus had arrived and was with me, which would have been unnerving if Tom hadn’t called.

I’d notice that whereas Via’s software usually shows the route and current location of the driver and bus heading towards you, it hadn’t done so on this occasion so perhaps there were teething troubles with the tech.

Karen, the driver, arrived at 12:30 and off we both headed to Cockley Cley which is a small hamlet about seven minutes south of Swaffham and devoid of a bus service for many years save for a Saturday shopping journey.

Karen had worked on the community bus operated Flexibus operations in the past and having recovered from health issues was pleased to have joined Vectare aiming to ultimately drive on a part time basis but for now, with Malcolm, is working full time with the two of them covering the early and late shifts across the six-days-a-week 12 hour operating day from 07:00 to 19:00 and their lunch breaks between 12:00 and 14:00.

There’s just one bus on the operation – a Mercedes Sprinter with the standard smart looking interior for these vehicles.

It was good to see leaflets for the service available inside the bus. These explain there are three distinct operations – identified as F1; F2 and F3.

F1 is available between 07:00 and 07:45 when a journey will bring any commuters into Swaffham to connect with the excel bus to Norwich or Kings Lynn or Konnectbus route 11. The final three hours of the day between 16:00 and 19:00 are allocated to taking commuters home from Swaffham.

F3 runs a fixed route on Monday to Friday at 08:02 from Barton Bendish to Swaffham and return at 07:45 and the reverse in the afternoon between 15:05 and 15:42. I assume this is aimed at school children although the leaflet doesn’t specify a schooldays only operation.

Then there’s F2 which is the general on demand service across the two Flexibus+ zones which in line with the original Flexibus hours is available 09:30 to 14:30, although this scheme also operates on Saturdays between 07:00 and 19:00.

The leaflet also has map/diagrams showing you where the bus connects with other routes in Swaffham and Mundford and a full area map showing the two zones which determine the fare to be paid.

I found the print size and colour contrasts a bit challenging on these maps, but it’s nice to have them in the leaflet, indeed it’s nice to have a printed leaflet.

Concessionary passes are accepted and fares are very reasonably priced with savings for multiple trips. Fares are paid to the driver either by cash or contactless card using a Ticketer ticket machine rather than paid through the app as with many DRT schemes. Anyone booking a journey through the app has their first journey free until the end of June.

I arrived in Cockley Cley and said goodbye to Karen who was heading back to Swaffham and set about having my lunch. It’s a very pleasant hamlet with a pub right next to a large church called ‘Twenty Churchwardens’.

But the most disconcerting thing was there was no phone signal – at least not on the BT/EE network I use – so I suddenly realised an app based and mobile phone demand responsive service is not much good when you can’t use a phone.

Yet another challenge for rural buses.

I was very pleased I’d booked my return journey before setting off otherwise I’d have been completely stranded.

My 20 minute window as texted on Sunday evening was 13:20 to 13:40 so I decided to wait at the bus stop at 13:20 and see what happened.

At 13:10 I spotted the Flexibus+ bus being driven through the hamlet with Malcolm at the helm but no one on board.

I enjoyed a stroll around the village and discovered an intermittent BT WiFi Hotspot which luckily my phone managed to latch on to long enough to confirm the bus was on its way and would be with me at 13:27 – this time the app was displaying the information as well as a confirmatory text coming through.

At 13:29 Malcolm reappeared and arrived with a passenger already on board which was an encouraging development – when I’d seen him twenty minutes earlier he’d been heading out to pick her up.

Malcolm had previously worked for Ipswich Buses in his bus driving career and was obviously delighted to be driving Flixbus+ for Vectare. He absolutely nailed it with his observation that carrying three or four passengers as he’d done on Monday morning’s early shift ensured pick ups and journey expectations could easily be met but what, he wondered, will be the situation if it gets busier and more popular.

He cited Saturday’s operation – the first Saturday – where many more people were out travelling necessitating some deft work by the Vectare lads in ‘control’ to ensure he and Karen could get their breaks and journey requests could be made.

It turns out the Saturday shopping bus which connected a number of the hamlets with Swaffham has been withdrawn and many passengers on Saturday hadn’t realised this so one passenger in the know booked and others were waiting to board but weren’t on the booking.

Maybe it would help if details of the now withdrawn service had been removed from timetable cases along the route when the smart new Flexibus+ emblazoned bus stop plates was put up?

We were soon back in Swaffham and having bade farewell to Malcolm I made a convenient spot connection with an excel bus back to Kings Lynn.

It had been a very enjoyable ride out to Cockley Cley. I’d been impressed (as I’d expected to be) with the way Vectare are resourcing the operation including a very impressively responsive text and phone arrangement. I’m sure, as both Karen and Malcolm testified, residents of these isolated hamlets are delighted public transport, albeit with limitations, has returned, thanks to the DfT’s generosity.

Make the most of the next four years.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS.

18 thoughts on “DRT riding in rural Norfolk

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  1. Glad you enjoyed your Norfolk DRT trip. We do have another way to fund some of these DRT services but not a permanent solution. Using S106 Travel Plan funding through the Transport Assessment in planning applications for new developments in rural areas, where there is poor public transport provision. This can last for up to the five years of the plan. In some cases, we have also made use of the DRT services to connect with rail services at the nearest station and had property developers provide free tickets via mobile App credit to local residents: Here is a sample -https://www.smartertravel.uk.com/your-travel-plan/norfolk/wayland-fields-watton/ The value of the free tickets are negotiated through the County Council Developer Services Team and can also be used for cycle discounts and rail tickets such as Plus Bus.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was intrigued as to why the drivers hours were 7am to 7pm. The answer appears it runs a Flex bus (F1) commuter trip to Swaffham at 7am and after that does a school run. I would not think there would many people commuting no Swaffham though

    You really need to be able to book these buses in real time and nor a very clunky ma and expensive manual system

    Personally I do not like these van type vehicles they do not look very smart. To attract more passengers I think they ought to be marketed as a Taxi bus. A taxi but with bus fares. If you can attract people who uses taxi you potentially have a much bigger market

    At present these DRT type service spend a lot of the time parked up and earning no revenues. On the other side of the coin if they get busy you will not be able to book one when you want one

    Maybe with current passenger levels you could sub contract it to a taxi firm. It would want one with People carrier type vehicles and or small minibuses, IT would give more flexibility to meet the variable demand

    At the moment DRT does not really seem to be a premiant solution s they need very large subsidies

    It is a difficult problem but a proper solution has not yet been found

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    1. I found in the past that the name taxibus puts off as many people as it attracts.
      – Will it have room for us, as a taxi is normally a small car?
      – How much will it cost? Taxis are expensive and will I be paying a taxi fare rather than a bus fare?
      – Will I even be able to get one when I need it? City dwellers often don’t realise that rural taxis often have pre-contracted work such as school trips so may not be available for big chunks of the day; rural taxis are often as restricted in their availability as DRT, and much more expensive than even Lincolnshire’s CallConnect DRT.

      It’s a difficult one. You want to emphasise the convenience of a taxi but the cost of a bus, but in a way which makes it attractive.

      Rural public transport as a whole is Difficult (capital intended). People nowadays expect frequencies more like the London buses they keep hearing about from politicians, at the London fares they read about in the press, but without understanding that everything costs and *somebody* has to pay for it.
      We’re a society that is in denial about that point, believing that taxes can be reduced in real terms (i.e. increase at less than inflation year on year) and yet public services will not only not get worse but will improve! Utterly illogical, and yet there we are.

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  3. Norfolk County Council is being very naive in hoping rural DRT will become self financing in future. DRT cannot be self financing due to the simple fact that the vehicles cannot service enough journey request per hour to cover the driver costs. If Oxford Pick Me Up (an urban DRT) failed to be profitable why would a deeply rural one cover its costs?

    Government needs a reality check, rural public transport will always need continuing subsidy. That cost needs to be offset against the greater costs of social exclusion from education, health care, employment etc. Think of public transport as an enabler for the delivery of government targets for the above sectors, and not as a stand alone business.

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  4. As with all DRT schemes, as well-meaning as they are, the only regular passengers will be a handful of the same people needing to make, in this case with the restricted hours, only shopping trips and possibly only weekly at that. The “cliff-hanging” uncertainty of missed connections, lack of general publicity, mobile phone coverage, if indeed you have a modern phone etc., will preclude the likelihood of any normal casual passengers ever using such services. Thus, as always, the £700,000 will be largely wasted and could have been better spent in both new fixed services and/or making sure the Saturday service stayed.

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  5. What’s 0120 PM?! Wouldn’t it be easier just to put 1320?The chances are people’s mobile phones won’t be using Sir Jacob Rees Smog time and will be set up for the 24hr clock as a default there being 24 hours in a day not 12!

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  6. A useless piece of information, but even in the “heyday” of buses (1965) Cockley Cley only had 3 buses per week. You could go to Swaffham on Monday and Friday mornings, or on Wednesday afternoons – Eastern Counties route 34B.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I agree that rural buses wil always need some support, but many would need less support if there a a determined effort to get tourists and visitors on board. This needs very good publicy and marketing. Stagecoach in Cumbria have made buses work in the National Park by understanding this. So have other companies but many rural and interurban roure languish because hardly anyone knows they are there. Imagine trying ot make a living from a pub if its location was secret and unadvertised! Some local bus companies seme to be guided by stupidity! They do not even learn from sister compnaies in their group.
    Linear walks, expecially National Trails and the New England Coast Path could bring in a lot of income for bus companies, making some marginal routes successful and reducing support needed on loss making routes. Then there are all the people looking at churches, museums, windmills, whatever.

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    1. Integration with rail services would make it easier for visitors to access local bus networks. Swiss rural bus services carry a considerable number of visitors for his reason, and the revenue helps to reduce subsidy. Double decker buses of the quality used by First on the Excel in Norfolk or by Harrogate Bus Company on the 36, with rail connections, and proper publicity of scenic routes etc, could be a big overseas visitor attraction in their own right.

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      1. The comuter market is another market the bus compnies have just given up on. Most stations outside of London have either poor conections with rail or require a long walk or have no service at all

        It is a market that could be won back. Fuel prices are up and parking at stations can be expensive.

        It need proper integrated ticketing between rail and bus though and high quality and frequent services that go into residential areas

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      2. Its so sad that many of the TOCs also have, via a company name, involvement with buses….. yet they dont seem to be joined up like they should be.

        The interavailability of tickets could be immense and could obviously increase passenger numbers on both the trains and buses in this country. Even if the trains and buses are not operated by the same company just think of the easy journey opportunities that could be had ……

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  8. Further Cuts to Bus services Proposed for Oxfordshire

    There will be further cuts to bus services in Oxfordshire unless the amount of passengers increases, council officials have said.

    Passenger numbers in the county are currently at 75% of pre-pandemic levels.

    Oxfordshire County Council said bus operators would “likely” withdraw more services later in the summer.

    The authority was allocated £12.7m by the Department for Transport (DfT) to improve services, but bid for £56m.

    The council said it would consider the amount and conditions attached to the funding before taking any proposals forward.

    Officials say passenger numbers must reach more than 90% by September if cuts are to be avoided.

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  9. There is a similar service that has started in the Staffordshire Moorlands if you fancy a scenic edge of the Peak District adventure Roger .

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