Moorlands Connect gets an upgrade

Tuesday 10th May 2022

Photo courtesy Ashbourne Community Transport.

My latest DRT expedition was last Tuesday when I took a ride on Staffordshire County Council’s Moorlands Connect. It’s been around for a few years but until last month only as a phone based community bus dial-a-ride type operation.

From April, thanks to that DfT pot of gold (aka the Rural Mobility Fund), Staffordshire has been able to use their successful award of £1,038,091 (these things don’t come cheap) to upgrade the service using newly installed Via technology with its software, algorithm and App all now live. Three smart new Mercedes minibuses have also been purchased and entered service as part of the upgrade.

Photo courtesy Ashbourne Community Transport.

The area covered by Moorlands Connect extends north from Ashbourne to Buxton (both in neighbouring Derbyshire) and over to Leek encompassing a lovely part of the Peak District National Park and numerous small isolated villages and hamlets making it typical of the new breed of deep rural DRT schemes now being introduced.

As regular readers know I’ve now learned the trick of booking my rides with plenty of notice to ensure no disappointments or getting stranded and in case of no mobile phone signal in rural areas.

Having studied the map and compared it to an Ordnance Survey version I thought it would make for a great opportunity to take a walk from one isolated village to another and use Moorlands Connect as my own personal chauffeured drop off at the start and pick up at the walk’s end.

It worked a treat. I booked just over a couple of weeks beforehand and got offered journeys at my requested times of 12:00 from Ashbourne bus station to take me to the village of Wetton – about a 20 minute ride north – and a pick up from Alstonefield at 13:30 back to Ashbourne (both shown on the map above). (OK; I know that’s not a long walk by long walk standards but it was ample for me.)

In both cases the ride offer came with a 20 minute window from both those times (12:00-12:20 and 13:30-13:50) but I worked out these would still give me doable connections with trentbarton’s Swift branded hourly bus from, and back to, Derby and enough walking time in beteeen.

Even better the software gave me the opportunity to add a message for the driver so I added a comment that I was arriving on the 11:57 arrival from Derby just in case I was given a 12:00 pick up and the Swift ran late.

I received the customary reminder text of the bookings on Monday evening and an updated confirmation half an hour before the pick up was due advising it would be 12:13 which twelve minutes later was updated to 12:07.

In the event the bus appeared soon after 12:00 and dropped a passenger off. It pulled up a bit further along from the two bus stops used by all Ashbourne’s other bus routes which have the benefit of shelters too.

The stop is marked as exclusively for Moorlands Connect.

I wandered along guessing it was my bus and sure enough it was and I met Martin the very amiable and friendly Moorlands Connect driver.

He was driving one of the original (pre upgrade) buses for the service which now acts as a back up when one of the three newer buses is in for service. It was still a fairly comfortable ride although not equipped with the more flashy leather style seats the new Mercedes buses have and no low-floor access either.

The new buses have wheelchair access via the low floor nearside door but this older bus had a rear wheelchair lift to use if needed, which would also need a change to the seating layout.

Moorlands Connect operates seven days a week with three buses out on Mondays to Fridays (07:00-19:00), two on Saturdays (08:00-18:00) and one on Sundays (09:00-17:00). It’s operated by Ashbourne Community Transport – they also operated the services in their previous form including fixed timetable routes on certain days of the week. Martin has been working for them since January and is thoroughly enjoying his work.

It’s a pay on board service charging £3.50 for a single journey or £5.50 for a day return with reductions for concessionary pass holders, under 19s and students with an ID to £2 single and £3.50 return. There are plans to introduce contactless payments but for now it’s cash only.

I handed over my £3.50 and we soon set off on the journey to Wetton.

This took us north along the A515 towards Buxton for about eight miles before turning off on Green Lane and along narrower roads.

The journey offered some great views of the Derbyshire countryside…

… and was going fine until we met an articulated lorry coming the other way on a bend at the top of a hill.

Luckily the lorry driver realised he’d passed a slightly wider section of road on the hill so reversed back around the corner …

…. and enabled Martin to use his undoubted driving skills to squeeze by.

After about a 20-25 minute journey from Ashbourne we arrived into the village of Wetton …

… and I left Martin to carry on with his day’s work while I set off for my walk to Alstonefield.

Although before doing so I spied a timetable case on the other side of the road and couldn’t resist taking a look.

It showed a couple of shopping journey departures for routes numbered MC1, MC2 and MC3 (MC stands for Moorlands Connect I assume) to Leek (Wednesdays), Ashbourne (Tuesdays and Thursdays) and Buxton (Fridays). When I looked more closely I spotted the date “From 20th December 2016” and subsequent investigation has shown these routes and journeys were introduced by Ashbourne Community Transport in October 2015 but must have been withdrawn a year or so later when Moorlands Connect went over to Dial-a-Ride flexible operation. Still, I suppose the timetable display is a nice reminder of what used to happen in the village in years gone by.

After that fascinating sighting it was off for more scenic delights through the Staffordshire Moorlands countryside to reach the village of Alstonefield.

I enjoyed the walk, even if it was a little wet underfoot and soon the feet too, and with some great scenery.

It only took about half an hour for the one and a half mile walk and I arrived into the delightful village of Alstonefield with time for some lunch before my Moorlands Connect bus back to Ashbourne.

I’d received an updated text to confirm a 13:30 pick up and luckily had an intermittent ‘two bar 3G’ phone signal to see the bus was on its way from Wetton where I’d left it an hour previously.

The registration number shown of the bus was obviously for the one out of service.

Indeed, it was Martin once again who’d enjoyed a well earned rest for the hour I’d spent walking and eating and here he was ready to take me back to Ashbourne.

I had an opportunity to have a good chat with Martin on the two journeys and hear about his fascinating employment background and his pertinent insights into this recent upgrade to the DRT operation. It’s always interesting to chat with drivers attracted to work on DRT services and there’s no doubt their positivity and rapport with passengers is a great asset to these types of services.

We were soon back in Ashbourne and Martin dropped me off at the designated bus stop.

Martin was soon to pick up his next passenger after dropping me off. He’d carried about half a dozen passengers before picking me up last Tuesday morning, but in the next couple of hours, it was just me including waiting for me during my walk.

My custom as a tourist to this area is one of the markets which Staffordshire County Council hope Moorlands Connect will attract to grow its customer base by providing transport links to this lovely part of the country as well as providing a bus for residents living in the remote villages and hamlets as it’s done for some years.

It seems the profile of the typical Moorlands Connect passenger up to recently has been one who finds using smartphones and apps less appealing than a traditional phone to make their booking as they’ve always done and as encouraged in a notice I saw in an old edition of a village newsletter.

The challenge Moorlands Connect has is reconciling the two markets. Once visitors to the area cotton on to the benefits of booking the bus well in advance (as I did) those who leave it until closer to when they want to travel, or on the day itself, may well find the service doesn’t offer the journey options they were used to under the old way of booking – at just two hours notice – by telephone.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS.

Comments on blogposts are very welcome and are moderated to maintain relevance to the topic and civility in language.

13 thoughts on “Moorlands Connect gets an upgrade

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  1. I wonder what the equivalent taxi fares would have been? DRT still seems to be a very expensive form of an (occasionally) shared taxi.

    I have been thinking whether there is actually a “rural transport problem” any more? If passenger numbers are so low on DRT operations across the country (as Roger has demonstrated previously), then should we (as a society) be worried??

    We’ve seen (in Norfolk) that villages that are now served by DRT that haven’t been bus-served for many years . . . residents of these villages won’t give up their car now. Is DRT trying to solve a non-existent problem??

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    1. Meanwhile, in this part of Norfolk, we have one service bus per week to Holt and the Community Transport operates along our lane on the same day!!!!!!

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    2. There is a market for DRT type services. The issue is that quite often unsuitable vehicles are used and there is a bewildering number of names and apps for these service with different operating hours for the services and they tend to be poorly publicised.

      They have the image that they are a service for the elderly and disabled

      Almost as many people uses taxis as buses (outside of London) That tells you that there is a market

      Taxi fares in East Staffordshire are :-

      Mileage
      For the first 172.8 metres (189 yards) or part thereof – £2.00
      For each subsequent 156.24 metres (171 yards) or part thereof – 20p

      The trip on the DRT was about 20 minutes which indicated it is a trip of in the region of 5 to 7 miles
      If we take 5 miles that’s about £12 it may be less using a mini cab

      The £3.50 is highly competitive with the taxi

      The marketing though is simply not reaching it potential market at all

      They need to be marketed more as a Smart Taxi Service. They also need slicker apps to make booking easier. They need to target the market that uses taxis and minicabs. They ignore that market at present

      You need to be able to book in real time and not days ahead.
      A lot of the trips will be leisure and shopping trips. You might know what time you want to leave but you will not know the exact time you want to return

      The current marketing is usually abysmal in fact even if you know about these services finding information can be hard

      If you went out on the High Street and asked a 100 people if they had heard of DRT I suspect you would be lucky to find one who had

      There is inconsistencies as to the use of concessionary passes on them as well. Some accept them and some do not

      With the current system as I understand it they have to be either in or out of the Concessionary scheme. It would be better if the government changed the scheme so that on DRT services they can accept the passes but also charge a small fare. These service are more a taxi then a bus. Charging a small fare would increase the revenues and is unlikely to put off most concessionary pass holders from using the services

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    3. There is a problem. There was a report some years ago by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which showed that while there were fewer pockets of deprivation in “prosperous” areas, the deprivation was deeper as there was no support at all. Access to healthcare, education and work could be all but impossible without a car.
      Whether DRT is the solution is a different question. They are glorified taxis and whether the money could be better spent is an area to be looked at.

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    4. Taxi fares are typically about £2 a mile with an initial charge of £2 for the first couple of hundred yards (In most cases taxis are licenced by the local authority who also set the maximum fares that can be charged, It will vary a bit by LA)

      For DRT to work in my view they need to be marketed as more of a low cost taxi service then a bus. If you charge bus fares on DRT it will never work as they will never generate enough revenues

      Currently a report indicated that 75% of users of DRT are concessionary pass users. Now some DRT services do not accept passes and some do and some offer a discounted fare

      DRT fares in my view need to be pitched somewhere between that of a bus fare and that of a taxi fare
      DRT should also offer discounts where groups of people travel together

      The Concessionary Fares legislation should be changed to allow DRT services to accept Concessionary passes but still charge a small fare

      Lets say fare paying passengers Charged £2 for first mile and then a £0.50 a mile

      Concessionary pass holders say £0.50 for first mile and then £0.20 a mile

      DRT also needs to attract more fare paying passengers

      If taxis can operate and make a profit at £2 a mile . DRT should be viable particular as it gets BSOG and some tax advantages

      At present each DRT tends to have its own call centre(well a person answering a phone which is expensive) sharing a call centre would reduces costs

      There needs to be a common brand for DRT at present there is a bewildering number of brands and type of vehicles used and apps and phone numbers. It needs to be simplified

      Marketed and operated as more of a taxi then a bus commercially it should work If the fares are set closer to that of a taxi it cuts out the need as some DRT’s do of trying to filter out passengers that could use a normal bus route, All that does is discourage them from using DRT and it take a up a lot of time of someone in a call centre.

      Much better marketing and publicity is needed as well. If you have never heard of them you are no gong to be using them

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  2. The DRT is this area is interesting as it is the only place I know where two DRT schemes compete with each other! The alternative DRT scheme is “Derbyshire Connect” which is also operated by Ashbourne Community Transport but using different vehicles – see /www.ashbournect.org.uk/derbyshire-connect .

    The Derbyshire Scheme covers a wider area around Ashbourne, but there is a considerable overlap between the two schemes to the northwest of that town, with fares on the Derbyshire Connect being £1 cheaper! Roger therefore missed possibly the only opportunity in the UK where you can go out on one DRT scheme and return to the same place on another !

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  3. I think we’re missing the point. Buses are fairground rides for adult children. They outnumber the real children by far!

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  4. The original Moorlands Connect services, MC1-3, actually lasted until April 2018, and Derbyshire CC immediately amended the operating area of the DRT element, which ran alongside, to avoid Staffordshire.

    At the risk of sounding like a cracked record, is this really the right moment to be throwing public money at such schemes, invariably doomed to fail. And the fact that this one even manages to duplicate an existing scheme almost beggars belief. But presumably the Mandarins at the DfT never get beyond the M25, so what looks good on paper must be just that.

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  5. Two possible alternatives to DRT:

    I read years ago about the Canadian city of Rimouski. It replaced its bus service with taxibuses. The local taxi businesses were contracted to provide the service. Passengers booked rides by phone, lots of virtual bus stops around the city. Taxi meters switched on at the start of each driver shift. The city council reimbursed taxi companies the difference between the taxi meter day’s reading and the taxibus farespaid by the passengers.

    Or, adopt the Swiss model and provide at least hourly buses 0600 to 2400 seven days per week to settlements of at least 200 people. Connecting with trains, colleges, hospitals, employment, in addition to the nearest high St.

    A service linking a village just to the nearest high street is no use for all the other journeys people need to make.

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  6. My local experience is that when we need to travel and don’t have or can’t use our own transport or friends, family and neighbours, we make good use of the established voluntary community transport. It’s what it’s there for. So presumably DRT is to meet a need not to travel. Says it all, really. We, the taxpayer, are just paying for Roger’s hobby. Lucky bloke.

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  7. I’m wondering… Is it dumb, stupid, like early Tesla? We can make DRT profitable to get shot of subsidised buses.

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  8. My biggest issue with these type of services is that I would use them if regular day/week/month passes were issued via app or valid (ticket form) ie in Hertfordshire the explorer ticket and other comparable tickets.

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